Japanese Proverbs, by David Galef
“It need not surprise us, though it should interest us, that the same proverbs are to be found in very different cultures. That not all the proverbs of one culture are to be found in another need not surprise us either, and it should interest us very much. It demonstrates that the concerns of the two are not identical. It ought to shake us a little from our parochialism.”
—from the preface by Edward Seidensticker
And for such a complicated world, we can be parochial indeed. This week’s free book is David Galef’s new Japanese Proverbs. A fresh edition that combines his previous two collections: Even Monkeys Fall from Trees (1987) and Even a Stone Buddha Can Talk (2000), this single volume includes 200 Japanese kotowaza (諺), sumi-e style illustrations by Jun Hashimoto, a new introduction by the author, and the original preface (excerpted above) to Even Monkeys Fall from Trees by renowned scholar and translator Edward Seidensticker.
My own observation of Japanese proverbs is that the one about the nail sticking up getting hammered down (which is in this collection) has been repeated so often in Western ears that it has created a somewhat lopsided view of Japan as relentlessly conformist. Japanese culture is, of course, as nuanced and multifaceted as any on earth, and in this book the Japanese heart is on full display.
In 月夜に米の飯 (A meal of rice under the evening moon), we see the Japanese appreciation for simplicity. The phrase一寸の虫にも五文の魂 (Even a one-inch insect has a half-inch soul) captures both the wry humor of Japan and something of its traditional Buddhist regard for life. In the one phrase 失敗は成功の母 (Failure is the mother of success), we read both Japan’s perseverance as well as its commitment to learning. Japan’s surprisingly earthy sensibility is captured in 善き分別は雪隠で出る (Wise judgment comes when on the toilet). One apt for all of us here perhaps (adults learning foreign languages) is 八十の手習い (Calligraphy practice at 80); i.e., the idea that you’re never too old to learn. (See my post on 10/18 on why language learning is like calisthenics for the brain as we age.)
All of the proverbs in this book are presented three ways: in the original kanji and kana form, in romaji, and in English so that you can enjoy them at any level of Japanese knowledge. For a chance to win this book, just write me a note at email@example.com and put “Free Book Friday” in the subject line!