Japanese idioms adapted from sword fighting

Shinken, tachiuchi, shinogi…do these words sound familiar? You might be thinking of Japanese sword fighting — or if you know Japanese well maybe you’ve filled in the blanks to these idioms: shinken shobu, tachiuchi dekinai, shinogi wo kezuru.

These idioms in the Japanese language are used today in contexts that have nothing to do with sword fighting; however, they trace their origins to samurai sword combat. Just as life adapts to new environments and evolve over time, language diversifies and changes with the times. A break from the traditional fields of science, today’s post looks at a selection of examples of such evolved language:

“Tachiuchi dekinai (太刀打ちできない)” – Crossing swords in a fight, or sword forms performed as a pair may be referred to as tachiuchi. The phrase tachiuchi dekinai literally means “can’t cross swords”, but in the present day, it’s a general term that means your competitor is too strong and you are no match for that person.

Link to original photo on wikimedia commons.
Photo from KendoBR.

“Shinogi wo kezuru (しのぎを削る)” – Literally, this translates to “shave off the shinogi.” The shinogi is where the cutting edge and dull edge of the blade meet in a line along the side of the katana. In a form of martial art called iaido, there is a move that scrapes each other’s blade as one cuts down and one blocks upwards, which literally is “shaving off the shinogi.” Today, not many people would be thinking of the exact sword part when they use this phrase, since it is an idiom that means to engage in a fierce competition, for example between competing political parties or colleagues striving towards a quota. As the competitors struggle against each other, they draw out each others’ maximum potential. The roots of this phrase refers to how the more fierce and involved you are in a close range battle, the more likely you will wear out the shinogi on a blade.

“Shinken Shōbu (真剣勝負)”Shinken in Japanese directly translates into “serious”, but it also refers to a real sword, that is, one with a sharp, live steel blade. Until practitioners are ready to use a shinken, they often train with a wooden blade or an imitation sword made of zinc/aluminum alloys. Holding a shinken brings a new sense of concentration and tension where you know there is close to no margin of error. It reflects how in old times, a fight using a shinken, or “shinken shobu,” meant you had your life on the line. When someone says to approach a win-or-lose game as a “shinken shobu”, it means you have to take it seriously and give it your all, with no room for play.

In these examples, though the context may no longer be in sword fighting, the phrases preserve the essence of the original meaning. Revisiting this often forgotten history brought me to a new appreciation of the depth and meaning of each phrase.




September 7, 2015Permalink 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Japanese idioms adapted from sword fighting

  1. There’s a lot of similarity between Western and Eastern sword arts. Anyone who trains with or spars against both will tell you that. But what about where they’re different? Is there anything fundamentally different about them, so different it can change the course of the fight?

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I apologize for the late reply! In this post I highlighted a few scenarios and techniques in Japanese sword fighting that have become part of the modern language. There are definitely parallels in English too, with idioms such as “a double-edged sword” or “fall on one’s sword.”

      It sounds like you are thinking of a scenario where someone trained in a Western art is fighting against someone trained in an Eastern art. From studying one of the Japanese sword martial arts I have become aware of how the fighting style would have evolved based on the characteristics of a katana (curved, mostly two-handed, a soft metal core and hard sharp edge), and have tendencies different from fighting with a double-edged sword, for example. That said, I won’t dare say I know enough of the wide range within Eastern and Western arts to make a general comparison (e.g. European fencing, Medieval broadsword, Chinese sabre, Middle Eastern scimitar, etc.), and a fight would be dependent on many other factors like the swordsman’s skill and environment. I would be curious to hear thoughts from people who trained both, or either!

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