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January 10, 2004

Women in Japanese Proverbs

There is a Japanese proverb which says (click for an image of the Japanese)
"Dawn doesn't break without a woman", or,
Japan is the land where dawn doesn't break without a woman. "

It refers to the Shinto myth in which the sun goddess, Amaterasu, hides in a cave and thus sends the world into eternal night, and means that Japan is the place where things don't go right unless there is a woman around. Thinking that perhaps the power of women might be expressed in Japanese proverbs I had a look around and came up with these:

One hair of a woman draws a great elephant
(or in the English tradition, more than a hundred yoke of oxen. )
Distant mountains move when wives speak.

But then looking on the Internet I found a paper on the subject in Japanese. There is also the famous book by Kitteridge Cherry

These argue, fairly convincingly, that Japanese proverbs about women tend to be damning. But at the same time they might testify to women's power.

For those that are interested in the position of women in Japanese (Shinto?) culture, here is as many as I could manage to translate.

Women's talk is limited to the village (that's all she knows)

Women's wisdom and a "red sky at night" are unreliable. (just as looking at the "Eastern" sky won't really tell you what tomorrow's weather will be, neither will there be anypoint in listening to the wisdom of women. It is about as reliable).

Women can't bow enough (or they should bow a lot, and ingratiate themselves)

Women's wisdom is as long as their nose (i.e. not very).

A bad wife is one hundred poor harvests (powerful but bad)

Don't show white teeth to a woman. Never smile at a woman. (or she will take advantage of you)

Wise women ruin cattle deals (because they are greedy, pushy, and loose sight of the big picture)

Women's wisdom arrives after the event (slow, & useless)

Women's strength and neckless stone Buddhas. (scarves are put on stone Buddhas, so neckless buddhas, and womenfs muscles are both useless. I think that this is referring to physical strength)

Don't be surprised by showing her arms or a morning shower. (both examples of slightly surprising, unsurprising things)

Women's bargains and numbers ending in 7 are not struck/dividable,

A bow drawn by a woman won't shoot (or hit the mark)

Women's eyes should be as big as bells (Men's should be as thin as twine).

Women's' toilet and ones circle of friends are best kept small.

Women should be flexible (and charming) in their dealings with people.

A Monk who takes offerings from the hand of a woman will be reborn as someone with 500 years without rest.

If you have three daughters your household will be bankrupt (because of their dowry).

Women fooling their husbands have more wisdom than men.

Women entering a room have 70 plots (Men entering a room have a lot of enemies.)

The tears of a courtesan (= crocodile tears).

Scared women and chilly cats are liars. (they are pretending)

The origin of women's wisdom is greed.

Women are messengers/angels of hell (and the downfall of many a man)

Even if you have seven children do not trust the heart of a woman.

Bad women pretend to be wise/kind

Women are wise in the ways of love.

Complaint is the way of woman

A woman's mouth never blooms (but says nasty things).

Women together lock horns.

A women's revenge is three times thick.

A women's resolve pierces stone.

Women's mind and autumn sky (A woman's mind and winter wind change often.)

Three women together make a din (the character for din is written using the character for woman thrice. Three women, and a goose, make a market.)

Women know the ways of women.

Women's minds are like cats eyes (roving, flitting all over).

Cold women and famish cats are sleight of hand.

Women are essentially water (changeable)

Women have 12 horns.

Icefish and women are not to be eaten after they breed (both are not tasty, apparently)

Jealous women will tell anything.

Women care about their clothes second to their lives.

Posted by timtak at January 10, 2004 05:31 PM

this is a great list, thanks for translating them. it probably would have added to your work load, but it would've been nice to also have the japanese (even romanized) so that one might try out some of these once in a while, or at least impress one's Japanese speaking friends :) ).

Posted by: Kurt at January 11, 2004 07:26 PM

Dear Kurt,

Can you read Kanji? All the proverbs are given in Kanji in the paper that I reference from the article. If you would like romanisations of some of them please let me know which ones. It does seem like a lot of work to do them all. And I did not want to put the Kanji in the article because I want it readable for those that don't have Japanese installed.

Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at January 11, 2004 07:40 PM

can you be sendind more of your proverbs??????

Posted by: EVA at August 15, 2004 04:09 AM

No I will not be sending more proverbs but the place to look is in the paper that I reference above, here:

Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at August 15, 2004 08:08 AM

i like everithing all things in japan, but small things.
i speak spanish.
i traveled to Japan two years ago and i loved.
i wanna learn your religión (SHINTO), culture and the soul.
and something english.
you can help me more informetión?


Posted by: ALEJANDRO at August 18, 2004 09:44 AM

Very interesting. I'm trying to get a better perspective on women's place in Japanese society, and this helps. Any other suggestions or comments? I was just there, and found young women taking the role of cute, little sex toys rather disturbing. They seem to embrace it without concern.
Any information is welcome.

Posted by: gary niemann at November 12, 2004 02:03 PM

Dear Gary
There are lots of books about the position of women in japan, many in English. Japan is a sort of heaven, hell, or favoured battle ground of Western gender studies researchers (particularly of the feminist persuasion). The last bastion of unashamed male chauvanism, where women are brainwashed into being sex toys and servants for men, or so they would have us believe.

However, if Japanese women are happy to play the role of sex toys it is perhaps because the expect men to be happy to play the role of "meal tickets" (a distruntled Western guy used that phrase today). Perhaps many Japanese men are happy to play that role. In any event gender relations are not as simple as they seem. Roles are in many ways divided, but the power relationship is not clear.

Please see John's comment here

But then again, are gender relationships are probably never clear.

There is too much to say. I would not know where to begin. I think that Anne Alison's book "Permitted and Prohibited Desires" is off the mark in its conclusions, a good start to show the complexity of Japanese gender relations.


Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at November 12, 2004 10:41 PM

blaaaaaaa blaaaa blaa bla bla bla bla bbbbbbbbbbbbbllllla this site is getting me nowhere

Posted by: blq at May 27, 2005 07:25 AM

Where would you like this site to get you? You might try asking some questions. Or joinging the shintoml mailing list.

Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at May 27, 2005 11:56 AM

I've enjoyed some of the snatches posted above. I've however been studying women and their great dislike of men's 'rabid' production of proverbs that tend to disparage feminine dignity. Can you publish an article on the subject, titled Feminists, Proverbs and Private Parts? Or would you rather direct me to some other journal/site?

Posted by: Adeleke A. Fakoya, PhD at August 8, 2006 08:28 AM

Sorry I don't think that I will be writing an article for you. Please see the book referenced above by Kitteridge Cherry for a feminist perspective on proverbs in Japan.

As for private parts...In Japan the words for womens private parts are more obscene than those for mens private parts. Neither are used (much, AKAIK) as figures of speech or for abuse.

In English words for male private parts are used to denote, stupidity and worthlessness, whereas those for women's private parts are sometimes used to denote something nastier, more immoral. In English too, a four letter word for a woman's private parts is said to be the most obscene word in the English language.

This goes against my theory that sexual taboo is focused more upon the feminine in Japan, whereas against the masculine in the West.

Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at August 11, 2006 07:44 PM

girls are good players of love; women are coaches.

Posted by: bijay kumar das at October 9, 2006 05:14 PM

Dear Mr. Takemoto,
I'm very interested in you article and i would like to build on it while preparing a small research in my University in Ukraine if you do not mind.
Unfortunately, I cannot see information from the link that you have given (in PDF format). Actually, I'm a student of applied linguistics, majoring in English and Japanese, so is it ok for you to give me some advice or hints how to go ahead with paremiological studies?
Best wishes,
Olha Hudz

Posted by: Olha Hudz at October 14, 2006 12:22 AM

I don't mind at all.
I guess that the link I gave no longer exists. I MAY have the file stored locally but I doubt it. I have no idea what paremiological means. So...I am not sure I can help.

Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at October 14, 2006 02:06 AM

Dear Mr. Takemoto,

Thank you for the interesting list of kotowaza. I especially thank you for citing the article (so I can grab the original Japanese versions :-) There is an article related to this topic which you might find interesting- I accessed it using JSTOR (academic database) but perhaps it's somewhere else online. Here's the citation:

Women in Japanese Proverbs, by Hiroko Storm
Asian Folklore Studies (C) 1992 Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan University

Thanks for the site,
Jennifer Walker

Posted by: Jennifer Walker at October 17, 2006 10:24 AM

Yhis page and work is great!!! It is very important to be reflect about proverbs and other folk genres. Thanxs for this tip.

Posted by: teresa at November 4, 2006 06:30 PM

Hi Takemoto
Proverbial wisdom is trasitory as solostice,but some of your proverbs have caused a number of grooves in my cerebrum.Thx

Posted by: Rakesh at February 28, 2007 01:35 AM