「三日坊主」is a phrase in Japan that, translated literally, means “three days monk,” or “a monk for three days.” It is used in everyday speech to indicate someone that gives up at the first sight of difficulty, or gets so easily bored with something that they are always hopping around one thing or another. For instance, someone that can never keep a journal for longer than a few days is said to be a 三日坊主, as well as people who pick up a new hobby every month.
My informant spent most of her life in Tokyo, Japan, being exposed to all kinds of regional Japanese dialects. She cannot remember the first time she heard this, but thinks, because of its widespread use in Japanese society, that it must have been when she was a child living in Okinawa. 「何かいつも知ってたような気がする」She said, which, roughly translated means, “I feel like I’ve kind of always known to say that to describe someone.” This concept of “I think I’ve always known,” I feel, is always the most significant indicator that a phrase is very engrained in that particular society. My informant’s mother would often tell her that she was a 三日坊主 because she could not keep up the same sport for a very long time. She did not like to lose, and always wanted to move on to another sport as soon as she felt that she would have to work very hard to get better than the people on her team. She wanted, she said, to find a sport that would fit her in some way naturally (which she now knows is impossible) so that she would not have to try so hard to maintain her position within it. And so she hopped around, quitting soccer when when the team started incorporating two-mile runs in their warm-ups, quitting tennis after a newcomer toppled her from her position as the best player on the team. This was not, however, the only time the phrase was used–my informant said that she often fired back at her mother for being a 三日坊主 as well, for never being able to sustain attendance at her cooking classes. “One day she’d be obsessed with Indian food and there’d be curry and naan everywhere, and then two days later she’d say she was done with it and start trying to make pizza dough from scratch, and then there was this one time when she went through a Chinese food phase and said that she was going to be a Chinese food chef, which obviously never worked out, because she kept messing up and getting frustrated and quitting.”
When my informant asked me whether there was an American phrase that corresponded with 三日坊主, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t give her a set answer. The closest phrase I could come up with, “easily bored” doesn’t have that same sense of giving up at the first sign of difficulty, the sense of wanting everything to be easy, that 三日坊主 implies. 三日坊主 is a phrase with mostly negative connotations, yet many people use it to describe themselves, oftentimes saying jokingly something like, “Oh, I quit needlework classes a long time ago. I’m such a 三日坊主!” Using a phrase like “three days monk,” perhaps, has a humorous aspect to it that makes it okay to joke about what could otherwise be seen as a character flaw. This way, in fact, they don’t need to discuss and talk about the reasons behind why they are so keen on giving up–labeling oneself as a 三日坊主 seems to be enough explanation by itself, and probably the reason why people find so much comfort in the phrase. The fact that the phrase exists gives a sense of camaraderie to all those who are described such, making them feel part of a pre-packaged group.
The phrase 三日坊主 originates from the concept of “being a monk for just three days.” Becoming a monk is something that can be very character-building and spiritually rewarding, if only one possesses strong character and true intentions. It is something that takes a life-time of work, and a life-time of dedication to its society’s rules. Being a monk for just three days is someone who is keen on receiving the rewards immediately, who cannot see that hard work leads to improvement and betterment of the self, or of a certain skill. I thought my informant described it best when she said: “三日坊主 is someone that wants that money tree, but gives up once he hears that he needs to cultivate it himself, from the seed on, and that it takes years and years to grow. A 三日坊主 is someone that for the most part lives in the present, and will go searching and searching for a money tree, but will perhaps never find it, because he doesn’t realize that the money tree will only give him money if he gives himself over, and nurtures it himself.”