Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Succinct Expressions & Maxims: Chengyu and Yojijyukugo


When I first came to the U.S., I summed up my impression of it in one word: big. The McDonald’s “small” size soda was bigger than the ones in Japan (and one would not be able to find an American large size in Japan), coffees came with free refills and restaurants served whole loaves to go with your meal…which made people heavier, which meant clothing was sized bigger. U.S. stores sold in big bulk sizes, eggs came in a dozen not in tens, the streets were wider to fit the wider American cars, frequent use of superlatives (e.g., “Excellent! Wonderful! Perfect!”) were accompanied with big body language.

Contrast that to the Japanese culture which is obsessed with making things smaller from physical sizes for electronics and being able to do more with less. Smaller indicated more precious, not meager. Perhaps it is in that spirit that short literary forms, like haiku and tanka developed, which unlike many formal English poetry formats, have not only survived to this day but remain popular.

One form Western countries haven’t been exposed to as much is the Chinese Chengyu or the Japanese version, yoji jyukugo, (四字熟語). Literally, a four character compound word in Japanese, the yoji jyukugo can be anything that is expressed with four kanji, or Chinese ideograms. A subset of the yoji jyukugo are idioms, and the format is well-suited to getting a complex idea to come across in 4 letters so it’s easy to remember and refer to.

The English idiom of “killing two birds with one stone” also exists in Japanese, but it only takes 4 characters: 一石二鳥. Many of them come from Chinese Buddhism tradition. One of my favorites is onko chishin  (温故知新). Literally, warm old learn knew, it means to revisit the past and study it to gain new knowledge. Another is chimoku gyousoku (智目行足), literally, wisdom eye go foot. In order for us to accomplish anything, we need to have an eye for wisdom and implement, because without the knowledge of what you are aiming for and the ability and the willingness to implement, we won’t get far.

Even if you can’t read Chinese characters or don’t know Japanese, remembering 4 words is much simpler than remembering a corporate vision or mission statements where the exact wording can be so important that if you can’t recite them verbatim, they might lose the tone of their intent. On the other hand, the four character idioms may not dictate specifics but capture the tone. Because such characteristics lend themselves to visionary work, I used onko chishin and chimoku gyousoku as a corporate theme when we were pivoting.

Using the 4 character idioms to unite a team wasn’t a novel idea I came up with. Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the instant ramen, would announce these idioms as his corporate themes at the beginning of the new year. I was fortunate enough to see his selections at the Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, Japan (see photo above).


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This entry was posted on January 4, 2016 by in Buddhism, Japan, language, Management and tagged , , .
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