Proverbs and Idioms

Hear about Proverbs on Bonus Episode 6 and 14 of our Podcast, the Japan Archives.

This page has been created to list the various Japanese Proverbs and Idioms we have come across during our research into our Podcast and this website.


In Japanese proverbs are known as 諺 (kotowaza). And in old, ancient Japan this word was also used to words conveyed by kami through oracles. Only later did it become used for folk wisdom.

By the Edo Period we can find proverbs published in collections such as the Kefukigusa from 1645 which only added to their popularity.5

    • 老いたるを父とせよ – Oitaru wo, chichi to se-yo – ‘That which is old should be treated with the respect due a father.’3
    • Okubyōgami ga tsuku – ‘Possessed by the kami of Cowardice.’2

    • 猫に小判Neko ni koban – ‘Gold coins to a cat.’5
    • 猫の手も借りたい – Neko no te mo karitai – ‘I even want to borrow a cat’s hand.’4

    • 立てば芍薬 座れば牡丹 歩く姿は百合の花 – Tateba shakuyaku, suwareba botan, aruku sugata wa yuri no hana – ‘She stands like a Chinese peony, sits like a Japanese peony, and walks like a lily.2
    • 蓼食う虫も好き好きTade kuu mushi mo sukisuki – ‘Every man to his taste.’6

    • 塵も積もれば山となるChiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru – ‘Dust accumulated makes a mountain.’5
    • 魑魅魍魎 – Chimi-mōryō ‘Encompassing Term for – All supernatural creatures found in the mountains and rivers’.2

    • 天狗になる – Tengu ni naru – ‘To show off, to be confident.’1
    • tenjō wo miseru – ‘To show someone the ceiling.’2

    • 豆腐の角に頭をぶつけて死ね – Tofu no kado ni atama wo butsukete shinjimae! – ‘Go hit your head on the corner of a block of Tofu and die!’1

    • 猿も木から落ちるSaru mo ki kara ochiru – ‘Even monkeys fall out of trees.’5

    • 舌は禍いの根 – Shita wa wazawai no ne – ‘The tongue is the root of all disaster.2

    • 脛から火を取る – Sune kara hi wo toru – ‘Making fire from your shins.’ (You are so poor you don’t even have twigs to rub together to make fire.)2

    • 可愛い子には旅をさせよKawaii ko ni wa tabi o saseyo – ‘If you love your children, send them on a journey.5

    • 聞いて極楽見て地獄Kiite gokuraku mite jigoku – ‘Sounds like paradise, but hell when you see it.’5

    • 口は禍の門  – Kuchi wa wazawai no mon – ‘The mouth is the gate of all disaster.’2


    • yoru no tono – ‘Lord of Night.’ (Usually a term for foxes)2

Unsure Japanese

    • ‘Even the mountain gods tremble at a woman’s makeup in December.’ (Used alongside the Oshiroibaba)2


1. Yoda, H & Alt, M. (2008) “Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.
2. Yoda, H. and Alt, M. (2016) “Japandemonium: Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopaedia of Toriyama Sekien.”. New York: over Publications, Inc.
3. Porter, W.N. (1981) ”The Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki”. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing.
4. Puni Puni Japan. Link: Neko no te mo karitai
5. Kodansha. (1993) ”Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia”. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd.
6. Wilson, W. S. (2016) “Afoot in Japan: A Nineteenth Century Guide to Walking the Back Roads” Shambhala Publications Inc.

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