Four Simple Characters That Educate and Inspire, Yojijukugo 四字熟語

Yojijukugo refers to Japanese compound words consisting of four kanji characters. The four-kanji compounds have a particular (idiomatic) meaning that cannot be inferred from the meanings of the components that make them up. There exists a very large number, perhaps tens of thousands, of four-character compounds. A great majority of them are those whose meanings can be easily deduced from the literal definition of their parts. Yojijukugo are often used to condense complex ideas into a few characters, making them both succinct and powerful. They can also be used as a way of expressing emotions or concepts without using long phrases.

Yojijukugo have been around since the Heian period in Japan and there is evidence that even older compound words existed prior to this. In modern times, yojijukugo are commonly found in literature, poetry, manga, the study of classical and martial arts and everyday conversation. By combining characters with different connotations into one word, it is possible to convey subtle meanings and emotions that would otherwise require lengthy explanations. Yojijukugo can be used as a way of expressing complex ideas more quickly, concisely, and effectively. For those interested in learning more about Japanese language. Yojijukugo can also provide insight into the culture of Japan by revealing deep-rooted values and beliefs that are embedded within these character combinations.

Today they are used extensively in newspaper headlines and other forms of written communication that require brevity. They are also often used as onomatopoeia definitions to convey emotions like sorrow and joy, as well as physical actions such as eating or sleeping. Additionally, yojijukugo are sometimes employed to give names to organizations or products, particularly when the name needs to sound important or interesting. For example, the familiar term “konbini” (convenience store) is actually an idiomatic yojijukugo composed of the characters for “convenient,” “beautiful,” “person,” and “store.” Finally, they are also used to give special emphasis in conversation or other forms of oral communication.

In short, yojijukugo are an integral part of the Japanese culture-based language, and their use is a testament to its richness, complexity and wisdom. As such, understanding them can be both enjoyable and rewarding for any student of the martial arts. With practice, it should become easier to recognize them when encountered in written or spoken form. Once these idiomatic four-character compounds become familiar, they will no doubt add new depth and nuance to your growing knowledge of Japanese Budo culture.

Here are some popular Yojijukugo that can be often seen on display in Dojo:

温故知新 On Ko Chi Shin – by examining old things, know new things. The past forges the future.

究道無限 Kyu Do Mu Gen – there is no end to learning. Endless path of practice and study.

守破離帰 Shu Ha Ri Ki – protect, detach, tranced, return.

森羅万象 Shinra banshou – all the things already exist in the universe. Your art is complete.

無念無想 Munen musou – to banish all other thoughts from one’s mind / to be free from all distracting thoughts.

以心伝心 Ishin denshin – heart-to-heart communication / to have a tacit understanding.

一期一会 Ichigo ichie – meeting only once in a lifetime / Every encounter is treasured because there may be no reunion.

行雲流水 Kouun ryusui – free heart without tenacity of purpose / taking things as they are. Simply be in the moment.

Next time you see a piece of calligraphy on display, try to look beyond the aesthetic and ponder the meaning or lesson intended. Appreciating the combination of visual art and wisdom that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Chibariyo ~ C.Borkowski