Is Your Stomach Standing? 8 Common Japanese Idioms
Japanese is a language with a rich reservoir of idioms. There are lists and dictionaries of Japanese idioms out there, which are worth looking at as a reference or just for fun. However, in this post, we will look particularly at idioms related to parts of the body, which account for a large variety of common, useful idiomatic expressions.
In English we might say that we’re angry, but in Japanese, we can use an expression to convey that sense: 腹が立つ or, literally, “my stomach is standing.” My stomach is not actually standing, but the expression conveys a metaphorical image as well as the sensation of discomfort in the stomach. Japanese seems to have more idioms that use body parts as metaphors for a feeling or idea than English. It definitely says something about the culture and is an interesting aspect to pay attention to in order to understand Japanese.
In this article, we present eight Japanese idioms based on parts of the body that you can use to convey precisely and naturally how you are feeling. See if you are able to guess the meaning of any!
Japanese Idioms With Body Parts
足が棒になる (Ashi ga bou ni naru)
Literally, this means that your feet become sticks. Imagine trying to walk with feet that are sticks. You’d be dragging them laboriously across the ground. This idiom actually means “to have tired or worn-out feet.”
Takusan aruite ashi ga bou ni natta.
I walked a lot and wore my feet out.
手のひらを返す (Te no hira wo kaesu)
This expression means to turn over the palm of your hand literally, but it’s used in the sense of betraying someone, often someone you used to be friendly with.
English uses a similar phrase, “turn a cold shoulder.” If you turn a cold shoulder on someone, you shun them.
Te no hira wo kaesu tomodachi wa tomodachi ja nai.
A friend who turns a cold shoulder on you isn’t a friend.
足を洗う (Ashi wo arau)
足を洗う can mean to wash your feet, but it can also mean to quit a bad job. The job can be something shady and illegal, or it can just be something that has been a bad experience like working for a tiresome company with few benefits and an overpacked schedule.
A somewhat similar but not equivalent English idiom is “to wash one’s hands of” something. “I finally washed my hands of the job” means that I’m glad that to have gotten rid of the job. You can use 足を洗う happily when you’re broken free from a bad situation.
Kyou wa jihyou wo dashite ashi wo arau.
Today I will hand in my resignation letter and wash my hands of this work.
足が速い (Ashi ga hayai)
This idiom has two common but different meanings. On one hand, the literal meaning, “to have fast feet,” can be taken literally. If you say someone is 足が速い, you mean that he or she is fast at walking or running.
The second, not so obvious meaning is for food “to spoil easily.” Since fruit and vegetables don’t have feet, it’s a quirky expression to use but makes sense nonetheless.
Tomato wa reizouko ni irenakereba ashi ga hayai yo.
If you don’t put the tomatoes in the fridge, they’ll spoil easily.
目が硬い (Me ga katai)
“Your eyes are hard” is what this expression translates into literally. One might think that this idiom means you haven’t been getting sleep lately or that you’re straining your eyes, but these guesses would be wrong.
Instead, the idiom means that you aren’t sleepy or going to sleep, often in the circumstance that it’s getting late. The phrase is also common for kids who stay up late and give their parents a hard time.
Kodomo wa yoru ga fukete mo me ga katai desu.
Though it’s getting late, the children aren’t sleepy.
鼻が高い (Hana ga takai)
鼻が高い means to have a high or tall nose, but it can also mean “to be proud.” Not usually meant in the snooty way, to have a high nose can be said with a healthy pride. If you always put out good work, you can be reasonably proud and say about yourself 鼻が高い.
Even if it’s not about yourself but about someone related to you, you can use the phrase. For example:
Seitotachi ga daiichi i wo totte ite hana ga takai desu.
I’m proud of my students who took first place.
腹が立つ (Hara ga tatsu)
腹が立つ can paint an amusing image of someone’s stomach standing or rising up high if you take its meaning literally. What the phrase actually means is “to get angry” or “to take offense.”
This phrase makes you pay attention to the stomach as the site of anger. It can evoke the sensation of discomfort in the pit of your stomach, which is an example of how the way an idiom is phrased can bring out interesting ideas and associations.
Neyou to suru toki ni urusakute hara ga tatsu.
I get angry when he’s noisy when I’m trying to sleep.
顔が広い (Kao ga hiroi)
This idiom translates into having a “wide face.” It means that you “know a lot of people” and implies that you’re well-connected. People who are 顔が広い often recognize familiar faces wherever they go. You wouldn’t say that they’re faces are wide, but you could say that they’re widely known.
The meaning of this idiom is different from sociable, as you can know a lot of people without being particularly sociable with them.
Imouto wa restoran toka toshokan toka doko ni itte mo oshiriai ni deaimasu. Kao ga hiroi hito desu.
My younger sister runs into acquaintances wherever she goes, whether at a restaurant or the library. She is well-known.
This wraps up eight common Japanese idioms related to body parts. You can now use expressions using the face, palm of one’s hand, stomach, foot, eye and nose. As a next step, see if you can discover another popular idiom for each of these body parts. If you haven’t already, you may want learn kanji before doing so since you may come across a wide range of new characters as you start reading more and more Japanese.
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Connie Huang has self-studied the Japanese language for over a decade. In addition to Japanese, she knows Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and French.