JOK Notebook

Confucius Say

A Facebook friend came across this proverb:

Vision without action is daydream. Action without vision is nightmare.

Identifying it as a Japanese saying, she asked me for the original version. (She doesn't know the language but thought it would be fun to see what it looked like in kanji and kana. I like the spirit!)

The only thing that bothered me was that it didn't have to be written in "Confucius say" style, the bad English we associate with fortune cookies. I guess that sounded more authentic to someone.

I found a blog with this translation:


By the way, that blog mentions ジョエル・バーカー (Joel Barker) and his book 「パラダイムの魔力 (パラダイムのまりょく)」, The Power of Paradigms. It seems that Joel Barker, a self-proclaimed "futurist," is the Confucius in this case!

I was thrilled to be making progress, but of course I had only begun to discover things. Let's look at the vocabulary more closely, and I'll show you what I found:

実行力 (じっこうりょく: ability to take action; ability to carry things out)
      realization, implementation (1st 2 kanji) + ability

Fantastic word. I mean, it's not that the breakdown is witty. It's just ... who doesn't need more 実行力 in their lives?

The suffix -なき means "-less" or "lacking," so the proverb starts off with "lacking the ability to take action" (or "without action").

Here's the next kanji term:

洞察力 (どうさつりょく: insight)     insight (1st 2 kanji) + ability

Oh, my goodness! I just realized that at the core of it lies a word I wrote about in essay 1661 on 洞 (cave; tunnel; hole; to see through):

洞察 (どうさつ: insight; discernment)     to see through + to examine

There I explained the breakdown this way:

By using 洞 to mean “to see through, penetrate, have an insight into,” someone took a great metaphorical leap long ago. The connection to “cave” isn’t immediately obvious, but if you think of 洞 as meaning “tunnel,” you can imagine peering through it and seeing light at the end. In English, this would give you hope, based on our use of a certain cliche. In Japanese, it instead gives you the ability to see clearly in an abstract way.

In the proverb, 洞察 is closer to "vision" than "insight," so now we're up to "vision without action." After all this discussion, we've translated only three words?! Maybe that was the reason for the Confucius-say compression. There's a lot here to compress!

Moving on, we find this:

白日夢 (daydream)     bright + day + dream

I was initially surprised to see the 白, thinking that it must mean "white," as it often does. But I've decided that in this case it's "bright," as in this word:

白昼 (はくちゅう: daytime, broad daylight)     bright + midday, noon

If things were consistent in the kanji world, the term for "nightmare" would therefore contain 暗 (dark), but nothing is that logical! Here's the final word from the proverb:

悪夢 (あくむ: nightmare)     bad + dream

That term restores the sense of logic, as the breakdown makes perfect sense. Also, the shapes of the two kanji practically mirror each other, providing visual balance.

Let's revisit the whole proverb:

Vision without action is a daydream.
Action without vision is a nightmare.

I love how everything snaps into place once you can read the kanji! And now that the fortune cookie–speak is gone, I can also appreciate the wisdom of the English version.

Photo Credit: Samuel

In Kyoto, an ad for a "dream home" makes clever use of 夢 (dream).

As long as we're discussing proverbs, let me share another one that I happened upon last night:

Children suck the mother when they are young, and the father when they are old.

Oh, my! What an unfortunate and misleading English translation! I think "suck the father dry" would have been more appropriate in every sense. On Facebook I asked native Japanese speakers what this really meant, and one told me that it came from English! So it did. And all instances of this proverb seem to have the wording exactly as it appears above. Maybe there was no room for vulgar misinterpretations back when someone coined this.

The clearest interpretation of the Japanese came from a native speaker who wrote this:

Children suck the mother's breast when they are very young, and they depend on the father's financial support when they grow older.

子供 (こども: children); 幼い (おさない: very young); 時 (とき: when); 母 (はは: one's mother); 乳 (ちち: breast); 吸う (すう: to suck); 大きい (おおきい: big); 父 (ちち: one's father); すねをかじる (to depend on somebody else's (financial) support (usu. one's parents'))

In one sentence we find two instances of ちち, each meaning something entirely different. That makes me wonder whether there's wordplay in Japanese culture involving the double-entendre of ははのちち.

As a friend pointed out, すねをかじる translates literally as "to chew the leg"! Here's the breakdown:

すね (臑 : leg, shin)
かじる (齧る: to chew)

Both kanji are non-Joyo.

I've heard of biting the hand that feeds you, but chewing your father's leg?! The same friend reassured me, "Well, at least it's not incestuous ... just carnivorous."

Perhaps it's time to bring the conversation up to a more elevated plane. For that I have just the kanji for you: 壇 (1571: platform; podium; altar; circles). Here's a preview of this new essay:

Have a great weekend!


sam79's picture
I wonder, is 実行力 one of these Meiji era coinages? It looks suspiciously similar to German "Tatkraft"; it carries the same meaning and it breaks down to the same components. (Tat - deed, act; Kraft - power, strength)
eve's picture
Great question! I'm looking into it and will let you know what I find.
eve's picture
An answer has come in from my proofreader! Here it is: --------- I believe this boils down to whether or not 実行 is a Meiji era coinage because, as you might be aware, the -力 suffix can be appended to pretty much anything to mean "power, ability". For example, "national power" is 国力 (こくりょく). "Elasticity", or "the power to bounce", is 弾力 (だんりょく). "Sight", or "the ability to see", is 視力 (しりょく). "The strength of one's back muscles" is 背筋力 (はいきんりょく). There are even these recent coinages of 鈍感力 (どんかんりょく: The Power of Insensitivity), which means "the ability of not worrying too much about negative matters and living a positive life": or 女子力 (じょしりょく: the power of being a girl/woman), which means "the ability to appeal one's presence by being attactive as a girl/woman": (even on dictionaries!) So if only there's the term 実行, pretty much anybody will come up with the idea of appending -力 to it. And 実行 is too common a term that I cannot find its etymology in any of my sources. I imagine that it should be Chinese to start with, as anybody Chinese (or Japanese) could immediately combine 実 (actual) + 行 (to do) to mean "to perform, to carry out". As for the similarity of the kanji and German terms, I believe it should be due to the fact that kanji have very high word-building capacity, just like the German language does. Incidentally, "word-building capacity" in Japanese is 造語力 (ぞうごりょく), which breaks down as "to build" + "word" + "power, ability".

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