Learning and Loving the Japanese Language

Head to Feet: Japanese Proverbs and Idioms Featuring Parts of the Body

Language Culture

There are many colorful, memorable Japanese proverbs and idioms connected with parts of the body, from head to feet.

Head Down, Bottom Up

Our journey through body-related proverbs and idioms begins at the top, with the head.

頭隠して尻隠さずAtama kakushite shiri kakusazu. To “hide one’s head, but not one’s bottom” is a phrase mocking an only partially successful attempt at covering up a wrongdoing or weak point that ends up wholly useless.

二階から目薬Nikai kara megusuri. Applying “eye medicine from the second floor” to someone at ground level is not easy! It is used to describe a frustrating task or one that is inefficient because it is too indirect.

寝耳に水Nemimi ni mizu. “Water in a sleeping ear” is an evocative way of describing a great surprise. The word nemimi can also mean something heard while drowsy.

歯に衣着せぬHa ni kinu kisenu. This phrase literally means “not to wear clothes on one’s teeth.” It refers to a blunt manner of speaking, without softening one’s words for the listener.

のど元過ぎれば熱さを忘れるNodomoto sugireba atsusa o wasureru. Piping hot food in the mouth is difficult to ignore, but “once it is past the throat, one forgets the heat.” This expresses how it is easy to forget difficulties once they are over, and may sometimes refer to failing to remember debts of gratitude to those who helped out during hard times.

Easy Money

Working downward, these sayings are connected with the hands, feet, belly, and more.

濡れ手で粟Nurete de awa. Try to pick up “millet with wet hands” and many grains will easily stick to your fingers. This represents an effortless way of making money.

爪の垢を煎じて飲むTsume no aka o senjite nomu. It may sound unpleasant, but “to make an infusion of the dirt from someone’s fingernails and drink it” means to want to imitate another person’s excellent example. Taking this phrase literally is not recommended.

背に腹は代えられないSe ni hara wa kaerarenai. The saying that “the back cannot substitute for the belly” is based on the idea that vital organs are contained in the belly or abdomen. It means that to protect something important (represented by the belly), it is necessary to make a sacrifice (represented by the back).

へそを曲げるHeso o mageru. To “twist the navel” means to sulk or get cross.

臑をかじるSune o kajiru. Depending on someone financially can be expressed as “biting someone’s shin.” Often the shin or shins belong to parents (oya), leading to the commonly used oya no sune o kajiru.

足を洗うAshi o arau. To “wash one’s feet,” means to change one’s lifestyle by quitting something, and is used especially for leaving a life of crime and going straight.

(Originally written in English. Banner image: Eye medicine from the second floor. © Pixta.)

Japanese language proverbs