A duck approaches – Japanese phrases, part one

by Stratton Craig

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As the resident intermediate Japanese speaker here at Stratton Craig, I’m fairly lucky in being able to come up with unique turns of phrase in more than one language. Japan has a bit of a reputation for being difficult to understand, and that applies to the culture as much as the local parlance.

Language barriers

‘Lost in Translation’ is more than a film title – subtle nuances in speech sometimes say more than the sentence itself. ‘Let me think about it’ is quite often used when the speaker really means ‘no way in hell’, and if you manage to get a direct ‘no’ out of someone then you’re really in trouble.

The Japanese name for an idiom is ‘kotowaza’ (ことわざ), which itself just means ‘proverb’. Not quite as exciting a meaning as these:

The example from this blog’s title is ‘kamo ga negi wo shottekuru’, typically shortened to ‘kamonegi’.


It means “What a stroke of luck!” or “Here comes a sucker” – but literally means “A duck approaches, carrying a leek on its back”.

Tasty wordplay

In another food-based example, if you want to tell someone to hop it, then you could always say ‘toufu no kado ni atama wo butsukete shine’.


It’s a little long, but the translation’s longer: ‘go bash your head on a block of tofu and die’. Nice.

Have you ever heard that “honey is sweet, but the bee stings”? If you’ve heard it in Japanese, you’ll be more accustomed to saying ‘I want to eat fugu, but I value my life’: ‘fugu wa kuita shi inochi ha oshi shi’.


The general gist of both of these phrases is that actions have consequences.

And if you’re stuffed to the gills with kotowaza at this point, I’ll leave you with ‘benjomeshi’.


It’s a word that’s lost in translation, with the meaning ‘eating lunch in a toilet cubicle to avoid interacting with other people’.

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