After basically just announcements and book presentations over the last weeks and months, I would like to expand my entry from January this year which was on sword-related Japanese sayings. As mentioned in the first article, some of these sayings might not be that common at all. Anyway, here we go:
aikuchi ni tsuba o utta yô (七首に鐔を打ったよう) – Literally “like mounting a tsuba to an aikuchi.” As an aikuchi comes without a tsuba, this saying is used when something does not match. Variants are kogatana ni tsuba (小刀に鐔, about “like a tsuba on a kogatana”) and kogatana ni kin-tsuba o utta yô (小刀に金鐔を打ったよう, lit. “like mounting a golden tsuba to a kogatana”).
akunin wa katana no tameshi-mono (悪人は刀の試し物) – This saying means about “this bad guy would make a fine test object for my sword” and is rather self-explanatory.
bushi wa katana, hyakushô wa kuwa (武士は刀、百姓は鍬) – Literally “the bushi has the sword and the farmer has the hoe” It means that everyone has a main thing or field where he or she focusses on and/or is good at. The saying might also be used like the English “Cobbler, stick to your last.”
chônin no katana-konomi (町人の刀好み) – This phease means literally “the sword love of the merchant” and is generally applied to something which is unworthy of or ill-matched.
dojô-shiru ni kin-tsuba (泥鰌汁に金鍔) – Literally “loach soup and golden tsuba,” a phrase which points out a very bad match. Please note that the term kin-tsuba is not used literally in this phrase. It refers to a bean paste-filled dessert which has the shape of a tsuba.
dosu no katana de dosu no kobu(どすの刀でどすの首) – This saying means “to give tit for tat” or also “to beat the enemy with his own weapons.”
emi no uchi no katana (笑みの中の刀) – Literally “sword behind a smile.” Variants of this saying are shôchû ni tô ari (笑中に刀あり), shôchû ni yaiba o togu (笑中に刃を研ぐ, lit. “sharpening the blade whilst smiling”), and shôri ni tô o kakushi deichû ni hari ari (笑裸に刀を隠し泥中に針あり, “a sword hidden in the smile and a fish hook hidden in the mud”) and they apply to a person who seems calm and friendly on the outside but who is actually mean on the inside or following evil plans. An English equivalent is probably “wolf in sheep´s clothing.” Please note that the character (中) of the first variant is read as uchi and not chû or naka. It is sometimes also replaced by (内).
entô-ikkatsu (鉛刀一割) – Literally “Splitting something with a lead sword.” A saying which has the same meaning as the English “even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn.” But the saying is also used in the context of something difficult which worked at the first try.
ese-zamurai no katana ijiri (似非侍の刀いじり) – Literally “Only the false samurai is meddling with the sword.” The proverb means that it is mostly cowards who threaten people or act wildly and brandish their weapons.
funabata ni kizami o tsukete katana o tazuneru (船端に刻みをつけて刀を尋ねる) – Literally “looking for a sword where you made a mark at the broadside of a ship.” It means if you loose your sword whilst on a ship, it doesn´t make much sense to mark the spot where you lost it on the ship itself as it moves. A variant is funa ni kizamite ken o motomu (船に刻みて剣を求む) and these sayings are applied when someone tries to preserve some old tradition without recognizing that times have changed too significantly for preserving this tradition.
goke-zaya de saya-nari ga suru (後家鞘で鞘鳴りがする) – Literally “the widow scabbard makes noise.” The phrase refers to the fact that a leftover saya, so-to-speak a “widow saya,” will never fit exactly when used for another blade and thus the sword makes a grinding noise (saya-nari, 鞘鳴り) when drawn. The saying goke-zaya de saya-nari ga suru means if there is constantly some fighting within a group of people or a family.
hiroki ie wa saya-nari (広き家は鞘鳴り) – Literally “even a spacious house can cause scabbard noises.” This phrase refers as mentioned above to the grinding noise a sword makes when drawn from a unmatching saya. It is used when people get a too big house, e.g. when it doesn´t go hand in hand with their status or money or how they live.
jaken no yaiba (邪見の刃) – This phrase means that someone eventually got hurt because of someone´s wrong or evil thoughts.
katana, aruji o erabu (刀、主を選ぶ) – This saying means literally “the one with the sword is the head/master” or “the sword makes the head/master” and means that it actually does matter who is chosen for a certain task or post.
katana ni kakete (刀に懸けて) – Literally “depending on one´s sword.” This phrase means doing something by force.
katana no ha watari (刀の刃渡り) – This phrase goes back to certain fakir-like performances by Buddhist ascets who walked barefootedly over sword blades. It means doing something very dangerous similar to the English phrase “balancing on a razor edge” or “to walk a tightrope.” A variant is katana no ha o ayumu(刀の刃を歩む) which means literally “to walk on a sword blade” too.
katana no kizu wa naoseru ga kotoba no kizu wa naosenai(刀の傷は治せるが言葉の傷は治せない) – “A sword wound can be healed but a wound caused by words not.” This saying is also rather self-explanatory and means that physical injuries might heal fast but mental wounds might never heal.
katana no sabi (刀の錆) – This phrase means literally “the rust of the sword.” As blood causes rust, it is a metaphor for killing someone or being killed but was and is also used in a derogatory manner for someone who isn´t even worth making your sword dirty, like “he/she isn´t worth it.” Variants of the latter context of katana no sabi are katana-yogoshi (刀汚し) and katana no kegare (刀の汚がれ) which mean, expressed very rudely, “you ain´t worth shit.”
katana no sabi wa katana yori izuru (刀の錆は刀より出ずる) – Literally “The rust of the sword comes from the sword itself.” The saying means “being born evil.”
katana-ore ya-tsukiru made (刀折れ矢尽きるまで) – Literally “until your sword breaks and you run out of arrows.” It means to fight until you run out of “weapons” or rather “arguments,” i.e. to be at your wit´s end. It also means to face a complete loss.
katana o urite kôshi o kau (刀を売りで子牛を買う) – Literally “selling your sword and buying a calf.” A variant is ken o uri ushi o kau (剣を売り牛を買う) which means literally “selling your sword and buying a cow.” The saying means to put away arms and live peacefully from now on.
katana-torumi mo kuwa-torumi mo (刀取る身も鍬取る身も) – This saying means literally “wearing the sword and using the hoe” and means being equally a white-collar and a blue-collar worker.
katana wa nukazaru ni ri ari (刀は抜かざるに利あり) – Literally “Advantage/benefit without drawing the sword.” The proverb means solve something by avoiding unnecessary force. It also means that something turns out fine because you left “your sword in the scabbard,” i.e. because you were patient and have not jumped the gun. A variant of this saying´s latter context is nukanu-tachi no kômyô (抜かぬ太刀の高名) which means literally “the fame of the undrawn sword.”
kojiri ga tsumari (鐺が詰まる) – Literally “the kojiri is blocked” and used to express if one is in a tight corner, in deep water, in a fix and so on.
kojiri o toru (鐺を取る) – Literally “to grasp the kojiri,” this phrase means to put an end to something.
kojiri-togame (鐺咎め) – Literally “blame the kojiri.” The phrase goes back to that in feudal times, hitting someone´s saya in passing ended usually in a duel or an argument. Kojiri-togame means now “to make a mountain of a molehill.” A variant with the very same meaning is kojiri o hirou (鐺を拾う) which means lit. “to find the kojiri (of another person).”
komo o kaburu ka kin-tsuba sasu ka(薦を被るか金鍔差すが) – Literally “wearing a reed mat or a golden tsuba” and equivalent to the English “to win the mare or use the halter.”
kotoba ni saya ga aru (言葉に鞘がある) – Literally “words have a scabbard” and with the meaning “to be evasive, to be not entirely truthful, to not be frank.”
Masamune mo yaki-otsureba kugi no ne (正宗も焼き落つれば釘の値) – This saying means literally “even a Masamune is not more than a nail after lossing its tempering” and is applied to someone who is no longer as strong or powerful as he used to be.
Masamune no katana de daikon-kiru (正宗の刀で大根切る) – Literally “cutting white radish with a Masamune sword.” The saying means “doing something the wrong way.” A variant is Masamune de takigi o waru (正宗で薪を割る) which means literally “to chop wood with a Masamune.”
Masamune no katana mo tsukaite shidai (正宗の刀も使い手次第) – Literally “Even a Masamune sword needs a master swordsman.” This proverb is applied to someone who is not able to show his true value regardless of what means and resources he has.
me no saya o hazusu (目の鞘を外す) – Literally “removing the scabbard from your eyes.” This phrase means “to watch carefully” or “to take good care.”
namari no katana de hito o kitta yô ni (鉛の刀で人を切ったよう) – Literally “like killing someone with a sword of lead.” The phrase means something is too soft for a certain task and bends and is used like “this will probably not achieve much” or “this wouldn´t be of much benefit.”
onoga katana de onoga kubi (己が刀で己が首) – Literally “Taking your head with your own sword.” It means to get into trouble, because of wrong decisions for example. A variant is waga katana de waga kubi kiru (我が刀で我が首切る).
Satsuma no saya-wari (薩摩の鞘割り) – Literally “the scabbard breaking of Satsuma.” The saying applies to an irreversible decision. It goes back to the fact that drawing a sword was a decisive thing for a Satsuma-samurai. And some even broke in half their saya after drawing their sword to underline for the opponent and/or bystanders that from now on there was no way back for him, even if the matter ends in seppuku.
saya-hashiru (鞘走る) – This term had the meaning of a sword gliding out of its scabbard and is now used as “jump to conclusions” or “the tongue works faster than the mind.” Sometimes also used in the long variant saya-hashiri yori kuchi-bashiri (鞘走りより口走り, lit. “words faster than a sword gliding out of its scabbard”).
saya o toru (鞘を取る) – Literally “taking the saya.” This phrase means “to charge a fee” or “to receive a commission.”
saya wa naku tomo mi wa hikaru (鞘は無くとも身は光) – Literally “the blade shines without its scabbard,” meaning about the same as “it is the inner values that are important,” or if you want the opposite of “a fair face may hide a foul heart.”
tsuba-giwa (鍔際) – Literally “edge of the tsuba” with the meaning of a “critical moment.” It goes back to the moment when an opponent´s blade hits one´s tsuba. Please note that this term is usually written with the characters shown and not with the character (鐔) for tsuba.
tsuba o waru (鐔を割る) – Literally “splitting/breaking tsuba”, a phrase for a very intense fight.
yoki-takumi to iedomo katana no ayamari naki ni arazu (良き工といえども刀の誤りなきにあらず) – Literally “even a skilled craftsman is not immune to making a sword with flaws,” this saying means “even a great person makes mistakes.”
yumi wa fukuro ni tachi wa saya (弓は袋に太刀は鞘) – Literally “the bow is in its bag and the sword in its scabbard.” This saying refers to restored peace after times of turmoils.
Very interesting! thanks for posting this….
I think you meant kugi, not kubi, here:
Masamune mo yaki-otsureba kubi no ne (正宗も焼き落つれば釘の値)
Thanks Chris, corrected the typo.
reading is incorrect. Correct one is emi no uchi no katana
Thank you, I have corrected the typo.
Interesting. This one must be inspired by the well-known Chinese idiom, 刻舟求劍 (kè zhōu qiú jiàn, literally “carve boat search sword”), which originates from the classic text 呂氏春秋 (Master Lü’s spring and autumn annals, around 239 BCE).