Beware of fake Japanese proverbs

By | June 2, 2021

When learning a foreign language, it’s generally a good idea to learn some proverbs, what we call “kotowaza” (諺) in Japanese. It’s not just because they are a fun way to learn new words in context, but also because proverbs can express meaningful ideas in a concise form that often reflects that country’s history and culture.

The other day I came across this phrase being referenced as a Japanese proverb:

  • 小打も積もれば大木を倒す (shouda mo tsumoreba taiboku wo taosu)

There are a few ways to translate this, for example: “With many little strokes a large tree is felled” (source).

On the surface, this makes sense; not only is the phrase logical, but the grammar seems relatively sound. Surely, this is a centuries-old Japanese proverb, right?

Well, it turns out I first saw this phrase in a random context where I wasn’t expecting Japanese, and when my eyes ran across it, starting (of course) from the left, I initially thought it was Chinese. The reason is that I had never seen the word “小打” before. Sure enough, a search through several Japanese dictionaries showed 0 hits, with a few of the top hits on Google in Chinese. Searching for the phrase as a whole showed mostly explanations in English, and very little in Japanese. There was even one person saying on a forum in English that this phrase wasn’t Japanese, which is exactly what I was suspecting. However, there wasn’t much of a detailed explanation for that, so I decided to do some more research myself.

Besides posting on Oshiete Goo about this in Japanese, I also asked a few native Japanese speakers off the Internet. Yappari, none of the natives said this was a typical proverb in Japan. I only got two responses to the Oshiete Goo post, but one of them seems to agree with my conclusion that the phrase is not likely of Japanese origin. (The other goes into some story about cutting trees, which seems to be not actually directly relevant to the question of whether this is an authentic Japanese proverb.)

Based on the above, it seems somewhat clear this phrase is not actually from Japan. But that makes you wonder how this arguably fake Japanese proverb came into existence. Did someone just make what sounded like a good proverb up from scratch, or did they translate it from another language? 

I am not sure if I will ever get to the bottom of what happened here, but if nothing else this is a lesson to double check any proverbs that someone claims are authentic. At minimum, I would recommend making sure the proverb is discussed on at least a handful of web pages in Japanese (though this is not a 100% guarantee of its authenticity).

To close, here is one authentic Japanese proverb that has a similar meaning (and was potentially the inspiration for the dubious one we just talked about):

  • 塵も積もれば山となる (chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru)
  • If enough dust accumulates it becomes a mountain.

By the way,  during this research I came across the argument that a “Japanese proverb” doesn’t actually have to come from Japan, since technically that can mean “a proverb in the Japanese language”, even if translated from some other language, or created recently. But if we start giving weight to such fake proverbs, the entire idea of historical or cultural significance is thrown out the window. 

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2 thoughts on “Beware of fake Japanese proverbs

  1. Jim Miles

    Great entry! It reminded me of one of our first interactions (almost four years ago!) when I wrote a little about three “Japanese proverbs” involving shrimp and you rightly questioned the veracity/authenticity of one of them. We got to the bottom of it in the end and it indeed turned out it was a load of rubbish XD haha

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      That’s funny, I completely forgot about that “shrimp” thing. I guess that proverb had a bit of a “fishy” smell to it (:

      Reply

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