7 Japanese Sayings That Will Change the Way You See the World

Nicole Ann
9 min readMay 29, 2021

One word holds a magnitude of profound meaning and profuse emotion

“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Japanese — the culture and language that spring to life a rich linguistic and diverse semantic world of acceptance, fullness, poignance, poetic expression and paradox. Beyond the utterance of a single word or expression lies a deep and complex labyrinth of majestic meanings; most of which are not effortlessly translated to English.

Here are seven words and expressions that will help you open your eyes to a new world, and your mind, to a new reality:

1. Shouganai しょうがない (“It cannot be helped”)

Shouganai, which means “it cannot be helped” or “no one can change or fix it”, is more than solely an expression. It is a mentality of total acceptance of a situation that is out of your hands, or beyond your control. It pertains to the passive force of patience that a person adopts, in an unwholesome experience or event. An example would be, “The coronavirus has perpetuated a global pandemic. Shouganai.”

Another example of shouganai would be when your boss requests that you work over time, or complete a deadline on your day off. Many people from more individualistic, Western societies may argue that professional boundaries have been breached; that the work could wait, and you have the right to change this situation. Japan, however, is a more collectivist culture, so priority is generally given to the harmony of the group, over the desires of an individual.

A Western equivalent of shouganai could be “it is what it is”. If you missed the bus, you must patiently wait for another one. You cannot force your will onto life, so just accept what is.

2. Ikigai 生き甲斐 (“The realisation of what one expects and hopes for in life”)

Ikigai is commonly described as your “reason for being” or “what gets you out of bed in the morning”. Neuroscientist and author of The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi, explains that ikigai is about “discovering, defining and appreciating those of life’s pleasures that have meaning for you”.

This can be anything, from ardently cooking a gourmet meal, to painting a work of art, to writing a heartfelt letter to a loved one, or perhaps, simply planting a rosebush in your garden. Each person’s ikigai is unique; wonderfully idiosyncratic — simple or grand in the eyes of others, but simply grand, from the view of the beholder.

Western culture, too, has recently become besotted with ikigai. It frequently misrepresents the concept though; often indicating that your ikigai is something that should generate an income. While it is certainly true that pursuing what you are passionate about can lead to financial gain, this not a prerequisite, for it to be considered your ikigai.

Your ikigai could be practicing yoga before sunrise — but that will not necessarily lead you to becoming a fully-fledged instructor in Bali.

The English phrase “pursue your passion” highlights the wild emotion of passion as a driving force of life, while ikigai is more closely entwined with meaning and fulfilment. Essentially, ikigai is something (small or grand; paid or unpaid; work or leisure) that makes your life truly worth living.

3. Mono no Aware 物の哀れ (“The bittersweet poignancy of things”)

Mono no aware is also sometimes translated to “the ahh-ness of things”. It describes the bittersweet, yet beautiful, transience of life. Life is brisk and ephemeral — but perhaps, that is what evokes deeper and more earnest reverence of it, tinged with inevitable pathos.

A classic example of mono no aware in Japan is that of the sakura (cherry blossom). The exquisite sakura is prized for its soft musk ornamental beauty, and has a lifespan of just ten to fourteen days. People journey from wide and far for hanami (the experience of viewing cherry blossoms in full bloom), only for the flowers to be lying tawny and decrepit, on the ground, a few days later.

Homaro Cantu muses, “The cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” Haruki Murakami describes another, perhaps more poignant, instance of mono no aware:

“My footprints were being blown away before I even had a chance to turn and look at them.”

Somehow, the more nonchalant English expression “life is short” does not yield the same intensity of raw emotion as mono no aware.

4. Natsukashii 懐かしい (“Nostalgic; fondly remembered”)

Although natsukashii refers to a sense of yearning for the past, this is not necessarily in a melancholic context, as is the word ‘nostalgia’. Sumie Kawakami, a writer who works at Japan’s Yamanashi Gakuin University, describes natsukashii as “a bittersweet form of reminiscing”, while Professor Christine Yano asserts that it is longing in a “positive frame”.

This type of longing could be evoked by finding an old journal, a cherished photograph, or listening to a song from your youth. Although there may be a feeling of wistfulness, there also can be deep joy, appreciation and gratitude. You cannot return to the past, but you are fortunate enough to have the treasured experience, even if it now lives only as a memory.

Natsukashii also allows people to intimately connect with others, at a deeper level. It is not something experienced individually, but collectively. Kawakami states that sharing precious memories from the past helps strengthen bonds and connect people.

The English expression “the good old days” may be slightly similar to natsukashii, but according to Kawakami, it fails to capture the ‘togetherness’, or unity, of the collective experience.

5. Ichi-go ichi-e 一期一会 (“One time, one encounter”)

Ichi-go ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting”, is interpreted as treasuring each moment, for it will never reoccur. The concept dates back to the era of Sen no Rikyū, an esteemed tea master of the 16th century, who elevated the practice of the tea ceremony to a form of art. The phrase itself, however, was elaborated upon by tea master Ii Naosuke.

Ii Naosuke used ichi-go ichi-e to highlight the essence of savouring each moment of the tea ceremony. Naosuke allegedly faced threats of assassination, so he brewed, poured and tasted each cup of tea like it would be his last. He observed that each person in attendance of a tea ceremony should participate with authentic sincerity and awareness of its transience.

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s words emanate the spirit of ichi-go ichi-e:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.

The same crockery, utensils and customs may be used in each ceremony, but no moment can truly be replicated. Even with the same guests, in the same venue, the experience itself cannot be the same: everyone and everything around us, is subject to impermanence, regardless of how subtle and nuanced it may be.

Every ritual in the ceremony should be performed with the utmost sincerity, while each moment should be treasured by the host and guests alike. Ichi-go ichi-e is not limited to the tea ceremony: it is a philosophy that extends to all areas of an individual’s life.

The English expression “savour the moment” and the Latin aphorism “Carpe diem” (seize the day) serve as reminders for us to be fully present in the moment, but it is ichi-go ichi-e that awakens us to the reality that the moment will never return to us.

6. Ukiyo 浮世; 憂き世 (“Floating world; sorrowful world”)

Ukiyo 憂き世 (“the sorrowful world” or “world of melancholy”) has its roots in Buddhism, in the notion that life is transient and tainted with suffering. It was used in literature in the Heian period (794–1185), and the sentiment is poignantly reflected in poet Ōshikōchi no Mitsune’s work:

“Why ever come into this life to grow, young sprout — don’t you know sorrows flourish in this world as countless as the nodes on a bamboo stalk?”

Ukiyo 浮世 (“the floating world”) rose to prominence in the Edo period (1615–1868), during an infatuation with hedonism, extravagance, sensory pleasure, modernism, sophistication and stylishness. Courtesans and geisha flourished; as did entertainment districts, offering patrons an enticing world of fantasy, free-spiritedness and escapism. This renewed expression of ukiyo is expressed in Asai Ryoi’s contemplations:

“…living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”

While the English phrase “go with the flow” certainly captures the transient flow of life, it is the various facets of ukiyo that ignite an understanding of how language, culture and perspectives shift with the passage of time.

7. Wabi-sabi 侘寂 (a humble-like state with the passage of time)

Wabi-sabi has its roots in Zen Buddhism, and the two words were originally separate concepts. Wabi stems from wa, which denotes a sense of harmony. Wabi originally had a negative and more forlorn connotation, as it was linked with a hermit’s separation from society, but has since shifted to be more positively associated with something that is humble, modest and aligned with nature. Sabi originally pertained to desolateness, or being withered, but also reflects the inevitable passage of time.

Together, wabi-sabi is a gloriously exquisite concept that now merges together to form the philosophy of seeking and savouring beauty in imperfection and impermanence. While Western ideals of beauty include perfection and symmetry, wabi-sabi celebrates the understated beauty of simplicity, modesty, authenticity, and even decay.

In the Japanese tea ceremony of the 16th century; the era of wabi-sabi, rustic décor replaced that of opulent grandeur. An asymmetrical bowl with a chip or crack in it would be revered for its flaws and rough edges, which add a deeper layer of authenticity and beauty to the object. Potters started crafting deliberately asymmetrical wares to honour the movement of wabi-sabi.

There is no direct translation or definition of wabi-sabi. Nevertheless, author Leonard Koren expressed his own, while researching for his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers:

Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.

Director Guillermo del Toro observes, “There is beauty and humility in imperfection.” This philosophy merely scratches the surface of wabi-sabi, which ultimately entwines impermanence, imperfection, beauty, simplicity, and nature, with a disciplined mind that is able to observe and appreciate the relationship between these concepts.

The majority of these sentiments portray an intimate connection with impermanence and the inevitable passage of time. Each moment is precious; an opportunity to treat life with sincerity and authenticity, while yielding to the flow of nature, and opening one’s eyes to the rustic beauty of simplicity.

Essentially, taking the time to observe the labyrinthine philosophies and semantics of a new language and culture may not only revitalise your mind with additional concepts, but it may also remove the ones that do not serve you.

  • Disclaimer: I do not actually speak Japanese. These ideas are simply reflections of my research, interactions and conversations with Japanese friends and tutors, and deep interest in Japanese culture. DOMO ARIGATO.

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Nicole Ann

BA English/Religious Studies. Currently studying psychology.