Kotowaza, Japanese proverbs, may take the form of a short saying, idiomatic phrase, or four-character idiom like On Ko Chi Shin 温故知新, “learn from the old to understand the new.”
These maxims express common truths or wisdom as guiding principles founded on concepts or shared experiences, i.e., “learning from those who have gone before.” Wait. Is that a kotowaza? Yup!
A few of my favourites include:
Saru mo ki kara ochiru. Even monkeys fall from trees.
I don’t think there is one budo expert who, during a moment of distraction, hasn’t forgotten a kata movement, dropped a weapon, or been bested by a student. While rare among advanced martial artists, these glitches are wonderful lessons in humility. Self-effacing seniors shake their heads, correct their mistakes, and move on. Conversely, less experienced practitioners might react with embarrassment, frustration, or anger.
Shitashiki naka ni mo reigi ari. Even between closest friends there are formalities.
In Japanese society and budo culture, time-honored conventions provide a defined and reassuring framework for social interaction. Depth of bow and use of formal titles demonstrate how much we value even our closest relationships and serve as teachable moments for participants and spectators.
Deru kugi wa utareru. The protruding nail is hammered down.
Although conformity is typically rejected as an outdated notion by the ME generation, in the dojo, this adage still holds true. The demeanor of a kind and nurturing sensei will shift in response to the student who says, “I saw a guy on YouTube, and he said what we are practicing is wrong.” There is a time, place, and courteous way to raise questions, and progressive instructors welcome dialogue.
Hone ori-zon no kutabire moke. Break your bones and earn only exhaustion.
Okinawan and Japanese martial artists believe in hard work as part of their daily training regimen, but over-training is counterproductive. Excessive conditioning that bolsters the ego can also diminish technical proficiency as our bodies weaken. True combat preparedness is not about withstanding punishment, but cultivating effective, practical, defensive skills.
Ichijo no ya wa orubeku, juji wa orubekarazu. One arrow can easily break. Ten arrows cannot be broken.
Once applied to military forces, today this proverb is associated with martial unity. Teachers and students working together toward a common purpose advance the training experience and overall welfare of the organization. Some members with divergent personal agendas come and go, but the dedicated nucleus will endure and strive for mutual benefit.
Makeru ga katchi. To lose is to win.
This might be the most confusing saying for martial artists to understand. Quite simply, there are moments when non confrontation and deference hold the keys to victory. If we present ourselves as too skillful, too strong, or too knowledgeable, others will probably feel uncomfortable or inadequate around us. Training in Okinawa, I quickly discovered that boasting or attempting to surpass seniors only makes you unpopular. Over many decades, I’ve had the honor of interviewing dozens of Okinawan masters. Access to these extraordinary budoka was possible only through the largesse of esteemed martial expert and historian, Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei. He graciously provided introductions, translation, and invaluable coaching. As we arrived at each appointment, he would remind me, “please knowledge down.” Translation: if you’re not a showboat, you’ll gain rather than win.
Bottomline: Kotowaza inform and guide us. As touchstones rather than anchors, they teach us the immeasurable worth of respect, humility, moderation, cooperation, and loyalty. I hope those shared above will inspire you to develop your own list – one that will enrich your life inside and outside the dojo.