Kanji Clinic #68, The Japan Times, March 24, 2005
"Befriending four-kanji sayings is as easy as 1, 2, 3"
One of the most frequently visited pages at KanjiClinic.com, the website I host for foreign adult kanji learners, is a column on four-kanji idiomatic compounds (yojijukugo, 四字熟語). The wide appeal of these linguistic gems is probably due in large measure to the punch they pack: Comprised of a succinct four characters, yojijukugo vividly describe complex human predicaments, often dispensing wisdom as applicable today as it was centuries ago.
Some four-kanji sayings, such as 一刻千金 (ikkoku senkin, one-moment-a thousand-gold, “Time is money”), are near-clones of English expressions, while others, like 手前味噌 (temae miso, hand-in front of-soybean paste, “praising self-made miso,” i.e., “tooting one’s own horn”), reflect unique aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture.
An excellent website cataloging over a thousand yojijukugo, including their English translations, is available here. For zeroing in on the most commonly used sayings, I recommend 中学受験ランク順 四字熟語２８８ Chuugaku juken rankujun yojijukugo 288 (学研 Gakken, ISBN 4-05-300114-5), a pocket-sized volume designed to prepare Japanese sixth-graders for yojijukugo questions on junior high entrance exams. Using comic strips and easy-to-understand examples, it introduces 100 must-know yojijukugo in order of frequency of use.
Today let’s take a look at some of the many entries containing kanji for the numbers one to ten.
一 (ichi, one) is the most commonly used number-kanji in yojijukugo. 一日千秋 (ichijitsu senshuu, one-day-a thousand-autumns), for example, eloquently describes “waiting for what seems like an eternity.” 一期一会 (ichigo ichie, one-period of time-one-meeting) translates into English as “a once-in-a-lifetime encounter,” and 一心同体 (isshin doutai, one-heart-same-body) denotes “as one flesh.” In Japanese, “to take drastic measures” means to cut something in half with one decisive swing of the sword: 一刀両断 (ittou ryoudan, one-sword-both-cut).
Two popular four-kanji sayings containing 一 mean “to kill two birds with one stone”: 一挙両得 (ikkyo ryoutoku, one-deed-both-gains), and the more direct translation from English, 一石二鳥 (isseki nichou, one-stone-two-birds).
Several entries in Rakujun contain “two” (二, ni), “three” (三, san), and “four” (四, shi): 二束三文 (nisoku sanmon, two-bundles-three-mon, “worthless junk”) originally referred to bundles of firewood worth three mon, a pittance during the Edo Period, when this saying was born; 三拝九拝 (sanpai kyuuhai, three-bows-nine-bows) translates as “kowtowing”; and the dreaded 四苦八苦 (shiku hakku, four-suffering-eight-suffering) means “to be in dire distress.”
Another yojijukugo describing hardship is 七転八倒 (shichiten battou, seven-tumbles-eight-falls, “writhing in agony”), but don’t confuse it with look-alike 七転八起 (shichiten hakki, seven-tumbles-eight-risings), which is the rough equivalent of “pick yourself up and start over again.”
八方美人 (happou bijin, eight-directions-beautiful-person) is someone who tries to be all things to all people. 九死一生 (kyuushi isshou, nine-deaths-one-life), meaning “a narrow escape from death,” is remarkably similar to the English “cat with nine lives.” Finally, it takes all sorts of people to make the world go ‘round, a sentiment summed up well in 十人十色 (juunin toiro, ten-people-ten-colors).
All of the yojijukugo in today’s column, including the quiz below, are comprised of kanji learned by Japanese elementary school children. The kanji may be basic, but dropping these zingers at appropriate conversational junctures is guaranteed to give your Japanese a decidedly erudite quality.
Here is another column on yojijukugo.
Match the four-kanji sayings below, all containing the kanji for “one,” with their English equivalents. An English keyword has been provided for each kanji.
1. 一言居士 (ichigen koji, one-say-reside-gentleman)
2. 一長一短 (icchou ittan, one-long-one-short)
3. 一心不乱 (isshin furan, one-heart-not-chaos)
4. 一望千里 (ichibou senri, one-look afar-a thousand-villages)
5. 一言半句 (ichigon hanku, one-say-half-phrase)
6. 心機一転 (shinki itten, heart-function-one-turn over)
a. undivided attention
b. sweeping view
c. a ready critic
d. change of heart
e. plusses and minuses
f. not even a word
ANSWERS 1.c 2.e 3.a 4.b 5.f 6.d