This article introduces idiomatic expressions and proverbs that exist both in Japanese and English. Most of them originated from English or Western languages and then were translated into Japanese.
kill two birds with one stone
It is one of the most famous 四字熟語 (よじじゅくご; Four kanji idioms) in Japanese, literally meaning “one stone two birds”. It usually means “one thing/action brings two benefits”, as shown in the example below. Unlike in English, however, 一石二鳥 does not have the meaning of “do two things with one action”, as in “I killed two birds with one stone: I went to the dry cleaner’s on the way to the grocery store.”
Having a dog lets you feel relaxed and prevents burglary; it is “kill two birds with one stone”.
which came first: the chicken or the egg?
It literally means “chicken came first, or the egg came first”, where 鶏 (にわとり) means “chicken” and 卵 means “egg”. The order of 鶏 and 卵 can be either way.
People won’t move to the countryside if there is no job, but the jobs won’t be created unless people move and live there. So this is a problem like “chicken came first, or the egg came first”.
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the tip of the iceberg
It literally means “the corner of the iceberg”, where 氷山 (ひょうざん) means “iceberg” (氷 is “ice” and 山 is “mountain”) and 一角 (いっかく) means “corner/part”.
This fraud case is merely the tip of the iceberg.
It exactly means ‘necessary evil’, where 必要 (ひつよう) means “necessary” and 悪 means “evil”.
昭和 (しょうわ)では、学校 (がっこう)での体罰 (たいばつ) は必要悪だと考(かんが)えられていた。
In the Shōwa period, physical punishment at school was considered as a necessary evil.
If you run after two hares, you will catch neither.
It means exactly the same as the English expression; 兎 (と in onyomi, うさぎ in kunyomi) means “rabbit/hare”, 追(お)う means “‘chase/run after”, and 得(え)る means “get/achieve”. This is one of the most famous proverbs in Japanese.
同時 (どうじ)に２つの言語 (げんご)を学 (まな)び始 (はじ)めたら、二兎追うものは一頭も得ず、になるよ
If you start learning two languages at the same time, it’s gonna be like “If you run after two hares, you will catch neither”.
(Cast) Pearls Before Swine
豚 (ぶた)に真珠 (しんじゅ)
It means “pearls for pigs”, where 豚 (ぶた) means “pig” and 真珠 (しんじゅ) means “pearl”. There is also another similar phrase, “猫 (ねこ)に小判 (こばん)”, meaning “gold coins for cats”; see 8 Funny Japanese Idioms Related to ‘Cats’ (猫, neko)
味 (あじ)のわからない彼 (かれ)にワインをプレゼントするなんて豚に真珠だ/猫に小判だ
It is “pearls for pigs/gold coins for cats” to buy him wine for a present, as he does not appreciate taste/he has a poor sense of taste.
The grass is (always) greener (on the other side)
It means “The grass in my neighbourhood is greener/looks greener”, where 隣 (となり) means “neighbourhood” and 芝生 (しばふ) means “grass/lawn”. In modern Japanese, “青(あおい)い” usually means “blue”, but it used to have the meaning of “green”, too. Therefore, there are still some words and expressions, including this proverb, where “青” is used to describe something green, e.g. we describe the green traffic light as “青信号 (あおしんごう)”, green apple as 青リンゴ, and green juice as 青汁 (あおじる, aojiru).
隣の芝生は青く見えるので、つい転職 (てんしょく) したくなる
Because “the grass in my neighbourhood looks greener”, I often feel like changing my job.
Time is money
It exactly means “time is money”, where なり is a classical expression equivalent to “だ” (to be) in modern Japanese.
時は金なりってことわざがあるんだし、時間 (じかん) を無駄 (むだ)にしないようにしよう。
As the proverb says “time is money”, let’s not waste our time.
an eye for an eye (and a tooth for a tooth)
目 (め)には目を、歯 (は) には歯を
It means exactly the same as the English expression; 目 (め) is “eye” and 歯 (は) is “tooth”. Its synonym is “やられたらやり返 (かえ) す” (“if hurt by someone, hurt them back”), which reminds a lot of Japanese people of the iconic line “やられたらやり返す, 倍 (ばい) 返 (がえ)しだ” (“if hurt by someone, hurt them back; (I’ll) give double the payback”) from the Japanese TV drama “半沢直樹 “(Hanzawa Naoki).
目には目を、歯には歯をの精神 (せいしん)では、平和 (へいわ)に問題 (もんだい)を解決 (かいけつ)することはできない。
With the “an eye for an eye (and a tooth for a tooth)” mindset, we cannot solve the problem peacefully.
This word consists of two kanji characters “洗 (wash)” and 脳 (brain). This expression comes from the Chinese word, “洗腦”.
多 (おお)くの人 (ひと)は、実 (じつ)はマスコミに洗脳されていることに気 (き) がついていない。
A lot of people are not aware that they are in fact brainwashed by the mass media.