Japanese Shrine


The Japanese language uses lots of proverbs, idioms, and sayings. Japanese proverbs are called Kotowaza. Many of these share English equivalents (though some do not!). In this article, we look at many Japanese Kotowaza in English. Every example shows authentic examples – how Japanese speakers use them!Proverbs and sayings can be found in every language


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 1 – 青は藍より出でて藍より青し (あおはあいよりいでてあいよりあおし)


English equivalent:  The student may surpass the master.


This Kotowaza literally means “Blue comes from indigo, and blue is bluer than indigo.” It refers to the traditional method of getting blue dye from the indigo plant. Let’s look at some examples.




Plato’s student, Aristotle, wrote many books and had a great influence on philosophy, medieval scholasticism, and even modern philosophy and logic. Truly, the student surpassed the master.



The Chinese article first stats that bonsai originated in China. Though it came to Heian era Japan from China, it then praises that “the student has surpassed the master.”


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 2 – 一石二鳥 (いっせきにちょう)torii sunset

意味:一つの行為で二つの 利益を得ること

English equivalent: To kill two birds with one stone.


This Kotowaza literally means “1 stone, 2 birds.” It is a direct equivalent to the English version! Let’s look at some examples.



運動でき、 かつ家族の絆も深まり一石二鳥です 。

I can exercise, and moreover strengthen my ties with my family, killing two birds with one stone.

快眠で一石二鳥! 美容にもダイエットにも深い眠りがイイ理由。

Killing two birds with one stone through good sleep! Why deep sleep is good for both beauty and diet.


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 3 – 犬も歩けば棒に当たる(いねもあるけばぼうにあたる)


English equivalents:  Every dog has his day

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.


This Kotowaza literally means “a walking dog gets the stick.” This nuance can be both good AND bad! Does “get this stick” mean the dog catches the stick? Or does it mean the dog is beaten with the stick? This Kotowaza carries both meanings, so can be positive and negative. Look at the examples below.




They say every dog has his day. Well last week I bought a lottery ticket and won 70,000 yen!



Last week I lost 7000 yen on the lottery. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 4 – 壁に耳あり、障子に目あり(かべにみみあり、しょうじにめあり)mt fuji and japanese houses

意味: いつでもどこでもだれが聞いているか分からず、秘密は漏(も)れやすいということ。

English equivalent: The walls have ears.

This Kotowaza literally means “walls have ears, and doors have eyes.” The English version is very similar, in words and meaning. Check out the Kotowaza examples below.





Dumping animals is a crime. There may be those who think “I won’t get caught,” but the walls have ears. You’ll be seen.



When selling real estate, remember that the walls have ears.


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 5 – 嘘も方便 (うそもほうべん)

意味: 場合によって、嘘も手段として必要です。

English equivalents: A little white lie / The end justifies the means.

This Kotowaza literally means “lies can also be expedient.” The English equivalents are not direct equivalents, and carry different nuances.




Someone who is too honest can sometimes look like a fool, so remember that a lie can also be expedient.



Lies can also be a tool, as they say, and if you can use them well they can also have merit in your job.


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 6 – 聞いて極楽見て地獄 (きいてごくらくみてじごく)

意味: 人から聞いた内容と、実際に見るのとでは大きな違いがある。

English equivalent: Don’t believe everything you hear.

This Kotowaza literally means “to hear of paradise but see hell.”  




The course I had been so looking forward to was the worst. Honestly, what I heard about it and what it actually was was totally different.



Whatever it is, you should always check for yourself. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, after all.


Japanese Kotowaza in English: 7 – 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず (こけつにはいらずんばこじをえず)japanese night alley

意味: 危険を冒さなければ、望みの物を手に入れ ることはできない。

English equivalent: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

This Kotowaza literally means “You won’t catch the tiger cub if you don’t go into the tiger’s den.”  




If this fails, I expect we’ll lose everything, but if we allow this chance to pass us by we make great success impossible. So I feel it’s a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained.



Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We must strike now.


English and Japanese share many similarities, and many differences. You can find out more here!

Are you interested in living and working in Japan? If so, check out this article!

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