Japanese proverbs

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A Japanese proverb (, ことわざ kotowaza?) may take the form of:

  • a short saying (言い習わし iinarawashi),
  • an idiomatic phrase (慣用句 kan'yōku), or
  • a four-character idiom (四字熟語 yojijukugo).

Although "proverb" and "saying" are practically synonymous, the same cannot be said about "idiomatic phrase" and "four-character idiom". Not all kan'yōku and yojijukugo are proverbial. For instance, the kan'yōku 狐の嫁入り kitsune no yomeiri (Literally: a fox's wedding. Meaning: a sun-shower) and the yojijukugo 小春日和 koharubiyori (Literally: small spring weather. Meaning: Indian summer – warm spring-like weather in early winter) are not proverbs. To be considered a proverb, a word or phrase must express a common truth or wisdom; it cannot be a mere noun.


The Japanese love proverbs and use them frequently in their everyday life, often citing just the first part of a well-known phrase in an effort to be brief. For example, one might say I no naka no kawazu (井の中の蛙 a frog in a well?) to refer to the proverb I no naka no kawazu, taikai o shirazu (井の中の蛙、大海を知らず a frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean?).

The heavy employment of proverbs enables Japanese language to be compact, quick and simple. Evidence might be found in Japanese animation and manga, but also appears in news and cultural programs, and in much fiction.


Because traditional Japanese culture was tied to agriculture, many Japanese proverbs are derived from agricultural customs and practices. Some are from the Go game (e.g., fuseki o utsu 布石を打つ) and Buddhism and many four-character idioms are from Chinese philosophy written in Classical Chinese, in particular "The Analects" by Confucius. (a frog in a well (井の中の蛙?) is Classical Chinese, from Zhuangzi.)

Lists of Japanese proverbs can be found at Wiktionary:Category:Japanese proverbs and Wikiquote:Japanese proverbs.

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