Japanese is filled with quirky expressions which are commonly used for something deeper than their literal meaning. In this post I’d like to talk about an expression which I recently heard spoken by a Japanese person that caught me off guard.
The expression is ”Xに足を向けて寝られない” which literally means “cannot sleep with feet/legs pointing towards X”, where “X” is a person.
I heard an older gentleman use this phrase with respect to a family member who had done many favors for him. When I asked him to explain he said that it meant he really respected this person.
Further researching this phrase online, I came across this post (in Japanese) where a girl’s boyfriend says this expression to her, apparently because of all the things she does for him. Assuming that this girl was a native Japanese person, we can infer that this expression isn’t used that commonly anymore since she had to make an internet post just to understand the meaning, though this is just a guess.
One of the answers to her post said “恩を感じないと使えません”. The key word here is 恩 (“on”) which means “favor”, “obligation”, or “moral indebtedness”. So translating the answer loosely results in “This phrase isn’t used unless you feel an obligation towards that person”.
If you want a simple explanation, just think of “Xに足を向けて寝られない” meaning “I am very indebted to X”.
When I first tried to imagine what “足を向けて寝る” means, I thought that it meant sleeping lying next to someone, but turning your feet towards them so your toes now point towards that person. However, I checked with another Japanese person who said the meaning is more like you are sleeping such that your legs are pointing in the direction of that person. Part of the confusion here is that the word “足” can mean “foot” or “leg” (see my article on this topic here).
A friend of mine once was told that he shouldn’t point his feet towards a buddha statue when sitting down on the floor, because that would be disrespectful. Maybe this is somehow related?
Interesting connection. I think it is probably the same principle at play in your example. I did a quick search and found several sites which allude to that. Here is one:
“Pointing your feet toward the altar or teacher is regarded as disrespectful.”