I’ve long thought that proverbs are a reflection of a nation’s national character . Since I’m very interested in Japan I’ve put together a synopsis of the characteristics of the Japanese followed by a short list of Japanese proverbs and why I think one is a reflection of the other.
As a whole the Japanese are very much into conformity. Their behavior is very much influenced by what others will think of them. Order and rank within a group are important considerations and they place much importance on vertical relationships. They do not express opinions freely and do not like to give clear yes or no answers as a means of avoiding unnecessary friction. Within the family , male -female roles are clearly defined. The husband is the bread – winner and the head of the household ;the wife , though she controls the purse strings and may even be the power in the house , defers to him at least outwardly.The workplace is still male dominated even though women are very slowly rising in importance.
Japanese are nature lovers who place much importance on the harmony between man and Nature as can be seen in their nature gardens , their love of ikebana and their highly developed aesthetic sense.They work very hard , a carry-over from olden days when their farming ancestors lived a precarious existence , always on the edge of starvation , and it was necessary for everyone to pull his weight just in order for the family to survive. For the same reason , Japanese tend to put group interests before individual ones. In modern times , workers identify strongly with the group and will go the extra mile to ensure that the group succeeds. Decisions are reached as a group rather than by individual fiat.Persistence too is much valued by the Japanese.
Bushido , the code of the samurai class, emphasizes attributes such as loyalty, sacrifice, justice , sense of shame , refined manners , purity, frugality, modesty, martial spirit, honor and affection. The samurai are long gone but these characteristics , to some extent , are prevalent even today. Today’s office workers or salarimen , some of them , think of themselves as the modern version of samurai.
I want to reiterate that these are general characteristics ; there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. One has only to spend an afternoon in Shibuya looking at the young people with their vividly dyed hair and outlandish dress to realize this.
The nail that sticks its head up will be hammered down. ( Conformity )
Fall seven times , stand up eight. And … Constant dripping wears away the stone .( Perseverance )
A samurai, even when he has not eaten , wields his toothpick like a lord .( Pride, martial spirit)
Life is for one generation; a good name is forever. ( Honor)
Years know more than books . ( Experience, wisdom)
The catshuts its eyes while it steals cream . ( Shame)
The more noble, the more humble . ( Modesty)
He who digs a pit for others will fall in himself . ( Justice , karma)
Love your neighbor , yet pull not down your fence. ( Prudence )
A single arrow is easily broken but not ten in a bunch .( Unity)
A good husband is healthy and absent . ( A reflection on family dynamics )
It is a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock . And .. One master in a house is enough. ( Family dynamics )
Money grows on the tree of persistence . ( Perseverance)
After the rain the earth hardens . Meaning Adversity builds character. ( Perseverance)
One who smiles is always stronger than the one who rages . ( Self control )
Only lawyers and painters can turn white into black . ( Some ideas are universal , LOL)
Never rely on the glory of the morning or the smiles of your mother-in – law. ( Ditto)
Beat your wife on the wedding day and your married life will be happy ( No comment)
Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat all the autumn eggplants. ( In the fall, eggplants are particularly tasty and are highly prized. The exhortation seems to mean they should not be wasted on the lowliest member of the family).
Even a sheet of paper has two sides . And … The reverse side has a reverse side.
Fish and guests stink after three days .
The clever hawk hides its claws.
One general succeeds , ten thousand bones wither.
An empty sack cannot stand upright.
It is the same life whether we spend it laughing or crying.
Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse.
Security is the greatest enemy.
A beggar in a hurry receives little.
Some Japanese proverbs are very similar to English proverbs that we are familiar with , because they articulate ideas common to all cultures. For example,
A living dog is better than a dead lion ( Discretion is the better part of valor).
Better half an egg than an empty shell. ( Something is better than nothing ).
The cowl does not make one a monk . ( Appearances can be deceptive ).
A dozen trades, thirteen miseries . ( Jack of all trades, master of none ).
Everyone makes mistakes ; that is why there is an eraser at the end of every pencil . ( To err is human).
A black hen lays a white egg . ( Handsome is as handsome does ).
Current Japanese idioms and slang are even more reflective of modern society. For instance , I read a few years ago that a single woman over twenty-five was referred to as a ” Christmas cake” because it is past its best after the twentyfifth.However , it would take someone really familiar with Japan and Japanese to come up with a meaningful list.