What’s in a four-syllable phrase? Yojijukugo

A famous yojijukugo phrase by Saigō Takamori(1828-1877): 敬天愛人, keiten aijin (“Revere heaven, love people”). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Japanese as a language is somewhat unusual in that it belongs to its own language family¹ genetically but has inherited so much from the Asian mainland.  Chinese compound words make up a large bulk of Japanese vocabulary, even if the grammar and usage are entirely different, but that is not all.

Japanese inherited pithy four-syllable phrases from Chinese called yojijukugo (四字熟語).

Yojijukugo cover a wide range of topics and sentiments.  Most are kind of obscure and tend to imply a level of sophistication, like Latin or French phrases in English, others are so common that you hear them all the time.  Some come from specific phrases in ancient Chinese literature, while a small few even come from Indian-Buddhist sources, albeit through Chinese.

One of the most common by far is isshō kenmei (一生懸命) which means to do one’s utmost, “give it your all”.  Like all yojijiukugo, this 4-syllable phrase actually comprises two compound words: isshō (一生) meaning “one’s life” and kenmei (懸命) which means earnest or one’s utmost.  It’s used in situations like:

Another example that’s very common (and one I often use when texting my wife) is isseki nichō (一石二鳥), which like in English, simply means “two birds with one stone”.

Yet another my wife and I use, especially when talking about our aspirations for our kids is bunbu ryōdō (文武両道) which means something like “well-lettered and athletic”, which is the best of both worlds. This one, in particularly, I think reflects the ideal samurai back in the medieval period who was both highly cultured and a deadly warrior.

The four seasons even get a Yojijukugo phrase that you’ll sometimes hear: shunka shūtō (春夏秋冬) which literally just means “spring, summer, fall and winter” since Spring was traditionally the start of the new year before the modern calendar.

One yojijukugo I know is shimen soka (四面楚歌), which is a good example of something more obscure and erudite. It refers to an ancient battle in the Chinese Warring States period when the ancient state of Chu was facing defeat by the rising state of Qin, and at one point its capital was literally besieged on 4 sides. This one signifies something like “the writing is on the wall” meaning defeat is all but certain, but I forget the exact backstory to this. Like many yojijukugo, the backstory and context may require some explanation even for Japanese people, and hence they’re not widely used except in adult literature.

Finally, here’s an example of a Buddhist yojijukugo that I have sometimes heard: isshin furan (一心不乱) which means to be singularly focused on something.  This phrase is literally taken verbatim from one of my favorite Buddhist sutras: the Amitabha Sutra a.k.a. the Smaller Sukhavati-vyūha Sutra.  It is found in the following excerpt (translation by the Venerable Hsuan Hua):

“Sariputra, if there is a good man or a good woman who hears spoken ‘Amitabha’ and holds the name, whether for one day, two days, three days, four, five days, six days, as long as seven days, with one heart unconfused (一心不乱), when this person approaches the end of life, before him will appear Amitabha and all the assembly of holy ones.

In modern usage, this phrase has largely lost its Buddhist context and can just mean any goal that a person is hyper-focused on.

So, are yojijukugo worth memorizing as a language student?  Frankly, no.  Apart from a few very commonly-used phrases, the rest appear rarely enough that you just need a decent dictionary to look them up with.  Chances are you might not see them again.  The ones that do appear often are something you’ll just pick up anyway along with other Japanese phrases.  Going out of your way to learn a bunch of yojijukugo that you’re likely to never use isn’t really worth the time.

On the other hand, it’s worth having a familiarity with the concept of yojijukugo because they are a part of Japanese culture and language and they are rich with expressions and historical/religious meanings.

¹ More accurately, the Japonic language family includes both standard Japanese and Okinawan (Ryukyuan) languages.  In my very limited experiences seeing and hearing Okinawan, I can’t help but notice that it looks and sounds like Japanese but with fewer Chinese influences.  However, that is just one person’s impression.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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