Legends
Proverbs

The Story Behind Japanese Saying: 情けは人の為ならず (One Good Turn Deserves Another)

Main Piece:

“There is a common saying in Japan, in Japanese it’s: 情けは人の為ならず.

Original script: 情けは人の為ならず

Phonetic (Roman) script: Nasake wa hito no tame narazu

Transliteration: the good you do for others is good you do yourself.

Full translation: One good turn deserves another. 

It means when you do things for someone, it’s not for them, it’s for yourself. So, I mean it connects to the story about like, ummm like an old man walking to a winter mountain, then he finds like three stone, umm what do you call those? Like statues of Japanese monk. It’s like a tiny mini one, really cute. And he’s like: “Oh no, it’s snowing.” It’s statue right? Obviously it has no feelings or anything. But then the old man was like:”Oh my gosh. It’s snowing and it’s probably really cold.” So he makes these like three ummm straw hats for those three stone statues and then place it upon them. Then he will like, you know, get along his life. When he goes home, and the next morning, he wakes up and he opens the front door, and then he finds like this chunk of rice. At that time, obviously rice equals money. So what happen was those stone statue, like the monks kind of came to life and came to life to thank him, saying like thanks for the straw hats. Oh I think he makes like straw coats as well. You know, just like something to put on the statue. And like these rice is just to show gratitude and everything. So yea, this is where this saying comes from. So 情けは人の為ならず is just do something for someone, like yea you are helping them but ultimately you are helping yourself. Like it’s always gonna come back to you. That’s like the saying.”

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She knew this saying and the story behind it because her dad told her when she was at a kid. She feels a lot of the time when people do things for someone or even just make friends with someone, they think about benefit or cost they get. But in her mind, because of this saying and the way her dad teaches her, she deems that in order to live a happy life, people need to do things for each other. So my informant is always happy to give out her help and be kind to people even when they are mean sometimes. Growing up embedded with this mindset, my informant feels this saying shapes her action and life attitude.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts

Personally, I really like this folk piece because it’s not like other sayings that only have one sentence, this saying has a story behind it, which reflects a lot of Japanese culture. For example, it talks about Japanese monks which are associated with Shinto and Buddhism religions which are the two major religions in Japan. Also, the straw hat and straw coat that are mentioned in the story are also representations of Japanese tradition. Straw hat is often worn by Japanese monks. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch Ikkyū-san, which is a Japanese anime about the life of a monk. In the show, I often see the character Ikkyū wears a straw hat. In addition, the straw coat, known as mino (蓑) in Japan, is a traditional Japanese garment that functions like a raincoat and is often used in snowy regions. Lastly, the gift of rice reflects the Asian culture as well. If it is a western story, it will probably be gold which is often seen in western fair tales. The presentation of rice shows culture difference between east and west.

 

 

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