Occidentalism
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Japanese and Korean proverbs

May 14th, 2006 . by Matt

Back when I used to be interested enough in language I wrote this based on the work of Professor Maeda, who is a Japanese specialist of the Korean language. I had written this for non-Japanese people like myself who had come to learn Korean through Japanese and wanted to build on the strengths they had acquired by learning Japanese. My interest was highest right when I got back from Japan, and it was then that I wrote this. However, life back in my home country dulled my interest in learning foreign languages, especially since there was no immediate need to do so. Still, I hope that others will find this useful.

Here is a list of idioms that are mostly shared by Korea and Japan, although sometimes the meanings are different, in interesting ways. The list was compiled by Professor Maeda. I added the English meanings.


In the event that the Chinese characters used in Korea and Japan for a given proverb is identical, the 한국 한자 will be omitted

日 本語 Korean English meaning
悪戦苦闘 악 전고투 악전고투 끝에 마침내 국가 고시에 합격했다.(小) hard fighting
安心立命 안심입명
暗中模索 암중모색 暗中摸索 사건의 단서가 없어 수사는 암중모색이다.(小) groping in the dark
意気消沈 의기소침 그는 심한 꾸중을 듣고 의기소침했다.(小) depressed in spirits; dispirited; disheartened; rejection
意気衝天 의기충천 in high spirits
意気投合 의기상투 意気相投 (意気投合의기투합)もあり hit it off with (a person); find a kindred spirit in (a person); sympathy; mutual understanding
意気揚々 의기양양 의기양양한 얼굴(プ) triumphant; exultant; in high spirits
異口同音 이구동성 異口同聲 이구동성으로 찬성을 외치다.(プ) in concert; with one voice; unanimously
以心伝心 이심전심 이심전심으로 통한다.(小) telepathy; tacit understanding; communion of mind with mind; sympathy
一意専心 일심전력 一心専力 single-mindedly; wholeheartedly; with one’s heart and soul
一期一会 No equivalent four-character idiom for this time only; never again; one chance in a lifetime
一日千秋 일일여삼추 一日如三秋 (wait) impatiently; (spend) many a weary day
一部始終 자초지종 自初至終 사건의 자초지종을 털어놓다.(プ) full particulars; the whole story
一望千里 일망무제 一望無際 일 망무제의 사막.(小) the boundless (ocean)
一網打尽 일망타진 마약 밀수단이 일망타진되었다.(小) a big haul; roundup; wholesale arrest; catching the whole herd with one throw
一喜一憂 일희일비 一喜一悲 물론 IMF의 전망에 일희일비할 필요는 없다.(中) now rejoice, now worry; alternate hope and fear; mixed blessings; joys and sorrows
一挙両得 일거양득 구 경도 시켜주고 선물까지 준다니 정말 일거양득이군.(小) killing two birds with one stone; serving two ends
一騎当千 일기당천 일 기당천의 용사(プ) matchless (warrior); mighty (player, fighter, combatant)
一刻千金 일각천금 very valuable time
new 一瀉千里 일사천리 기소된 뒤 일사천리로 진행된 비상군법회의에서 사형선고를 받았다.<한> one swift effort; rush through one’s work; fast-talking, writing, etc.
一触即発 일촉즉발 일 촉즉발의 긴장이 감돌다.(小) critical (touch and go) situation; explosive situation
一進一退 일진일퇴 일 진일퇴의 공방전.(小) now advancing and now retreating; ebb and flow; seesawing; fluctuating
一心不乱 일심불란 일심불란으로 공부한다(プ) wholeheartedly; intently; with undivided attention
一石二鳥 일석이조 일 석이조를 노린 계략.(小)そのまま使いますが和製四字熟語 killing two birds with one stone
一朝一夕 일조일석 일 조일석에 성공할 수 없다.(小) in a day; in a brief space of time
一長一短 일장일단 사 람은 누구에게나 일장일단이 있는 법이다.(プ) merits and demerits; (something having its) advantages and disadvantages; good points and shortcomings
威風堂々 위풍당당 위 풍당당한 행진 .(プ) majestic; pomp and circumstance
意味深長 의미심장 의 미심장한 한마디.(小) profound (often hidden) meaning; pregnant with significance
因果応報 인과응보 죄 가 있어서 파멸하는 것은 너무나 당연한 인과응보요, 거기에 비극은 없다(연) retribution; karma
右往左往 우왕좌왕 지 진으로 뛰쳐나온 사람들이 우왕좌왕한다.(プ) move about in confusion; go every which way; going right and left; this way and that
紆余曲折 우여곡절 우 여곡절을 거쳐 해결한다.(プ) turns and twists; ups and downs; meandering; complications; vicissitudes
雲散霧消 운산무소 vanishing like mist
海千山千 산전수전 山戦水戦 日本語は「海で千年、山で千年生きたように 老練なこと」。韓国語は「山でも戦い、水でも戦ったほど世間のあらゆる労苦を経験したこと」。 a sly old dog; an old fox
栄枯盛衰 영고성쇠 영 고성쇠의 역사.(小) ups and downs of life; vicissitudes of fortune
温故知新 온 고지신 developing new ideas based on study of the past; learning from the past
快刀乱麻 쾌도난마 solving a problem swiftly and skillfully
佳人薄命 가인박명 beauty and luck seldom go together
花鳥風月 화조풍월 the beauties of nature
我田引水 아전인수 seeking one’s own interests; straining (the interpretation or argument) to suit one’s own interests; drawing water for one’s own field
夏炉冬扇 No Korean equivalent summer fires and winter fans; useless things
換骨奪胎 환골탈태 意味用法が違います★日本語では詩句を変え て自作に見せかける悪い意味で使い、韓国語では、すっかり入れ替えて生まれ変わるといういい意味で使います。
勧善懲悪 권선징악 rewarding good and punishing evil; a novel or drama with a rewarding-good-and-punishing-evil theme; moral purpose; morality play
危機一髪 위기일발 위기일발에서 벗어났다(小) by a hair’s breath; in the nick of time; be touch and go; be a close call; critical moment
起死回生 기사회생 revival of the dead; recovering from a hopeless situation; resuscitation
疑心暗鬼 의심암귀 Suspicion will raise bogies; Once you suspect something, everything else will look suspicious
奇想天外 기상천외 기상촌외한 발상(小) a fantastic idea; bizarre
玉石混交 옥석혼효 good and bad in a hopeless jumble; a jumble of wheat and tares
空前絶後 공전절후 (so marvelous or horrible that it may be) the first and probably the last
荒唐無稽 황당무계 환당무계한 이야기(小) absurdity; nonsense; preposterous
呉越同舟 오월동주 bitter enemies (placed by fate) in the same boat
五臓六腑 오장육부 the internal organs
五里霧中 오리무중 수사는 오리무중이다(小) 비 라덴이 여전히 오리무중이지만 <K>という用例を聞きました。<새>には「범인의 행방이 오리무중이다」という用例が挙がっています。とすると日本語の「方針や見込みが全く立たないこと」<大辞>という使い方と違いますね。
言語道断 언어도단 폭력을 쓰다니 언어도단이다(小) outrageous; preposterous; inexcusable; absurd
試行錯誤 시행착오 trial and error
自業自得 자업자득 paying for one’s mistakes; getting one’s just deserts; suffering the consequences (of one’s own actions); reap what you sow
1/11 弱肉強食 약 육강식 そのまま使います。ちょっと意味が違います が,적자생존(適 者生存)もよく使うようです。 The survival of the fittest; the law of the jungle
縦横無尽 종횡무진 종횡무진 대활약 freely; right and left; as one pleases
取捨選択 취사선택 selection; making a choice; decision to adopt or reject
枝葉末節 지엽말절 unimportant details (lit: branches and leaves); inessentials
支離滅裂 지리멸렬 incoherent; inconsistent; illogical
心機一転 심기일전 심기일전하여 분발한다 change of attitude
針小棒大 침소봉대 사건을 침소봉대하여 말한다 exaggeration; making a mountain out of a molehill
晴耕雨読 청경우독 working in the field in fine weather and reading at home in rainy weather; living in quiet retirement dividing time between work and intellectual pursuits
絶体絶命 절체절명 절체 절명의 위기에 놓이다 a desperate situation; be driven into a corner
前代未聞 전대미문 전대미문의 사건 unheard-of; unprecedented; unparalleled in history; record-breaking
糟糠の妻 조강지처 韓国では本妻の意味で使われることもありま す。
大器晩成 대기만성 Great talents mature late
大胆不敵 대당무쌍 大胆無双 대담 무쌍한 행동 audacity; daredevil (attitude)
大同小異 대동소이 대동 소이한 의견 essentially the same with only minor differences
単刀直入 단도직입 단도 직입적으로 질문하다. (単刀直入的に) going right to the point; point-blank; without beating about the bush; frankness
朝三暮四 조삼모사 being preoccupied with immediate (superficial) differences without realizing that there are no differences in substance
津々浦々 방방곡곡 坊々曲々 日本で作られた四字熟語 all over the country; throughout the land; every nook and cranny of the land
電光石火 전광석화 전광석화와 같은 날랜 솜씨 (小) lightning speed
天地無用 ありません 無用には「不必要」と「してはならない」の 意味がありますが、韓国語では「してはならない」という意味はありません。「口外無用」、「問答無用」は韓国では使えません。
同工異曲 동공이곡 equal workmanship but different style
東奔西走 동분서주 돈을 구하려고 동분서주한다 (小) busy oneself about (something); be on the move; bestirring oneself; on the go; taking an active interest
左見右見 좌고우면 左顧右眄
内憂外患 내우외환 troubles both at home and abroad
日進月歩 일진월보 steady progress; rapid advance
日常茶飯 일상사(日常事) か다반사(茶飯事)のどちらかで使います an everyday occurrence
二人三脚 이인삼객 日本語由来か a three-legged race
二律背反 이율배반 antinomy; self-contradiction
背水之陣 배수진 背水陣 배수진을 치다. 韓国では三字熟語。배수지진とも
馬耳東風 마이동풍
八方美人 팔방미인 ※Caution: The Korean meaning if this proverb is “a person that can do anything; multi-talented” and is complementary, unlike the Japanese meaning one who is affable to everybody; a flunky; person beautiful from all angles; everybody’s friend
美辞麗句 미사여구 flowery words; rhetorical flourishes
品行方正 품행방정 irreproachable conduct
風前之灯 풍전등화 風前灯火
付和雷同 부화뇌동 following blindly; following suit without reflection
粉骨砕身 분골쇄신 making one’s best exertions
傍若無人 방약무인 arrogance; audacity; (behaving) outrageously as though there were no one around; insolence; defiance; overbearing
本末転倒 본말전도 본말전도되다 failing to properly evaluate the (relative) importance (of); putting the cart before the horse; mistaking the cause for the end; mistaking the insignificant for the essential
三日坊主 작심삼일 作心三日 三日坊主は和製四字熟語 one who can stick to nothing; unsteady worker
無我夢中 무아몽중 be absorbed in; lose oneself in
無芸大食 ありません lacking the talent to do anything but eat
無味乾燥 무미건조 dull and uninteresting; cut-and-dried
優柔不断 우유부단 shilly-shally; indecisiveness
悠悠自適 유유자적 (live in) quiet and comfortable retirement free from worldly cares
油断大敵 ありません あえて言えば「방심은 금물」(放心は禁物) Unpreparedness is one’s greatest enemy; He that is too secure is not safe
用意周到 용의주도 very careful; thoroughly prepared
余裕綽々 여유작작 calm and composed; have enough and to spare
立身出世 입신출세 success in life
流言飛語 유언비어 流言蜚語 飛語は蜚語の代用字 false rumors or report
竜頭蛇尾 용두사미 a strong beginning and a weak ending; an anticlimax
良妻賢母 현모양처 賢母良妻 順序が違うのがミソ。母が前なのはいかにも 韓国らしい。 good wife and wise mother
臨機応変 임기응변 adapting oneself to the requirements of the moment; playing it by ear
老若男女 남녀노소 男女老少 남녀노소를 불문하고 men and women of all ages

4 Responses to “Japanese and Korean proverbs”

  1. comment number 1 by: georgyporgy

    Dear Matt,

    Thank you very much for providing us with such an intereting forum.
    I have found this posting to be very useful for those who are struggling with the Korean language like me.
    When I was in the US, I was surprised at the fact that many non-Asian researchers in Asian studies have a very good command of both Japanese and Korean (and sometimes Chinese as well). It is just as if I were fluent in English and German and/or French at the same time, which is simply unimaginable!
    I have also been interested in how 四字熟語 are used in Japanese and Korean (and Chinese).
    Here is my attempt to fill in the blanks in the list that you have posted above.

    1. Contra Prof. Maeda’s note, 換骨奪胎 does not necessarily have a negative connotation like plagiarism. Rather, according to 大辞林 dictionary, it means: inspired by others’ themes and phrases in poetry or prose, one creates a brand-new original writing (even better than the original).

    2. 五里霧中 is also used in Japanese in the same way as in Korean. It means: totally lost, or completely at a loss as to in what direction to go.

    3. 糟糠の妻 means one’s wife who have persevered hardships together with him (who have made a success by now). 糟 means sake lees, and 糠 means rice bran, both of which represent a very poor diet that the couple had endured in poverty.

    4. 天地無用

  2. comment number 2 by: georgyporgy

    (continued)
    4. 天地無用 (usually talking of a percel or laggage) means: “this side up” or “do not turn over.”

    5. 背水の陣 originally means: with a water behind one’s back, one is in a do or die situation without being able to make a retret from an enemy or a dificulty.

    6. 馬耳東風 means: turning one’s deaf ear to something, or something (such as others’ advice) go in one ear and out of the other.

    7. 風前の灯 means: at the verge of bankrupcy or failure (as if a candle fire is about to go away in a strong wind at any moment).

    I hope this helps.

  3. comment number 3 by: sewing

    Matt, this is great. Thanks for pointing me to it. 四字熟語 are definitely one of the most challenging things anyone can try learning in Korean or Japanese.


  4. […] I hope this post encourages language learners. Learning language used to be a great passion of mine. I am glad to be getting back into it. […]