“nazo nazo” (Hiragana: なぞなぞ or Kanji: 謎謎) are word puzzles, enjoyed by Japanese children and adults alike.
In this post let’s look at two of these nazo nazo. For each one I’ll first give the puzzle in the original Japanese, followed by my translation. Then I’ll give a hint, and finally the answer.
It’s closed when something passes through, and open when something isn’t. What is it?
It’s dangerous when something passes through so it closes!
踏切 (fumikiri) – train crossing gate
When the train passes through, the gate closes so nobody gets hurt, and when the train is not passing through the gate opens so people and cars can cross the tracks.
This puzzle relies on a trick whereby the subject is omitted for the verb “to pass through” (通る, tooru). You are led to believe that something is passing through the object itself (i.e. the answer), but in reality something is passing through space in front of you (on the train tracks).
What is the thing you hug before you eat?
You could say it is a phrase said before eating…
板 (ita) = plate
This is a play on words, and requires understanding the Japanese people say “itadakimasu” before eating to show respect for their food. This word literally means “to receive” and it’s non-polite form would be “itadaku”.
“ita” is a word for plate (it also means things with a similar shape like a board or plank). One word for hug is “daku”（抱く)
The pun comes from the fact that “ita” plus “daku” sounds like “itadaku”.
So to summarize, before eating a meal Japanese people will “ita daku” (“itadaku”) which means they “hug the plate”. In Japanese the direct object comes before the verb which is why the order is reversed compared to English (where the object comes after the verb).
As you can see, these puzzles are fundamentally similar to English word puzzles. They are good breaks to your more “serious” Japanese study since they provide a nice challenge, while teaching you more about the language and culture of Japan.
Both of these puzzles are listed as “beginner level” (初級), and the average Japanese middle schooler could probably solve them with a little thought. I’l admit I’m very bad at these, wasn’t able to solve either before I gave up.
To find more of these you can search for “なぞなぞ” on your favorite search engine, or just start with the site I excerpted these two from (here) which contains over 200 puzzles.
To close, I’ll give one more puzzle. Try to first understand the question’s meaning and then get creative about the answer. This one is based on wordplay of a certain verb that is overloaded (has several meanings) in Japanese.