If you work for a Japanese company or market, you’d most likely often communicate and work with Japanese people. If you then also were born and grew up outside of Japan, such interaction and/or communication could prove to be difficult and perhaps even confusing. Although there are many big Japanese companies, and the Japanese economy is huge, European companies and people may not easily be able to enter and deal with the market in question.

In this text, we will describe a few proverbs that in some ways describe Japanese culture, namely; Japanese proverbs (諺), Chinese proverbs (故事成語) and Yojijukugo (四字熟語). These highlight not only aspects of Japanese culture but also parts of Japanese philosophical thinking. Learning and understanding them could therefore be helpful since they will improve your conversational skills, as well as understanding of Japanese counterparts and colleagues.

船頭多くして船山登る: too many captains will steer the ship up a mountain

An example of a well-known Japanese proverb, or 諺, is “船頭多くして船山登る” (sendō ōku shite Funayama noboru). 

An English equivalent idiom of 船頭多くして船山登る is: “too many cooks spoil the broth”. In a business context, this kind of proverb makes a lot of sense, as Japanese people are not known debaters. When Japanese have a meeting or presentation, many of them do not particularly express their opinions and/or open up for discussion. This may look strange to Europeans, but there may be several underlying factors as to why this is. One reason is that Japanese people often think that too many decision-makers make decisions harder to reach, and thus, more time-consuming. Furthermore, culturally, Japanese subordinates follow decisions and work for already decided policies. You may, from time to time, come across Japanese employees that follow a new policy even though they are not fully convinced of its benefits yet. 

三方よし: Good for buyer, seller, and society

三方よし, or Sampo-yoshi”, was a Japanese business philosophy, originally from Ohmi (Shiga prefecture today) merchant groups in the Edo era (1603 to 1867). Sampo means 3 directions and yoshi means good. Stemming from this, the idiom means that something is good for the buyer, the seller and society. The proverb “Sampo-yoshi” was, however, invented later in history, yet, the principle was an important business idea for the mentioned merchant group in the Edo period. 

One of the big Japanese corporation companies today and historically, Itochu, started with that business philosophy. 

The origin of “Sampo-yoshi” is that the merchants of Ohmi were permitted to promote business activities in the regions they visited due to their contribution to the economy of these regions with the spirit of “seken-yoshi” (meaning “good for society”) in addition to “urite-yoshi” (meaning “good for the seller”) and “kaite-yoshi” (meaning “good for the buyer”). Therefore, “Sampo-yoshi” can be said to be the roots of today’s idea of sustainability. This spirit is evident in the personal motto of Chubei Itoh I, “Trade is a compassionate business. It is noble when it accords with the spirit of Buddha by profiting those who sell and those who buy and supplying the needs of the society.”
Reference: ITOCHU Mission

Another interesting case of that proverb in play can be found in an example of Panasonic’s founder Konosuke Matsushita’s marketing; Matsushita exhibited the Matsushita Electric Pavilion at the Japan World Exposition held in Osaka in the summer of 1970. While doing so, he noticed that visitors were waiting in line for up to two hours to enter the Matsushita Electric Pavilion – everyone standing under the sun without shade. Noting this, Matsushita instructed his staff to distribute paper hats with “Matsushita Pavilion” written on them. These paper hats with “Matsushita-kan” written on them were used as a form of publicity stunt, and the Matsushita-kan became even more popular. In addition, miniature time capsules were distributed as prizes for buying color TV sets, which helped to strengthen sales.

Kōnosuke Matsushita, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sampo-yoshi showcases a very interesting perspective, namely that business is not for just yourself but for others too – something that may be viewed as not completely aligned with the principle of the economy as “maximizing profit”. However, although leading a company according to such a proverb may not maximize the profit in the short term, it focuses on maximizing profit in the middle and long term, which defines one vital aspect of the Japanese culture and business point of view. 

四字熟語: Yojijukugo and 故事成語: Chinese proverbs

Yojijukugo (四字熟語) is like a Japanese proverb consisting of four kanji, which are Chinese characters.  Each kanji means something specific – but in Yojijukugo, 4 kanji compounds 1 meaning. Yojijukugo does not just originate from one country or history, but some of them are from old Chinese stories.

As the name indicates, these vocabulary items consist of four kanji strung together. They appear mainly in written Japanese, holding the reader’s interest by pepping up prose while conveying a disproportionate weight of meaning in just a handful of characters. Like English proverbs, many are obscure or literary, but some are extremely well known. They are first studied in elementary school, and the most common phrases are referenced regularly in popular culture.
Reference: “Yojijukugo”: The Compressed Poetry of Four-Character Idioms

Since some of the Yojijukugo are from China, you can find Chinese proverbs in Japanese daily life. Some of them can frequently be found in business settings as well.

Another type of Chinese proverb is known as Kojiseigo (故事成語). Kojiseigo means “idiom derived from historical events or classical literature of China”. (Reference: weblio-古事成語)

So, why are Chinese proverbs relevant when it comes to Japan? Well, when Japan adapted Chinese characters as kanji, along came much of their culture. Learning Yojijukugo and Kojiseigo may thus help you understand some similarities and aspects of shared history between Japan and China, which will give you a wider view and understanding of Japanese culture. 

大器晩成: Great talents mature late

An important Yojijukugo in Japanese business life Yojijukugo is: Taikibansei (大器晩成) or; “Great talents mature late”. The direct translation of this idiom is that It takes time to build a large vessel –  which in turn means that it takes a long time for a great person to develop his or her talent; great talents may not be achieved until well into an employee’s career.

This proverb is, as noted, a Yojijukugo, and originates from somewhere between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. China. The book where this is first mentioned is named “Tao Te Ching”, written by Laozi,  where one, in chapter 41, can read that: “Great talents ripen late”. Interestingly, even though the original meaning can be interpreted as something negative (like it takes too long to complete something), the idiom is used in a positive context in Japan.  Since Japanese people tend to stay with one employer for many years and prefer economic stability, the Japanese labor market is known to be unique. On the other side of the coin, Japanese companies want laborers to stay in the companies for many years. Japanese companies, therefore, hire unskilled workers and provide them training to learn the company’s business culture and required skills. In other words, Japanese companies often have a long-term perspective on human resources and have a policy of hiring and developing “big talent, late bloomers” who may not immediately show talent.

Having an understanding of these specific idioms while communicating with Japanese, or simply while spending time in a Japanese business setting, you could find yourself having a much more rewarding time and/or experience. These specific expressions are obviously particularly useful in a business context, but they do also provide an understanding of Japanese culture in general, and knowing them can therefore prove useful for anybody that has an interest in Japanese culture as well.