Yonmojijukugo: The 4 Kanji With A Thousand Meanings

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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!

Key Phrases To Remember
四文字熟語
よんもじじゅくご Four character idiom
一石二鳥
いっせきにちょう to kill two birds with one stone
適材適所
てきざいてきしょ the right person in the right place
一目瞭然
いちもくりょうぜん a picture is worth a thousand words
順風満帆
じゅんぷうまんほ smooth sailing
一攫千金
いっかくせんきん strike it rich all at once
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Mark is based in Tokyo where he lives with his family.

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  • I think you should have given the literal meaning of each to give the readers an idea how the “meanings” you gave were derived… like you said “4 kanji with a thousand meanings”… so there can’t just be one meaning for「十人十色」… I don’t really understand the meaning of the English expression “To each his own” but the way my grandmother explained this is that every individual is different and that I must learn to treat one accordingly…

  • kmah says:

    “ten people, ten colours.” i like that. my knowledge of japanese is beginner at best so i might be using that in the future in english only.

  • Imomushi says:

    「四文字熟語」(よんもじじゅくご)is less common in usage than 「四字熟語」(よじじゅくご) which is itself a 四字熟語. Most published dictionaries of these phrases use the latter phrase in their titles.

  • Mark Kennedy says:

    That’s a good one! “Someone who gives up easily” right? Thanks for sharing. Now I learned something from you!

    • サビーネ says:

      Yeah, it describes people who often start something new, bur give up after the first hardship.

  • Mark Kennedy says:

    You got me! That may have been a bit of a stretch.

    The point is that our ubiquitous smart phones allow billions of people to post and share photos instantaneously, and, therefore, take the place of actually writing down a description.

  • Heimrik says:

    Quite an interesting read indeed! I will most definately check these out. On a side note though what would this particular phrase qualify as: 「最優先事項」 (Saiyūsenjikō).

    • Mark Kennedy says:

      Thanks for the positive feedback. That’s a good one, although it’s 5 characters. “Top priority” or “top priorities,” right? It’s similar to another common saying in business 費用対効果 or “cost/benefit (analysis)” which is also 5 characters. Both of these phrases can, however, be broken into other words that actually mean something on their own. In any case, maybe we’ll simply need to invent the new category of 五文字熟語 to account for the 5 characters!

  • LunaticNeko says:

    My personal favorite (and the first I was taught) is 一期一会. It loosely means things happen only once. Even if you do something many times, each time will be different.

    • Heimrik says:

      I went to Google Translate to get a hint on how to pronounce 一期一会 and according to it, it translates to English as “Forrest Gump”. Hahaha thank you for a good laugh Google I guess.

      • Joshua Warhurst says:

        It got confused because 一期一会 was the Japanese title for Forrest Gump. :p

  • papiGiulio says:

    Interesting read, thanks

  • Souki says:

    oh, these are Chinese idioms!

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