Learning and Loving the Japanese Language

Dust into Mountains: Patience and Perseverance in Japanese Proverbs

Language Culture

These Japanese proverbs encourage persevering, avoiding haste, or accepting one’s lot when there’s no way to change it.

Strive Another Day

Even if success is slow to come, it is best to persevere, as a number of Japanese proverbs suggest. Sometimes just waiting can also lead to a change for the better.

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

A trio of similar proverbs express the idea that anyone can make mistakes, but they can also be read as warning against the carelessness or impatience that comes from overconfidence. Another phrase is a byword for a cautious approach.

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

This final selection offers a variety of reasons why a patient approach is best.

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.

(Originally written in English. Banner image: Mountains in the Southern Japanese Alps. © Pixta.)

Japanese language proverbs