In a respectful country like Japan, the last thing you want to do is make mistakes when you speak Japanese.;
One of the shortcuts to sounding like a local is to know the most common Japanese expressions. Otherwise, you risk sounding like a robot who just learned the basic Japanese words and phrases through a traditional textbook. By using Japanese idioms and expressions that are used by fellow native speakers, they’ll be able to immediately relate to you.
Being relatable has certain key advantages, especially when you’re in Japan. First, they’ll treat you like one of them, and you’ll build more authentic relationships from the beginning. Second, you won’t be taken advantage of. Although the latter is unlikely to happen because of the culture in Japan.
If these two traits are important to you, we also recommend you check out our article on Japanese swear words.
25 Genuine Japanese Expressions That Are Essential to Know
These expressions in Japanese are going to be useful for when you travel, at work, or when conversing with Japanese friends. Keep in mind that the following are in what’s known as Japanese kanji.
Translation: Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away
Equivalent saying to our ‘apple a day keeps the doctor away’. However, one would argue that this Japanese idiom is far more accurate than the English. While apples have great vitamins to support our nutrition, having one per day may not do much for our overall longevity. However, eating less (8/10) have shown great results in preventing many diseases. No wonder why Japanese people are some of the longest living population in the world.
Translation: Act of throwing something away (sweepbox)
It’s no surprise to hear this minimalistic thinking of the Japanese, who are well recognized for their organization. This expression is about throwing away unnecessary things that we no longer need or use. However, on the darker side, it could also mean firing someone from an organization because they’re no longer serving their purpose.
Translation: To turn a cold shoulder
A visualization of this is someone giving you the palm of their hands because they no longer want to speak with you. Often times this may be a friend or someone you have a relationship with that is frustrated at you. Most people in Japan are quite respectful, so you may not see this in action very often.
Translation: Every relationship must come to an end
The literal definition of this is “Meeting person always separated”. While it’s sad, it’s also quite true. Most of the people we have met or know (beyond our family members) may not be part of our lives forever.
Translation: Even monkeys fall out of trees
This analogy to monkeys, who are bred to stay on trees, is a good comparison to how humans make silly mistakes in life. This type of expression does not exist in the English language, but boy should it! The next time a friend who speaks Japanese is down on themselves because of a human mistake, remind them by sharing this Japanese expression.
Translation: When in rome, do as the romans do
What this means in summary is that when you enter a city, home, or organization with any sort of rules or culture, follow them. You can’t expect to visit Japan, and follow the same lifestyle and rules that you’re used to. The Japanese have a very unique and idiosyncratic culture compared to the western culture. This could also apply to a new organization you join. When you’re entering into a new culture, respect it and follow it accordingly.
Translation: You get what you give
The Japanese are known as the hardest working culture in the world. Averaging 16-hour work days, there’s no one even close when it comes to work ethic. It’s why this Japanese idiom, which translates to: “work of self, obtainment of self” is so ingrained into this culture. Many people in Japan believe that your work can often fulfill much needs you have in life, and whether you agree with this or not, you may hear this phrase a lot!
Translation: You can’t fall asleep
The literal translation to this phrase is: “Your eyes are hard.” One may mistakenly believe that this means that you’re sleepless, but it’s actually the opposite. For all the insomniacs out there who are trying to express their inability to sleep, this is it.
9. 朝飯前 (あさめしまえ)
Translation: I’ll do it before I eat breakfast
I’m not sure how early you wake up in the mornings, but generally a task that you finish before you eat breakfast is considered fairly easy. In English, we use ‘a piece of cake’ so you can use this phrase in the same context when speaking Japanese.
Translation: Don’t get taken advantage of
Ready for the literal translation for this phrase? It’s: “Don’t feed your daughter in law autumn aubergines.” Yeah, don’t ask.
Translation: Counting the skins of raccoons you haven’t caught
Quite the visualization, we know. But the point is clear: don’t get excited about something that you haven’t achieved yet. This is an important phrase to remember for all the overly optimistic or confident people that love to talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
Translation: Fall down seven times, stand up eight
This is one of our favorite Japanese sayings because it’s a traditional optimistic saying that we also use in English. No matter what life throws at us, and how many times we fall down, as long as keep getting up, we’ll see success.
Translation: Wake from death and turn to life
Another very optimistic expression. Wake from dead to turn into life means that you’re turning a very deadly situation into a positive one (into life). Hopefully you’ll never have to face a situation that’s this awful, but you know what to tell yourself when it happens.
Translation: The child of a frog is a frog
Like father like son.
Translation: You have a strong network (Literal: You have a wide face)
When you tell someone that they have a wide face in Japanese, you may see some smiles or blushing. If you don’t literally mean it, they know that you’re telling them they’re very well connected. They’re known as super-connectors, who are always running into people wherever they go.
Translation: Action before words
If there’s anything that defines the work ethic of the Japanese culture, this is it. They believe in talking less and doing more, and it’s how workers are rewarded. You’ll rarely hear flashy sales pitches and presentations in the working culture, and it’s far more about building real relationships and getting things done.
Translation: Not knowing is buddha
Another way to say ‘ignorance is bliss.’ Personally, I like the Japanese way far better. What about you?
Translation: Two bodies, one heart
Such a cute saying to describe the love and connection two people have. It’s similar to how people say ‘you’re the missing half of my heart’ in English. If you want to take your relationship with a Japanese person to the next level, you know what to say 😉
Translation: Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow
What this mean is that tomorrow is another day. A very optimistic expression to describe the importance of looking forward and moving on, no matter how bad today was.
Translation: My hand is coming out of my throat
From the visualization alone, you can imagine what this may mean. Yes, it means that you want something so bad that your hands are coming out of your mouth. It could be clothing that you’ve been eyeing, a beautiful woman/man, or anything that you’re craving.
Translation: It won’t hurt to put him/her in my eyes
Ouch. We know how painful it is to put anything in your eyes. Even when the wind blows and a piece of sand particle gets in your eye, we’re dying from pain and discomfort. By saying that you want to put him/her in your eyes without it hurting, you’re expressing how cute and loving something is. Next time you see a beautiful baby or animal, this is the perfect phrase to say.
Translation: Like gold coins to a cat
Coins mean nothing to a cat, despite it having great value in our world. This is a way of saying that you’re wasting precious beauty to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate it.
Translation: Brew and drink the dirt from under someone’s fingernails
When you adore and respect someone so much that you’d be willing to drink from their dirty fingernails. It’s quite raw and rather disgusting, but the message is clear.
Translation: Putting on a cat
If there’s one precious face that we can’t resist, it’s a kitten/cat. When someone tries to act innocent after someone accuses them of something, you can say they’re ‘猫を被る.’ We all know that innocent face that one tries to put on.
Translation: One life, one encounter (In modern English: YOLO – You only live once)
This is an equivalent saying to how we love to say: ‘you only live once.’ Most of these situations lead to people jumping out of airplanes or bungee jumping, but hopefully it inspires you to take smarter risks too.
Speaking of, since you only live one life, why not make the most of it by learning how to speak Japanese?
Which of these Japanese Expressions were your favorite?
Now that we’ve shared with you the 25 greatest and most authentic Japanese idioms and expressions, let us know which one you prefer most. Can you see yourself using any of these in real life or even bringing into your regular English conversations?
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