Take our user survey here!

The Colorful Imagery of Japanese

Japanese vocabulary can have some of the most colorful and exciting imagery imaginable. One that gives listener a lot of information about the unique way Japan sees the world.

By 3 min read

One of the things that makes the Japanese language fascinating is that it was forged alongside thousands of years of culture. Naturally with this wealth of history, Japanese has a lot of differences to other languages.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the idioms that Japanese people use. While they can occasionally be surprisingly close to English, most of the time the times when they are very distinct tell us a lot about the fascinating differences between Japanese and Western culture.

Any classical literature fans will be familiar with the story くものいと (The spider’s thread) by Akutagawa. In the story, the Buddha offers salvation to a sufferer in hell by casting down a spider’s thread, only to have his faith ruined as the man refuses to help other people climb up the thread believing that the extra weight might snap the thread. The Buddha decides that the man isn’t worthy of salvation and cuts the thread, watching the sinners plunge back into Hell.

Akutagawa would’ve understood the expression 地獄じごくふつ (A Buddha in Hell). Similar to his story, this idiom describes a person who appears to help, but actually will not help.

みみにたこができる (You’ve told me that again and again) literally means that a callus has grown in the speaker’s ear. As calluses are usually caused by doing something repeatedly, the たこ (callus) in this idiom means that the speaker has been told the same thing so many times that a callus is beginning to form!

Of course, the word たこ in 耳にたこができる is also a homonym for the word for octopus. Many comics, most notably Doraemon, have used this homonym for comical purposes by showing their heroes with an octopus wedged in their ear.

While 耳にたこができる is somewhat understandable from the words that make it up, you would have to know a lot about Japanese to immediately guess the meaning of のどからる. If you translate it literally, it means ‘from my throat a hand emerges’. Yep, amazingly creepy! Fascinatingly, this phrase is actually a comical one and describes wanting something so much that a grabbing hand emerges from your throat!

It is not the only hand-related image in Japanese as the idiom くもをつかむ is often represented by images of a hand grasping up at the sky. While it literally translates as ‘grabbing at clouds’, this phrase refers to a person who makes vague or nonsensical statements.

Of course, not all of the idioms are so unique. After all, all humans grow up aware of the same human foibles. Most readers can probably guess the meaning of かおから(fire is coming from my face) without checking a dictionary. Although we would never say this in English, it is not difficult to guess that this means that the speaker is so embarrassed that their face has become red and hot.

While it is well worth taking some time to learn the idioms of this country, be careful not to drown your conversation with them. I’m sure that most of us have the experience of talking to a Japanese person who overuses common idioms to the point that it becomes almost comical. Instead these expressions should be used to offer learners an insight into the Japanese psyche and when used sparingly will show the listener that the speaker understands Japanese on a deeper level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA - Privacy Policy - Terms of Service



Raising Bilingual Children

There are no golden rules for creating bilingual kids but what parents should do is balance the odds in their child’s favor.

By 5 min read 8


Speak Japanese? Speak Korean, too!

Learn the following words, and you've got them down for both languages.

By 1 min read 47


Easing into Izakayas

Drinking in Japan can be the most entertaining way to meet new people and have fun, however a lot of the more interesting bars often have limited English service. Therefore, learning a little Japanese will go a long way at these places.

By 3 min read 1