Japanese Language and Samurai Aesthetics

I have written a number of entries about the Japanese sword and Japanese idioms, which has gained much more response than I had imagined. For this edition, I would like to take things a little broader, focusing not only on the sword but on the “samurai” as we explore more idiomatic expressions. Some of these are still used in everyday conversation, whereas some have become archaic, but they all artfully express the samurai or the bushi way of life.

Hana wa sakura-gi hito wa bushi (Cherry-blossoms are to flowers what bushi are to men)
Among flowers cherry blossoms are the most beautiful, and among men bushi are the best. This expression captures how cherry blossoms bloom and fall quickly, and how bushi also meet their death courageously. A samurai of the Nabeshima clan named Jocho Yamamoto wrote in his famous literary work Hagakure: “The way of the samurai is found in his death”. This reflects the aesthetics of death held at the time.

Hara ga hette wa ikusa wa dekinu (Can’t fight a battle while hungry)
The meaning is quite literal – if you are hungry you cannot do your best in whatever you are doing. Often someone would bring a gift of food to someone before an important event with these words.

Ochimusha wa susuki no ho nimo ozu (A defeated warrior fears even the silver grass)
A warrior who is fleeing after losing in battle fears even the silver grass blowing in the wind. This is used for someone who is so suspicious that he will “jump at shadows”. A similar expression in Japan is “Yurei no shotai mitari kare-obana” (The ghost turned out to be silver grass).

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Hitai ni ya wa tatsu tomo sobira ni ya wa tatazu (One may take an arrow on his forehead but not on his back)
A samurai may receive arrow wounds on his forehead, but not on his back. If he is wounded in his back it means was shot while his back was facing the enemy. This idiom means that a samurai should never expose his fact. Now it is used to express one’s determination to not turn back no matter what.

Bushi wa kuwanedo taka-yoji (A samurai uses a toothpick like a Lord even when he has not eaten)
Even if a samurai cannot eat, he would use a toothpick as though he has eaten, so not to let others know that he is hungry. This has developed into the present meaning of living with honor despite poverty. Occasionally this is used to ridicule those showing “fake stoicism”.

Ichi-go tottemo bushi wa bushi (Even with only 1 go, a samurai is still a samurai)
A go is an old unit measuring about 180 ml, and it was used as payment toward samurai. Even if a samurai only received 1 go, he is still a samurai. It is used even today to express that men should still hold pride and honor as men, in a similar way to the previous “bushi wa kuwanedo taka-yoji”.

From these examples we can see that the samurai aesthetics placed a lot of value in honorable living. Living with honor, rather than simply for profit, may be just as important to us living in our present time.