Yonmojijukugo: The 4 Kanji With A Thousand Meanings
By Mark Kennedy
On June 19, 2015
One of the side benefits of studying a foreign language is the fact that the task can never be completed, as there is always more to learn. While it can be frustrating learning how to converse, read and write in a foreign language, what can become a life-long pursuit of knowledge offers many benefits.
Like the typical pattern of progressively learning any new skill, I have found that my study of the Japanese language can be charted by numerous mini-advances followed by plateaus. (Of course, there have, however, been a few valleys along the way thus far, as well.)
Although I am still far from being an expert since getting started a lifetime ago as a 1st year university student, one milestone was learning how to apply my first yonmojijukugo (四文字熟語よんもじじゅくご), four character phrases that can be used to sum up concisely a particular concept.
When combined these short compounds can be used to express clearly a particular thought or concept.
Think of a string of four kanji characters that are, essentially, idioms that generally do not convey the same meaning when broken apart as separate characters. When combined, however, these short compounds can be used to express clearly a particular thought or concept.
While a close cousin to proverbs, yonmojijukugo are not simply witticisms that belong only in the classroom. If you listen carefully, you’ll find that yonmojijukugo are used relatively frequently in both oral and written communications. Although, especially in Japan, it is never a good idea to use these phrases simply to show off, when used to describe just the right feeling in the correct context, the use of 四文字熟語よんもじじゅくご・yonmojijukugo will often solicit a compliment concerning your proficiency with the language.
So what are some classic examples that are relatively easy to remember?
As its English equivalent is also frequently used in everyday conversation, isseki-nicho (一石二鳥いっせきにちょう) is a good place to start. It literally means “to kill two birds with one stone.” Although I don’t know anybody who frequently seeks opportunities to stone birds, in both Japanese and English the real meaning of this phrase is to accomplish two or more goals with a single task. If you were to learn just a single yonmojijukugo, this would be a good one, as it will enable you to get your point across succinctly and give you the confidence to learn more 四文字熟語よんもじじゅくご・yonmojijukugo.
Another particularly useful yonmojijukugo is tekizai-tekisho (適材適所てきざいてきしょ) which means “the right person in the right place.” This example calls to mind one of the pillars of human resources management outlined in Jim Collins’ classic Good to Great in which he introduces the idea of “getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats.” At work in Japan I have had difficulty explaining the literal translation of this analogy because it tends to cause a tangential discussion about bus ridership. Thus the Japanese term 適材適所てきざいてきしょ・tekizai-tekisho helps to clarify this notion right away.
Especially in the age of the iPhone and instantaneous communication via the internet, the ancient yonmojijukugo of ichimokuryozen (一目瞭然いちもくりょうぜん) is getting a new lease on life. This yonmojijukugo means “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and does not, therefore, require additional, written explanation!
Originating from Chinese, there are literally thousands of 四文字熟語, and there are differing opinions about the precise application. Thus junin-toiro (十人十色じゅうにんといろ) or “to each their own.” This means that it is important to remember that not everyone will always share your opinion, and you’ll often confront a number of widely contrasting viewpoints.
A variant which I personally encounter on the job quite often is sanpi-ryoron（賛否両論さんぴ りょうろん） which means there are many differences of opinion. An appropriate situation in which to use this phrase is when you get widely disparate viewpoints about a particular product or service from customers, for example. It essentially means that some like a particular feature a lot, while others do not.
It takes some effort to learn these phrases and then apply them accurately. Go slowly at first, commit one of these to memory and then try it out. You’ll probably get a reaction — either positive or negative – right way. If you pick just the right context in which to insert a yonmojijukugo, it will be junpū-manpan (順風満帆じゅんぷうまんほ） or “smooth sailing” for you!
Who knows? The proper use of yonmojijukugo may even allow you to reap ikkaku-senkin (一攫千金いっかくせんきん) or “strike it rich all at once.” Good luck!