Did you know that the famous saying ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight’ actually originated from Japan? Japanese quotes go way back, rooted in cultural practices and philosophy.
Japanese proverbs or kotowaza (諺 / ことわざ) can be used in daily conversation or literature. There are three types of kotowaza:
- Iinarawashi (言い習わし / いいならわし): short sayings
- Kanyouku (慣用句 / かんようく): idiomatic phrases
- Yojijukugo (四字熟語 / よじじゅくご): four-character idioms
Though idioms are very common, not all of them carry significant meanings. We picked out some popular, inspirational Japanese quotes that can guide you in your daily life!
These meaningful quotes include English translations and cultural notes to better understand Japanese wisdom.
石橋を叩いて渡る (Knock on a stone bridge before crossing it)
Stone bridges are typically sturdy, but one can’t be careful enough. Even stone bridges can weaken over time. This Japanese proverb tells us that one must be careful in certain situations even when it seems safe.
石の上にも三年 (Three years sitting on a rock)
This Japanese proverb teaches the value of patience. Sitting on a rock for a long time makes it warm. Even if it takes a long time, as long as we pour consistent effort into something, good results will come!
七転び八起き (Fall down seven times, stand up eight)
This famous Japanese quote is an idiomatic expression that means to keep at something until you succeed. No matter how many times you fail, you must get back on your feet again. Life has many ups and downs, but never let the bad times get you down!
河童の川流れ (Kappa swept away by the river)
Kappa (河童 / かっぱ) are mythical creatures in Japanese folklore that live in bodies of water, mostly rivers and ponds. Since they are water dwellers, it is expected that they are good swimmers, but even so, they can still be swept away by the current. This proverb tells us that even when you are an expert at something, you can still make mistakes.
Another common Japanese quote that shares the same meaning is Saru mo ki kara ochiru (サルも木から落ちる), which translates to ‘even a monkey can fall from a tree’.
海老で鯛を釣る (Fishing bream with shrimp as bait)
In contrast, shrimp or ebi (海老 / えび) is cheaper and commonly prepared in everyday dishes. Using this context, the proverb tells us that we can gain something great even with a small cost!
爪の垢を煎じて飲む (Boil and drink dirt underneath the fingernails)
This interesting Japanese quote may sound strange at first, but it carries a rich meaning. ‘Dirt underneath the fingernails’ of a master or mentor refers to their knowledge and expertise, attained through hard work. To ‘boil and drink’ this knowledge would be to learn from your mentor’s experience in order to follow in their footsteps.
餃子は花よりも優れています (Dumplings over flowers)
A shorter version of this famous Japanese quote would be hana yori dango (花より団子). This means to prefer substance over style. Sometimes, it’s better to be practical instead of choosing something just for show.
The title of the popular shōjo manga Hana Yori Dango (花より男子) is a pun on this quote. Note that the manga uses 男 instead of 団. The former means ‘male’ while the latter means ‘group’ or ‘association’. Meanwhile, dango (団子) is a type of dumpling made of mochi.
晴耕雨読 (Work in the fields on a fine day, read books on a rainy day)
This yojijukugo or four-character idiom means that no matter the circumstances, you can adapt your activity to fit the situation.
A fine day is a good opportunity to work outside, and while rainy days might keep us indoors, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. Curling up with a good book is also productive, not to mention cozy!
This idiom is often used to describe the ideal Japanese retirement or leisurely lifestyle.
能ある鷹は爪を隠す (The talented hawk hides its claws)
Even the most skillful person shouldn’t be flaunting their abilities without thought. This Japanese quote tells us that talented people should be modest about their skills.
豚に真珠 (A pearl to a pig)
A pig and a pearl are clearly a mismatch, because unlike people, pigs are unable to appreciate the beauty and value of a pearl. Like the English expression ‘casting pearls before swine’, this Japanese proverb simply means that it is useless to give something to a person who cannot appreciate it.
Other variations of this famous Japanese quote include neko ni koban (猫に小判) or ‘gold coins to a cat’, and uma no mimi ni nenbutsu (馬の耳に念仏) or ‘whispering Buddhist prayers into a horse’s ear’. These quotes share the same interpretations.
魚心あれば水心 (If a fish is kind to the water, the water will be kind to the fish)
The meaning of this quote is quite simple, if you do a favor for someone, you will get a favor in return. This is similar to the English saying ‘scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.
負けるが勝ち (To lose is to win)
Life isn’t always a competition! This quote tells us that sometimes, it is a smarter choice to stay away from conflict. Stepping away from unnecessary conflict doesn’t mean you lose. In fact, you gain peace of mind by saving your energy for something better.
It is said that the Japanese tend to avoid conflict, and the concept of wa (和) or ‘harmony’ is an important part of their society. Wa brings together different values and keeps the Japanese society united with a collectivist mindset.
刃に強き者は礼にすぐる (A skilled swordsman has superior manners)
A lot of people admire the samurai and capable swordsmen for their skills, but a bigger part of their mastery is politeness and etiquette.
Budo (武道) or Japanese martial arts follow a certain philosophy to unite the mind, body, and technique. Part of disciplining oneself in martial arts is respecting opponents. In kendo, for example, players bow to each other before beginning a match.
案ずるより産むが易し (It’s easier to give birth than to think about it)
Things we tend to worry about can turn out easier than we think! Overthinking makes us anxious, and we might end up fearing that thing we’re anticipating. Just do it!
恋とせきとは隠されぬ (Love and coughing cannot be hidden)
This Japanese quote has a very cute message! Like a cough you can’t hold back, love is difficult to conceal.
Love doesn’t need to be expressed verbally, either! One can show love by cooking a meal, bringing flowers, or holding someone’s hand. The love expressed with actions also cannot be hidden easily.
異体同心 (Two bodies, same heart)
Here, we have another four-character Japanese idiom. This tells us that two different people can share the same mind and be in harmony with each other.
The meaning of this quote can also be attributed to marriage, which unites two people as one.
我が身をつねって人の痛さを知れ (Know the pain of others by pinching yourself)
This Japanese quote means that we should always know how to sympathize or empathize with other people. We must put ourselves in their shoes to understand where they’re coming from.
The concept of omoiyari (思いやり / おもいやり) is of high value in Japanese society. It means ‘consideration’ or ‘compassion’ towards other people and helping them based on their situation. Much like sympathy or empathy, omoiyari helps people understand the pain and joys of others so that everyone can live harmoniously.
知らぬが仏 (Not knowing is Buddha)
Though this deep Japanese quote might seem puzzling to Westerners, it shares a similar meaning as the English quote ‘ignorance is bliss’. Sometimes, it is better not to know or to worry.
In a Buddhist context, nirvana is a state of enlightenment, which can be attained through meditation, spiritual growth, and living as a good person. To attain nirvana means to achieve peace and happiness, just like Buddha did.
踏まれた草にも花が咲く (Flowers even bloom on grass that has been stomped on)
This uplifting Japanese quote tells us that a person who has been treated poorly will eventually rise and become better. Though things might seem difficult at the moment, just give it time! Who knows, these circumstances can lead to a more successful you.
頭隠して尻隠さず (Hide your head but fail to hide your butt)
A person can only partly hide their mistakes. Even when you think you’ve hidden all your faults, people can see through the parts you failed to cover up.
This Japanese quote also brings to mind the expression ‘burying your head in the sand’. It reminds us of ostriches, who dip their head and bury it in the ground, but the rest of their body still sticks out, making them vulnerable to predators.
一期一会 (Once in a lifetime encounter)
Another yojijukugo which literally translated as ‘one time, one meeting’, and means that our encounters with people in this life are only temporary. Therefore, we must treat everyone with respect as well as cherish the moments we share with them.
鯛も一人はうまからず (Even sea bream loses its flavor when eaten alone)
Another sea bream-related quote! This means that food tastes better when eaten with your closest friends and family.
For the Japanese, special gatherings call for expensive food like sea bream. Weddings, for example, are occasions in which dear friends and family gather.
急がば回れ (More haste, less speed)
This Japanese proverb tells us that when we are in a hurry, it’s best to slow down and take the safer route. Nothing good comes out of hurrying, we might even make mistakes in the end.
聞くは一時の恥聞かぬは一生の恥 (Better to ask and be embarrassed than not ask and never know)
There are moments when we forget to pull our head out of the clouds in the middle of a conversation. As a result, we fail to catch what the other person is saying. This quote reminds us that it’s alright to ask them to repeat it, even if it’s a little embarrassing.
If we just absently nod in agreement without knowing the entire story, it will be difficult to truly understand the other person’s situation. However, it’s best to pay attention next time!
親しき中にも礼儀あり (Good fences make good neighbors)
Being good friends doesn’t mean that we are allowed to overstep boundaries. There will always be a certain line you must never cross.
This quote means that setting boundaries helps friendship last for a long time. Establishing boundaries strengthens a bond by cultivating respect for each other.
朱に交われば赤くなる (Touch red pigment, become red)
This Japanese quote literally means that if you mix something with red pigment (also known as vermilion), the object becomes red too.
It tells us to be mindful of who we choose to mingle with. If you hang out with the foolish crowd, chances are, you will become one of them. In this way, it is similar to the English expression ‘one rotten apple spoils the barrel’.
But on the other hand, this proverb can also be used with a positive nuance: if you mingle with wise people, you will become wise as well.
好きこそ物の上手なれ (What one likes, one will do well at)
Is there one hobby that you really love doing? This quote is for you! Its uplifting meaning is that you will become good at what you like doing.
Perhaps if you like drawing, you may become a well-known artist. If cooking is your passion, maybe you’ll open a restaurant in the future. Never give up on your passion!
I like to think that this quote can be applied to language learning. If you do things you enjoy in Japanese, such as watching YouTube videos or listening to music, your Japanese will improve. Enjoy!
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Wanna learn even more beautiful Japanese sayings and words? Our top recommended Japanese course for beginners is JapanesePod101.
Thea is a freelance content writer, currently majoring in Japanese studies. She likes to create art and draws inspiration from film and music. Thea was inspired to study Japanese language and culture by reading the literary works of Haruki Murakami and Edogawa Ranpo.