Japanese proverbial wisdom of the ages

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Article by Richard Medhurst:

"Dust into Mountains: Patience and Perseverance in Japanese Proverbs", Nippon.com (1/27/23)

Eleven items in three categories


Strive Another Day

七転び八起きNana korobi ya oki. To “fall seven times and get up eight” means to remain unbowed despite repeated failure, and keep striving to achieve something. The phrase is often associated with the round red-and-white figures of Daruma (Bodhidarma), the Buddhist monk whose steadfast meditation led to the withering of his arms and legs.

石の上にも三年Ishi no ue ni mo san nen. Sit “on a stone for three years” and finally one can warm it up, in this saying encouraging endurance.

塵も積もれば山となるChiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru. “If dust piles up, it will become a mountain.” In other words, many small actions continued over time can lead to unexpectedly large and significant results.

待てば海路の日和ありMateba kairo no hiyori ari. “Wait and fine weather will come on the sea routes.” If the outlook is stormy now, it is better to wait for the right conditions than take immediate action.

Taking Care

猿も木から落ちるSaru mo ki kara ochiru. “Even monkeys fall from trees,” and even experts can have unexpected failures.

河童の川流れKappa no kawanagare. “A kappa swept away in a river” seems equally unlikely, as the supernatural creature is known for living in the water and preying on poor swimmers, but this too may suggest insufficient care.

弘法にも筆の誤りKōbō ni mo fude no ayamari. One of the first priests to spread Buddhism in Japan, Kūkai—or Kōbō Daishi under his posthumous name—was known for his calligraphy. However, “even Kōbō made errors with his brush.” (This is not the only well-known Japanese proverb referring to Kōbō’s calligraphy.)

石橋をたたいて渡るIshibashi o tataite wataru. People who “hit a stone bridge before crossing,” just in case it collapses despite its sturdy appearance, can certainly not be called overhasty.

The Tyranny of Unreason

捕らぬ狸の皮算用Toranu tanuki no kawa-zan’yō. “Counting the skins of tanuki before they are caught,” as an overconfident hunter of the animals might do, could well lead to disappointment, just like “counting one’s chickens before they hatch.”

泣く子と地頭には勝てぬNaku ko to jitō ni wa katenu. “One cannot win against a crying child or a manor steward,” this phrase warns, as both tiny tots and the jitō, stewards of medieval manors with a reputation for tyranny, are not susceptible to reason. In these kinds of cases, the only thing to do is accept the situation as it is.

生兵法は大怪我の基Nama byōhō wa ōkega no moto. As “crude military tactics lead to serious injuries,” it is better not to be impetuous when one has only a little learning or technique.


It's remarkable how many Japanese proverbs are based on natural phenomena and living creatures.  Some of the most profound haiku are also focused on animals (often small), plants, and objects in the physical world.  As linguists and language aficionados, however, it is noteworthy for us that one of the most memorable proverbs is about a monk-calligrapher-scholar named Kūkai 空海 (774-835; "Empty Sea"]), also known as Kōbō Daishi 弘法大師 ("The Grand Master who Propagated the Dharma"), who lived more than twelve centuries ago.  Not only was he the founder of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan, he learned Sanskrit and Siddham script, as well as other aspects of Indian Buddhism, while he was on a study trip to China.  Among other treasures he brought back to Japan were many invaluable works on poetry and prosody that were later lost in the country of their origin, and which provide priceless information about linguistic interaction between India and China, as well as between China and Japan.  These were collected in his monumental Bunkyō Hifuron 文鏡秘府論 (Essays from the Secret Repository of the Literary Mirror).


Selected readings


[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Mark Hansell said,

    February 1, 2023 @ 1:58 pm

    This brings back fond memories of sitting in on my friend Mariko Kaga's Japanese classes. Any time she made a mistake she would tell the students "猿も木から落ちる…even the teacher makes mistakes!"

  2. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    February 1, 2023 @ 7:14 pm

    The one about lapses in calligraphy reminds me of "Homer nods."

  3. Rosemary Kuwahata said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 3:20 am

    Even monkeys fall out of trees.
    = Even skilled people make mistakes.

  4. ajay said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 5:10 am

    To “fall seven times and get up eight” means to remain unbowed despite repeated failure, and keep striving to achieve something.

    I don't think this one makes sense. If I am doing something hard, I may fall over a lot. If I'm determined to keep striving to achieve it, then each time I fall over I will get up again and keep at it. Yes, so far so good.

    But how am I supposed to get up more times than I fall over? If I'm dogged and persistent then I will get up each time I fall over – but that means one getting-up for each falling-over. If I'm not dogged and persistent, then eventually I will fall over and not get up again – so I will have X falling-overs and X-1 getting-ups.

    Does it include one extra getting-up which is, I don't know, me getting out of bed in the morning before I even start with the arduous work and periodic falling over?

  5. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 8:11 am

    Ajay's onto something here — is this the same kind of non-Euclidean "motivational mathematics" that allows for the possibility of, say, giving 110%? (Note that the identity property still holds, viz., "It is what it is".).

    But seriously, sports fans, do any Japanosophs know whether the "(modifier)(verb)-bi (modifier)(verb)-ki" construction necessarily implies sequential progression? In other words, could it be grammatically possible that the "eighth" time was the time one arose from the _seventh_ fall because the "first" arising "preceded" the first fall?

    (Semantics exhausts me; I really left it all out on the keyboard this morning.)

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 8:17 am

    I interpret it as meaning “stand up eight times and fall seven”, which fits better with the ‘try, fail, repeat’ meaning. I don’t know if the Japanese actually does mean “get up after a fall” or not.

  7. Chris Button said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 9:46 am

    @ Benjamin E. Orsatti

    The verb endings with “i” are essentially continuative markers, although I’m sure a Japanese syntactician could give a more precise definition about how they contrast with the longer “-te” verb forms that seem to serve a similar function,

    As for 7 and 8, the internet tells me that it seems to be just be a case of going one better, with 7 having connections with Buddhism and 8 going one step further while also having traditional connotations of good luck.

  8. Chris Button said,

    February 2, 2023 @ 9:49 am

    There also appears to be a less common four-character version 七転八起. The numbers then have their Sino-Japanese readings instead of their native Japanese readings of nana and ya.

  9. ajay said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 9:47 am

    is this the same kind of non-Euclidean "motivational mathematics" that allows for the possibility of, say, giving 110%?

    But you definitely can give 110%, depending on what it's 110% of. An engine, for example, has a "rated power" which is basically the maximum power output it can produce over a sustained period under a certain set of circumstances (broadly "normal circumstances"). If you run your engine at 100% of rated power, it'll be fine, and the manufacturer is prepared to stand behind that rating.

    But that's different from "the maximum power that the engine can possibly produce". If you really want a burst of speed – for example, if the engine is attached to the aircraft in which you are trying not to be shot down – you might push it to 110%. Some engines like the famous Merlin had a "gate" on the throttle – you could push through the gate for extra power, but you knew you were doing it, you knew you could only do it for a couple of minutes at most before things started to melt or break or explode, and you knew that the ground crew would need to give the engine a good going over if you got back with it.

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