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10 Common Japanese Idiomatic Phrases

Posted by on August 12, 2009 in Japanese Phrases, Japanese words | 5 comments

Japanese idioms


Today, I want to show you a couple of very common Japanese idiomatic phrases (慣用句).  Japanese people use them quite often in conversations, but for those who are just learning Japanese it can be hard to understand. In fact, I had never heard the phrase “a piece of cake” until I actually lived in the states.

1. 揚げ足をとる (あげあしをとる, age ashi wo toru)
To grab a flying foot. In Judo, getting opponent’s foot up in the air is used to make them fall on the ground.
Meaning: To jump on someone’s mistakes

2. 頭に来る (あたまにくる, atama ni kuru)
Coming towards the head.
Meaning: To get upset or angry

3. 会わせる顔がない (あわせるかおがない, awaseru kao ga nai)
No face to show
Meaning: Too ashamed to meet someone

4. 肩の荷が下りる (かたのにがおりる, kata no ni ga oriru)
Take the load off your shoulders
Meaning: To feel relaxed by being free from obligation or responsibility

5. 体を張る (からだをはる, karada wo haru)
Holding your body tightly
Meaning: To do something as if it is for your life

6. 口が軽い (くちがかるい, kuchi ga karui)
A light mouth.
Meaning: To be too talkative and unable to keep a secret

7. 小耳に挟む (こみみにはさむ, komimi ni hasamu)
Putting between little ears
Meaning: To hear a little bit about something from somebody

8. 手を抜く (てをぬく, te wo nuku)
Pulling a hand out
Meaning: To do a sloppy job

9. 長い目で見る (ながいめでみる, nagai me de miru)
Looking with long eyes
Meaning: To look after things for a long time

10. のどから手が出る (のどからてがでる, nodo kara te ga deru)
A hand comes out of your mouth
Meaning: desperately wanting something

This list of Japanese idioms all involve a part of the body. Keep checking back as I will be listing more Japanese idioms in later posts.

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  1. avatar

    Actually, these are not ことわざ (kotowaza) but in fact 慣用句 (kanyouku), as they are idiomatic expressions rather than proverbs, and as such can be used in a variety of ways (e.g. I was very angry, he might be very angry, etc.). Kotowaza, on the other hand, like proverbs in English, are set phrases. Examples of kotowaza would be 『猿も木から落ちる』, “even monkeys fall from trees,” meaning that even skilled people make mistakes, and 「苦しい時の神頼み」, “praying to God in difficult times,” the Japanese equivalent of “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Since kanyouku are often used, they are important to learn; kotowaza are not quite as commonly seen but can add a lot of variety to your conversation. Knowing the difference between the two is also important.

  2. avatar

    Thank you Libby.
    You are right. These are not Kotowaza, but Kanyouku. I’ve change the title.

  3. avatar

    Thank you, Eri, for this article, and thanks to Libby for the correction. Working in a Japanese company I inadvertently used a few of these 慣用句 without being aware of it! But, most of these are new to me and should be very useful.

  4. avatar

    Daniel, I am glad that you found them helpful. BTW, what company do you work for?

  5. avatar

    I’m a reference librarian trying to answer a patron’s request. He’s wanting to know how in Japanese it may be said: “many paths to travel” or something very similar. Thank you.