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Kotowaza – Japanese Proverbs

As you all know, I refer to kaizen on a regular basis. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means daily improvement. I strive on a daily basis to improve myself. Today, I'd like to introduce you to another Japanese word ... Kotowaza. Essentially, kotowaza translates to "proverb." I am fascinated with Japanese philosophy and one of the main things I gain from the Japanese is their inspirational proverbs. To me, the proverb is a powerful message that I can relate to my life and use it to inspire me. I am constantly finding myself motivated by neat proverbs (Japanese or any others).

One of my all time favorite kotowaza is: chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru. This translates to "even specks of dust become mountains" (or, "even dust if piled, can become a mountain"). It is not merely my favorite because it has the word, yama (mountain) in it. I love this one, because it seems to be the ageless proverb. In English, we have a similar one, "many a little makes a mickle." To me, it means that regardless of your current state, you can rise, like the Phoenix, from the ashes and make something more of yourself. I experienced this precise thing many moons ago, when I was 19 years old and my doctor gave me a death sentence. I rose from the ashes and turned a speck of dust into a mountain. That said, perhaps I should be more fond of kishi kaisei; which literally means wake from death and return to life

If you think about it by wearing someone else’s shoes, you can also see that "chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru" is important as you meet people. Everyone that you meet (regardless of status, or stature) has the potential of becoming a mountain. It’s vital to remember this as you greet folks for the first time. Think about the possibility of meeting someone at the very bottom of the ladder in a large corporation. You might look down on them, and think they will amount to nothing. However, it’s entirely possible that this person will be running the same company in twenty years. And, also possible is the fact that they might remember that you looked down on them. Look down on NO ONE, and you will avoid this situation. Think: Golden Rule.

Here are some of my other kotowaza favorites:

  • saru mo ki kara ochiru — even monkeys fall from trees
  • deru kugi wa utareru — the protruding nail will be hammered down
  • ropu no kireta tozansha mitai — like a mountaineer who's rope has broken
  • ashita yama wa itsumo soko de aru — the mountain will always be there tomorrow
  • nana korobi ya oki — fall down seven times, get up eight
  • hitsuyou wa hatsumei no haha — necessity is the mother of invention
  • kane wa tenka no mawarimono — no problems because money always goes around
  • ichi nichi, ichi zen — every day, do one good (do a good turn daily)

Here's a fun/funny one (yet true): ninjabashiri o suru toki, kutsuhimo ga yurundeiru to hisan na koto o maneku — when running ninja-style, having loose shoe strings invites misery.

Gambatte kudasai is another cool Japanese saying that I use often. It can translate to many meanings, but they are all related. My favorite (simple) translation of gambatte kudasai is, "keep your chin up." That is just a sweet thing to say to a person who is striving to improve themselves and stumbling over the pitfalls of life. In other words, any one of us!

Do you have any favorite proverbs (English, Japanese, or any other nationality)?

I hope you enjoyed this!

Dewa mata,
Vaan san

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Posted by Vaughn Ripley

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