Learning Japanese Idioms; Learn to Speak like a Native with these Phrases!


As you start to feel more comfortable speaking in Japanese, you may be thinking to yourself: "I want to be able to talk like a native speaker! But how?" One way to do so is to use idioms when speaking as a way to enhance your vocabulary to the next level. Why not learn more about idioms to improve your Japanese with me?

The Japanese language offers a number of idioms that refer to body parts. For example, to make something yours is called "( ) ( ) れる (te-ni ireru; to get in one's hands)." I believe it is fairly easy to imagine what this idiom means. On the other hand, can you guess what "( かお ) ( ひろ ) い (kao-ga hiroi; to have a wide face) or "( はら ) ( ) つ (hara-ga tatsu; one's stomach stands)" means? The idioms I will be introducing in this article can be confusing because of the gap between what you are likely to picture when reading them, and what they actually mean. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised to find out what these idioms actually mean!

( かお ) ( ひろ ) い (Kao-ga hiroi)

This does not mean that someone literally has a "wide face." The "( かお ) (kao; face)" here refers to a "person." The word "( ひろ ) い (hiroi; wide)" is used not only to describe a "space" or "area," but can also be used to mean "range" or "reach." In other words, it means that a person has a wide circle of acquaintances, or knows many people. It is especially used in business settings for people who have a lot of contacts or are well known in a certain industry. Having a lot of acquaintances means that they are sociable and proactive, which is considered good business performance at work. If someone tells you that "( かお ) ( ひろ ) いですね (Kao-ga hiroi-desune; You have a wide face)," they are actually complimenting you.

【Example】( かれ ) 政界( せいかい ) ( かお ) ( ひろ ) い。(Kare-wa seikai-ni kao-ga hiroi.)
Meaning: He has a strong presence in the political world.

( あたま ) ( ) る、( はら ) ( ) つ (Atama-ni kuru, Hara-ga tatsu)

Both of these are idioms that describe intense anger. The word "( あたま ) ( ) る (atama-ni kuru)" means to become agitated with anger. When someone makes fun of you, you may feel both offended and annoyed at the same time. You might also feel a sensation of blood rushing to your head, or feel as if your face is turning red and your body temperature rising from the anger. This is when you use the phrase "( あたま ) ( ) る."

The "( はら ) (hara; belly)" in "( はら ) ( ) つ (hara-ga tatsu)" does not literally mean the "belly" nor "stomach," but refers to the feelings and emotions that lie deep inside you. In addition, "( ) つ (tatsu; to stand)" can also mean that you are feeling agitated or emotional. Try imagining that the anger lying deep within you is gradually growing larger and larger.

Which of these emotions are closer to the type of anger you feel?

【Example】無礼( ぶれい ) なことを( ) われて( あたま ) ( ) る。(Burei-na koto-wo iwarete atama-ni kuru.)/優柔不断( ゆうじゅうふだん ) ( ひと ) ( ) ると( はら ) ( ) ってしかたがない。(Yūjūfudan-na hito-wo miruto hara-ga tatte shikataganai.)
Meaning: It makes me furious when someone makes a rude remark. / I get annoyed when I see people who are indecisive.

( うし ) ( がみ ) ( ) かれる (Ushirogami-wo hikareru)

Imagine a situation where your hair is being gently tugged from behind. Wouldn't it be hard to move forward in this situation? This idiom describes a situation where it feels like someone/something is gently tugging at your hair from behind, and you are unable to move on because you have unresolved feelings and regrets about it.

【Example】 ( うし ) ( がみ ) ( ) かれる( おも ) いで( かれ ) ( わか ) れた。(Ushirogami-wo hikareru omoi-de kare-to wakareta.)
Meaning: I broke up with him with painful reluctance.

④ のどから( ) ( ) る (Nodo-kara te-ga deru)

Of course, you don't actually "のどから( ) ( ) る (have a hand reaching out from your throat)," but this term is used when you want something so badly. It could be anything from a limited-edition plastic model, a luxury brand bag, an autograph of your favorite celebrity, etc... If you use the expression "のどから( ) ( ) るほど( ) しい (Nodo-kara te-ga deruhodo hoshii; I want it so much that I feel like I have hands reaching out from my throat)" instead of just a simple "( ) しい (hoshii; I want it)," you can better convey your strong desires about it.

【Example】のどから( ) ( ) るほど( ) しかったけれど、( たか ) すぎて( ) えなかった。(Nodo-kara te-ga deruhodo hoshikatta-kedo, takasugite kaenakatta.)
Meaning: I wanted it so badly, but I couldn't afford it.

( くび ) ( なが ) くする (Kubi-wo nagaku-suru)

The term "( くび ) ( なが ) くする (to lengthen one's neck)" derives from how someone looks when they are waiting. For example, when looking at an object in the distance, a person unconsciously stretches their neck or stands tall. This kind of posture is what "lengthening one's neck" refers to. This idiom is used to describe how someone is waiting with anticipation for something they are looking forward to.

【Example】( あたら ) しいiPhoneの発売日( はつばいび ) ( くび ) ( なが ) くして( ) っている。(Atarashii iPhone-no hatsubaibi-wo kubi-wo nagakushite matteiru.)
Meaning: I have been waiting patiently for the release date of the new iPhone.

( おや ) のすねをかじる (Oya-no sune-wo kajiru)

The term "すね (sune)" refers to the area of the leg from the knee to the ankle; also known as the "shin" in English. However, you may not really understand what it means when you picture a child nibbling on their parent's shin. This implies that a child is unable to become financially independent, and is dependent on their parents for support. The shin is an important part of a person's body that supports them when they stand or work, and it also has implications of being the source in which money is generated through labor. It can also be used as a noun: "すねかじり (sunekajiri)."

【Example】( かれ ) 30歳( さんじゅっさい ) にもなって、( おや ) のすねをかじって生活( せいかつ ) している。。(Kare-wa sanjussai-nimo natte, oya-no sune-wo kajitte seikatsu shiteiru.)/そろそろすねかじりをやめて、自立( じりつ ) したい。(Sorosoro sunekajiri-wo yamete, jiritsu shitai.)
Meaning: He is 30 years old and still dependent on his parents. / It's time that I stop being dependent on my parents and become more independent.

( うで ) ( みが ) く (Ude-wo migaku)

The word "( みが ) く (migaku)" means to rub a surface in order to polish or clean it. For example, it is common to say "( ) ( みが ) く (ha-wo migaku; to brush your teeth)" or "( ゆか ) ( みが ) く (yuka-wo migaku; to scrub the floor)." However, "( うで ) ( みが ) く (ude-wo migaku)" does not literally mean to clean one's arms. In this case, "( うで ) (ude; arm)" refers to the ability or skill to do something. It can also be called "腕前( うでまえ ) (ude-mae)." In other words, this idiom refers to "train in order to improve one's ability or skill." The idiom "( うで ) ( ) げる (ude-wo ageru; to improve one's skills)" also has a similar meaning. On the contrary, when a person's ability or skill falters, it is called "( うで ) ( ) ちる (ude-ga ochiru)." Even if you learn something successfully, if you do not regularly use that skill, you will quickly lose it. The same is true when learning Japanese; you will quickly forget the vocabulary and grammar you learned once you start slacking off. Whether you are learning Japanese or acquiring another skill, It is crucial to be persistent with it. Let's continue to study hard and improve your skills!

【Example】( かれ ) はいろいろな( くに ) 料理( りょうり ) ( にん ) としての( うで ) ( みが ) いてきた。(Kare-wa iroirona kuni-de ryōrinin-toshiteno ude-wo migaitekita.)
Meaning: He has honed his skills as a cook in many different countries.

I have explained seven idioms in this article so far. I can imagine that it was difficult to picture the meaning from their wordings. Nevertheless, that is also what makes them so interesting, don't you agree? If you have a chance to talk with a Japanese speaker, why don't you try using these idioms?