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How Do Compound Kanji Make Japanese Idioms?

Learn how Japanese makes complex phrases and concepts with short characters.

By 3 min read

For those of you who have been studying Japanese for a while, you’ll know that kanji can be wildly different. Sometimes, a kanji character stands alone, like 1がつ(January) or 1 (1 o’clock). These simple kanji are some of the most approachable, and I truly appreciate them.

Then, there’s the realm of 熟語じゅくご (a word made of two or more kanji). It’s a kanji combination, or what I like to call a kanji zord. Today, we’re jumping right into the realm of four kanji compounds known as 四字熟語よじじゅくご.

These four kanji compounds, excluding the name of places, often embody idiomatic phrases rooted in historical Japanese context. Like English idioms, these compounds compress profound meanings into short phrases. You’ll often find four kanji compounds used in Japanese newspaper headlines and television to depict a specific event or scene. It isn’t easy at first, but the more you study, the faster you’ll get in.

With that introduction behind us, let’s explore some popular Japanese four-kanji compounds.

Ten Men, Ten Colors

Simple but deep, we have 十人十色じゅうにんといろ. Breaking down the four kanji into pairs, we have 十人じゅうにん, meaning “ten people,” and 十色といろ, meaning “ten colors.” So literally, the idea is that if you have ten people together, you might get ten different colors that everybody likes. Or “different strokes for different folks,” as they say.

Here are some examples:

Japanese Romaji English
みんながべたいのは十人十色じゅんにんといろ Minna ga tabetai no ha juunin toiro da. What everyone wants to eat is different.
ひとかた十人十色じゅんにんといろ Minna ga tabetai no ha juunin toiro da. Everybody’s way of living is different.
オーケストラの人々ひとびと普段ふだん音楽おんがくのジャンルは十人十色じゅんにんといろ Okesutora no hitoboto ga fudan kiku ongaku no janru ha juunintoiro da. People in the orchestra listen to different kinds of music.


Killing Two Birds With One Stone

Next, we have 一石二鳥いっせきにちょう. This phrase is quite similar to its English counterpart. We can divide this into two pairs of kanji components like the previous four kanji combinations. Specifically, 一石いっせき means “one stone,” while 二鳥にちょう signifies “two birds.” I.e., “Killing two birds with one stone.” It seems birds can’t catch a linguistic break anywhere in the world.

Here are some sample sentences using 一石二鳥いっせきにちょう:

Japanese Romaji English
パーソナルトレーナーとしてはたらくのは一石二鳥いっせきにちょうだね。 Paasonaru toreena toshite hataraku no ha isseki nichou da ne. Working as a personal trainer is like killing two birds with one stone.
外食がいしょくやめたらおかねまって痩せれた。一石二鳥いっせきにちょうだ。 Gaishoku wo yametara, okane ga tamatte yasereta. Iseeki nichou da. When I stopped eating out, I saved money and lost weight. I killed two birds with one stone.
効率こうりつがよく、一石二鳥的いっせきにちょうてきなやりかたはないのかな? Kouritsu yoku, issekinichouteki na yarikata ha nai no kana? Isn’t there an efficient, kill-two-birds-with-one-stone kind of way of doing things?

Trial and Error

Then you get a lot of literal strokes with 試行錯誤しこうさくご. This one can also be split into two sets of kanji components. The initial half of the four kanji combination is 試行しこう, meaning “to attempt” or “trial run.” The latter half, 錯誤さくご, literally translates to “mistake” or “discrepancy.” Hence, the combined meaning becomes “trial and error.”

Here are some examples:

Japanese Romaji English
この商品しょうひん試行錯誤しこうさくごした結果けっか Kono shoushin ga shikousakugo shita kekka da. This product is the product of trial and error.
試行錯誤しこうさくごかえせばいつかはかなら成功せいこうする! Shikousakugo kurikaeseba itsuka ha kanarazu seikou suru! If you keep repeating trial and error, eventually, you’ll succeed.
化粧品開発けしょうひんかいはつ一番時間いちばんじかんがかかるのはやっぱり試行錯誤しこうさくご段階だんかいだね Keshouhin kaihatsu de ichiban jikan ga kakaru no ha yappari shikousakugo no dankai da ne. The step that takes the longest in developing cosmetics is the trial and error step.

I think that’s enough of the four kanji compounds for today. Hopefully, your eyes have been opened to a whole new world of studies, and you can start seeing clusters of kanji not as your enemy but as your friends here to help you understand Japanese better.

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