10 Funny Japanese Phrases That You Can Actually Use in Conversation

The Japanese language has many funny expressions to represent their feelings and ideas. These expressions are connected to their culture, customs, and tradition. Here are 10 funny Japanese phrases that will amuse you or may even make you laugh. However, you can actually use these phrases in conversations to impress your Japanese friends!

If you want to become fluent in Japanese quickly and easily, be sure to check out our guide to learning Japanese page for useful tips!

1. 頭が切れる (Atama Ga Kireru): A Head Gets Cut

Actual Meaning: To have a mind like a steel trap, to have a sharp mind

Literally translated, this phrase means “a head that is cut.” However, this expression describes someone smart or who has a sharp mind.  

The Japanese term 切れる (kireru) means to cut, but it can also describe someone with a sharp mind. If someone can solve problems quickly, this person used to be called 切れ者 (kire mono), “a smart person.” Eventually, Japanese people started using 切れる (kireru) to describe an intelligent person’s head/mind, 頭 (atama). Here are some examples using 頭が切れる (atama ga kireru).

Examples:

 1. 田中さんは頭が切れるから、なんとかしてくれるよ。
(Tanaka-san wa atama ga kireru kara, nantoka shite kureru yo.)
Tanaka-san is smart, so he’ll figure it out for you somehow.

 2. 頭が切れる人だけが選ばれる特別チームに入りたいんだ。
(Atama ga kireru hito dake ga erabareru tokubetsu chīmu ni hairitain da.)
I want to be on the team that only smart people can join.

Note: Kireru can also mean “to lose one’s temper” or “to snap” at someone. Imagine being so fed up that you unleash your anger on everyone around you. When used with this meaning, it is often written in katakana as キレる (kireru).

2. 風の便り (Kaze No Tayori): Letters From the Wind

Actual Meaning: Hearsay, a rumor

Sometimes you may hear about an old friend. You may not even be sure where you heard it from or who told you, but you somehow learned about how your friend is doing. In Japanese, people describe this as getting information by “a letter in the wind.” 

Examples:

1. お元気ですか? 北海道に引っ越したと風の便りに聞きました。
(Ogenki desuka? Hokkaido ni hikkoshita to kaze no tayori ni kikimashita.)
How are you? Somehow I heard you moved to Hokkaido.

 2. 風の便りに聞いたんだけど、結婚するんだって?
(Kaze no tayori ni kiitan dakedo, kekkon surun datte?)
I just heard a rumor. Are you going to get married?

3. 道草を食う (Michi Kusa O Kuu): Eat Grass Along the Path

Actual Meaning: To waste time, to loiter

If you were to translate this phrase, it would mean “to eat the grass along a path.” But its meaning goes much deeper than this.  

When horses graze on grass, they stay in the same spot and don’t move from that area. They loiter while leisurely spending their time eating to their hearts’ content. Just like these horses, people can loiter or even waste their time when they should be doing something else instead.  

Japanese people use the expression “道草を食う (michi kusa o kuu)” to describe someone who doesn’t arrive on time.

Examples:  

 1. お兄ちゃんが道草を食うから、帰りが遅くなっちゃったよ。
(Onīchan ga michi kusa o kuu kara, kaeri ga osoku nacchatta yo.)
Because my brother kept loitering, we came home late.

 2. そんなに何回も道草食ってたら、いつまでたっても着かないよ!
(Sonna ni nankai mo michi kusa kuttetara, itsu made tattemo tsukanai yo!)
If you keep repeatedly loitering like this, we will never get there!

4. 箱入り娘 (Hako Iri Musume): A Girl in a Box

Actual Meaning: A naive girl, a girl who lived a sheltered life

箱入り娘 (hako iri musume) describes a girl who was raised isolated from the world like a princess. Her parents treated her like jewelry by keeping her in a “box.” The box refers to her house, having been sheltered from the rest of the world. 箱入り娘 (hako iri musume) can be used to describe a naive girl/woman.

Examples:

 1. あの人は箱入り娘、典型的なお嬢様よ。
(Ano hito wa hako iri musume, tenkeiteki na ojōsama yo.)
She was brought up with tender care, a typical princess type.

 2. うちの母は箱入り娘だったので、結婚当初は大変だったらしい。
(Uchi no haha wa hako iri musume datta node, kekkon tōsho wa taihen datta rashii.)
Overprotective parents raised my mother, so it was tough at the beginning of her marriage.

5. 話に花が咲く (Hanashi Ni Hana Ga Saku): A Flower That Blooms in Conversation

Actual Meaning: To be captivated in conversation

When you’re having fun talking with someone and don’t want to stop, your conversation is described as 話に花が咲く (hanashi ni hana ga saku). Like a flower blooming when the right conditions are met, your conversation blooms when you talk with someone you click with.  

Examples:

 1. 二人ともバックパッカーだったことがわかって、話に花が咲いた。
(Futaritomo bakku pakkā datta koto ga wakatte, hanashi ni hana ga saita.)
We found out we were both backpackers, so we had a great conversation.

 2. 学生時代の仲間と会ったら話に花が咲いて、朝まで飲んでたよ。
(Gakusei jidai no nakama to attara hanashi ni hana ga saite, asa made nondeta yo.)
I met my friends from school, and we couldn’t stop talking. We drank until morning.

6. 借りてきた猫 (Karitekita Neko): A Borrowed Cat

Actual Meaning: Someone who suddenly becomes quiet and submissive (when they usually are not)

You may have seen a cat brought to a place they are not familiar with. When cats are in an environment new to them, they usually are very quiet.  

If someone who is usually talkative or loud becomes quiet or even submissive in a particular situation, that person can be described as “借りてきた猫 (karitekita neko)” in Japanese.

Examples:

  1. 姉はかっこいい人の前だと、借りてきた猫みたいに大人しくなる。
(Ane wa kakkoii hito no mae da to, karitekita neko mitai ni otonashiku naru.)
My sister becomes very quiet whenever there’s a good-looking guy in front of her.

 2. あの人、社長が来た途端に黙っちゃって、借りてきた猫みたいだったわね。
(Ano hito, shachō ga kita totan ni damacchatte, karitekita neko mitai datta wa ne.)
He stopped talking right when the president came. (It was unusual for him.)

7. 雀の涙 (Suzume No Namida): Tears of a Sparrow

Actual Meaning: An extremely small amount, a drop in the bucket

To describe a tiny amount or something, you can use 雀の涙 (suzume no namida).

Examples:

 1. ああ、今月の給料も雀の涙だ。
(Aa, kongetsu no kyūryō mo suzume no namida da.)
Oh, my salary this month is so ridiculously small.  

 2. 雀の涙ほどの希望が残っているから、明日もまだ大丈夫。
(Suzume no namida hodo no kibō ga nokotteiru kara, ashita mo mada daijōbu.)
There is still tiny hope, so I’ll be okay tomorrow.

8. うなぎの寝所 (Unagi No Nedoko): A Bedroom For Eeels

Actual Meaning: A narrow but long/deep structure

A building that has a narrow width but a long length is called うなぎの寝所 (unagi no nedoko). For example, Machiya in Kyoto is built this way.

Imagine an eel making a small cave its home. The cave’s opening might just be wide enough for the eel to through, but the cave itself might be very long.

Examples:  

 1. 土地が狭かったから、うなぎの寝所みたいな家を設計した。
(Tochi ga semakatta kara, unagi no nedoko mitai na ie o sekkei shita.)
The land was narrow, so I designed the house to be very thin.

 2. あのレストラン、うなぎの寝所みたいに奥が深いのよ。
(Ano resutoran, unagi no nedoko mitai ni oku ga fukai no yo.)
The restaurant is so narrow, but it is very deep.

9. 風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる (Kaze Ga Fukeba Okeya Ga Mōkaru): If the Wind Blows, Bucket Makers Will Profit

Actual Meaning: Any event can trigger other events which have unexpected results

風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる (kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mōkaru) is one of the funniest Japanese proverbs, in my opinion.  

Here’s where I think the literal meaning comes from:

The wind blows dust in the air. Many people get dust in their eyes and can’t see anything, making them lose their jobs. Many of them became shamisen players (in the Edo era, playing shamisen was a common job for blind people). Since cat skins were used for making shamisen, many cats were captured; therefore, the number of mice increased. These mice made holes in wooden buckets, causing people to buy a new one. As a result, the store selling wooden buckets made money.

The proverb, 風が吹けば桶屋が儲かる (kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mōkaru) means anything that happens can affect anything (in the most unexpected ways).  

Examples:

 1. 何年も前に撮った、なんでもない写真を投稿したら有名になって写真集を出すことになったんです。なんだか、風が吹けば桶屋が儲かるを体験している気分です。
(Nannen mo mae ni totta, nandemo nai shashin o tōkō shitara yūmei ni natte shashinshū o dasu koto ni nattan desu. nandaka, kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mōkaru o taiken shite iru kibun desu.)
After I posted a snapshot I took years ago, I became famous. Now I’m publishing a photo book. It feels like a miracle that such a small thing can bring unexpected success.

 2. あの会社は倒産寸前だったのに、風が吹けば桶屋が儲かるような奇跡が重なって持ち直したんだよ。
(Ano kaisha wa tōsan sunzen datta noni, kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mōkaru yō na kiseki ga kasanatte mochinaoshitan dayo.)
The company almost went bankrupt, but many unbelievable miracles happened, and the company recovered.

10. 海千山千 (Umisen Yamasen): A Thousand (Years) in the Ocean, A Thousand (Years) on the Mountain

Actual Meaning: Someone with a lot of experience and know-how, with many tricks up their sleeve

To describe a person who seemingly knows everything, sometimes Japanese use 海千山千 (umisen yamasen). This may be based on an old Chinese story.  

海 (umi) means “ocean,” 千 (sen) means “thousand,” and 山 (yama) means “mountain.” The literal meaning of 海千山千 (umisen yamasen) is “lived in the ocean a thousand years, and lived another thousand years on the mountain.” As a result, the person has so many experiences that they know how to act in any situation. It sounds like describing an intelligent person; however, 海千山千 (umisen yamasen) contains a little cynical feeling. 

Examples: 

 1. うちの社長は絶対損失を出さない。海千山千のしたたかさだよ。
(Uchi no shachō wa zettai sonshitsu o dasanai. Umi sen yama sen no shitatakasa dayo.)
My company’s president never takes a loss. He has so many tricks up his sleeve he can survive anything.  

 2. 騙されたんだと思うよ。だってあの人、海千山千みたいな女じゃん。
(Damasaretan da to omou yo. Datte ano hito, umi sen yama sen mitai na onna jan.)
I think you were fooled. She looks like she knows exactly how to act to get what she wants. 

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