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

Dragonflies a marvel for scientists and … samurai

I luckily caught a glimpse of this beautiful blue dragonfly on my last rock climbing trip in Squamish, BC. If you’ve seen a dragonfly in action, it speedily buzzes past, stops to hover a bit, and continues darting here and there. When it finds a place to land, it slowly and gracefully flaps its four wings up and down, but as soon as you get near it’s gone off into the air.

Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.
Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

The way a dragonfly flies actually gave it a symbolic significance in Japanese culture. During my time training in Continue reading