Romaji: Sumeba miyako
Literally: If residing, capital/metropolis
Meaning: Wherever you live, you come to love it.
Notes: -eba is a conditional miyako is kun-yomi for the `to' in Kyoto

Romaji: Nana korobi, ya oki
Literally: Seven falls, eight getting up
Meaning: Fall down seven times, get up eight times. An encouragement to persevere (ganbaru)
Notes: From the verbs korobu and okiru respectively

Romaji: Saru mo ki kara ochiru
Literally: Even monkees fall from trees
Meaning: Even an expert can make mistakes; also sometimes used as a warning that "pride comes before a fall"
Notes: A well known proverb, this one, with several variations (see following examples)

Kappa mo kawa nagare
Literally: Even a `Kappa' can get carried away by the river
Meaning: Similar to saru mo ki kara ochiru, ie: anyone can make mistakes.
Notes: A `kappa' is a water-sprite, but is used here for a good swimmer
Often written as kappa no kawanagare

Romaji: Koubou mo fude no ayamari
Literally: Even `Koubou' made mistakes with his brush
Meaning: Similar to saru mo ki kara ochiru, ie: even experts can make mistakes (and to a lesser extent "pride leads to a fall")
Notes: Koubou was a Buddhist priest famous for his calligraphy

Romaji: Baka mo ichi-gei
Literally: Even a fool has one talent
Meaning: Even a fool may be good at something (I can't think of another way of putting this!)
Notes: This is the `gei' of geisha

Romaji: Juu-nin to-iro
Literally: Ten people, ten colours
Meaning: Everyone has their own tastes; "Different strokes for different folks"
Notes: Incidentally, apart from colour, iro is also used to mean sexy or exciting; eg: iroppoi = sexy. Another digression: -ppoi can be translated as `-ish' (eg: aka-ppoi = reddish) or sometimes as "has a strong impression of X" (eg: uso-ppoi = sounds like a lie).

Romaji: Toranu tanuki no kawa zan'you
Literally: Count the skins of badgers which haven't been caught
Meaning: "Don't count your chickens before they've hatched"
Notes: -nu is a negative ending, and toranu modifies tanuki
A tanuki is a Japanese animal somewhat like a badger or a racoon
zan'you (usually san'you) means to calculate, or estimate.

Romaji: Isseki ni chou
Literally: One stone, two birds
Meaning: "To kill two birds with one stone"
Notes: This is an idiom rather than a kotowaza (proverb)

Romaji: Neko ni koban
Literally: A coin to a cat
Meaning: "Pearls before swine"; ie: don't offer things to people who are incapable of appreciating them.
Notes: A koban was an old gold coin

Romaji: Buta ni shinju
Literally: A pearl to a pig
Meaning: "Pearls before swine"; ie: don't offer things to people who are incapable of appreciating them

Romaji: Nakitsura ni hachi
Literally: A bee to a crying face
Meaning: Misfortunes seldom come alone; "When it rains, it pours"
Notes: Nakitsura is a compound of two kun readings: naku to cry, and tsura face (men is an on reading).

Romaji: Isogaba maware
Literally: If hurried, go around
Meaning: When hurried it is often faster to take a roundabout route, (ie: "more haste, less speed")

Romaji: Ame futte ji katamaru
Literally: Rained on ground hardens
Meaning: Adversity builds character

Romaji: Uma no mimi ni nembutsu
Literally: A sutra (Buddhist prayer) in a horse's ear
Meaning: A wasted effort; "pearls before swine"

Romaji: Deru kugi wa utareru
Literally: Sticking out nail be hammered
Meaning: The nail which sticks out will get hammered; encourages conformity
Notes: Deru (to come out/stick out) modifies kugi (nail) Utareru is the passive form of utsu (to hit/strike) Sometimes kui (stake) is used instead of kugi
Note: This kotowaza is used by some people (who should know better) to make glib generalisations about Japanese culture!


Romaji: Onna sannin yoreba kashimashii
Literally: If three women visit, noisy
Meaning: Wherever three women gather it is noisy
Notes: this is a sort of pun, since the kanji for kashimashii (noisy/boisterous) is made up of three small kanji for woman. Interestingly, the meaning of this kanji in compounds usually implies craftiness or wickedness. Eg: kanjin = villain/scoundrel; kampu = adultress.
yoreba is a conditional form of yoru = to visit/drop in

Romaji: He wo hitte, shiri tsubome
Literally: Breaking wind, closing buttocks
Meaning: There's no point in squeezing your buttocks after you have farted; "No use shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted"
Notes: He can also be read onara, a fart Tsubomeru is to make narrow or to shut
The linking of two -te form verbs like this gives the idea of doing X and then doing Y

Romaji: Fuku sui bon ni kaerazu
Literally: Overturned water doesn't return to the tray
Meaning: What's done is done; "There's no use crying over spilt milk"
Notes: Fuku-sui is a compound made up of two on readings. The kun reading of fuku is kutsukaesu = to overturn; and the kun reading for sui is of course mizu Bon is the same character as in the obon festival The -zu ending in kaerazu is a negative (like -nai)

Romaji: Rakka eda ni kaerazu, hakyou futatabi terasazu
Literally: Fallen blossom doesn't return to the branch, a broken mirror can not be made to shine
Meaning: What's done is done; "There's no use crying over spilled milk"
Notes: The ra in rakka is the kanji for otosu (to drop/let fall), but can also be read as ochi (the punchline of a joke) and is also the ra in rakugo (traditional funny story telling).
Hakyou is a compound of yaburu (to tear/break) and kagami (mirror)
Futatabi means again/once more
Terasu is a verb meaning to shine on/illuminate (eg: teriagaru to clear up after rain), and -zu is a negative ending similar to -nai. Interestingly the kanji is also used for shyness.


Romaji: Atama kakushite, shiri kakusazu
Literally: Cover/hide your head, and not cover your bottom
Meaning: Don't cover your head but expose your bottom, ie: you have to be careful not to expose your weak point while attempting to protect yourself
Notes: -zu is an informal negative, like -nai

Romaji: Tonari no shibafu wa aoi
Literally: The neighbour's lawn is green
Meaning: "The grass is always greener on the other side"
Notes: The wa marks the neighbour's lawn, thus implying comparison Aoi here means "is green", -i adjectives do not require a verb


Romaji: Ningen banji saiou ga uma
Literally: Humans everything `Saiou' horse
Meaning: All human affairs are like `Saiou's horse; One's fortune/luck is unpredictable and changeable
Notes: Saiou ga uma refers to an old story about a man and a horse, where what at first appears to be good luck turns out to be bad luck
I got a couple of replies to this article relating the story of Saiou ga uma. It appears that it was an old Chinese folk take about an old man called Sai (the -ou, also read as okina, means "old man").

The story goes that one day his horse broke down the fence and ran away. When his neighbours heard, they commiserated with him over his misfortune, but he said `How do you know this is not really good luck?'. A few days later the horse returned, bringing another horse with it. However when his neighbours congratulated him on his good luck, the old man said `How do you know this is really good luck?'

Sure enough, some while later Sai's son falls while riding the horse, and breaks his leg. However this turns out to be good fortune when all the young men of the village are ordered to join the Emperor's army. Sai's son doesn't have to go since he has a broken leg.

Thanks to Naoki Shibata and Karen S. Chung for replying. Also Dave Huntsman points out that the Canon Wordtank translates Ningen banji, saiou ga uma as "Inscrutable are the ways of heaven".


Romaji: Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae
Literally: Entering the village, obey the village
Meaning: "When in Rome, do as the Romans"
Notes: The wa topicalizes the first clause, so this could be translated "Concerning entering a village, ..." or more naturally "When entering a village ..." Gou is a village or district or country Shitagae is the direct imperative of shitagau (to obey)