Ringing in the year of the horse…with some handy expressions

The year of the horse is upon us, and in celebration of the New Year I thought that it might be fun to explore a few Japanese, horse-related expressions.  Below is a list of some handy equine expressions to wow Japanese friends and horse-lovers.

馬が合う Uma ga au. To get along with someone/have good chemistry.
馬車馬 bashauma A work horse (e.g., work like a work horse).
馬の耳に念仏 Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu Not willing to listen to what one is told/advice.
馬耳東風 ba-ji-tou-fu In one ear and out the other.  This is a yoji-jukugo.
馬子にも衣装 Mago nimo ishou Anyone can look good if they are dressed up nicely.
人間万事塞翁が馬 Ningen banji saiou ga uma You never know what good or bad may come of any event.  fortune is unpredictable and changeable.

The last expression is a reference to the Chinese parable of an old man (Sai-ou) whose horse runs away.  If you watched “Charlie Wilson’s War” (featuring Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffmann) you may recall a permutation of the story being told near the end of the movie.

A more traditional telling goes like this:

One day, Sai-ou’s prized horse ran away.  The other villagers lamented the loss, but Sai-ou was stoic and said:  “We’ll see”.

Soon thereafter, the horse returned with another handsome mare in tow.  The villagers congratulated Sai-ou on his good luck, but Sai-ou was circumspect, saying simply:  “We’ll see”.

A little later on, Sai-ou’s son was riding the new mare when he was thrown off, breaking his leg.  The villagers again commiserated with Sai-ou, who was guarded and simply said:  “We’ll see”.

The next week, the men of Sai-ou’s village were all conscripted to fight in the war in which many perished; all except for Sai-ou’s son, that is, who could not fight because of his broken leg.


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