本末転倒 (ほんまつ てんとう, honmatsu tentou) is a famous 四字熟語 (four kanji expression) that describes the situation when primary objectives are sidelined by secondary objectives. For example, it is 本末転倒 if you go overseas for your holidays and travel around so many countries that you feel exhausted rather than relaxed. One of the most common 本末転倒 situations is when people confuse the means and ends. For instance, it is 本末転倒 if you’re obsessed with making a perfect note to prepare for exams, and realise that you don’t have enough time to memorise it. A similar English phrase would be “to put the cart before the horse”, but 本末転倒 is not necessarily related to the order of actions, but rather has something to do with the confusion of means and ends.
本末転倒 consists of four kanji characters: “本” and “末” mean “main” and “branch”, respectively, and “転倒” means “fall”. Therefore, what 本末転倒 means is that the main and secondary things are turned “upside-down”.
I started a part-time job so that I can go out with my friends more often, but now I’m too busy working to meet up with them. This is 本末転倒.
If publishing many papers is your main objective and you don’t care about the content, that is 本末転倒.
Synonyms: 主客転倒 (The main and secondary subject or person become inverted)
Synonyms in English: None
Related words and phrases: 転倒 (fall, stumble, be up side down)