Japanese Proverb: The samurai’s toothpick

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(Photo by Aramand Agasi)

By Greg Beck

Hello everyone. My name is Greg Beck and this year I’ll be writing a monthly Nihongo no Benkyou column focused on Japanese proverbs and idioms. This column will run on the second Monday of each month.

Keep in mind as you read this column that there are hundreds of Japanese proverbs and you may find that the Japanese people around you have never heard of some of them. But they will still get it if your timing and usage is on the mark.

In order to encourage beginners to practice their kana reading skills, I’m going to skip writing the Japanese in romanized characters.

Now, on to today’s topic: A Japanese proverb (日本の諺  /  にほんのことわざ)

Kanji: 侍の高楊枝

Kana: さむらいのたかようじ

Translation: The Samurai’s toothpick

Explanation: This saying refers, negatively, to the pride of people of status. たかようじ doesn’t directly translate as “toothpick”, but “using a toothpick after a big meal”. The inference is that the samurai actually has no food to eat, but is pretending all is well. This short, easy-to-remember proverb can be used when you see someone trying too hard to maintain appearances.

One comment

  • Ned

    Hi Greg,
    thanks for providing the original Japanese idiom of what I found in translation in Ruth Benedict’s well-known book “The Chrysantheum and the Sword”, which is quoted here, too (among other places on the internet):
    http://www.warbirdforum.com/benedict.htm
    p.104 “Baby birds cry for their food, but a samurai holds a toothpick between his teeth.”
    Would you possibly know the rest of the proverb, or did Benedict just invent the other bit about the baby birds?
    Thanks,
    Ned