Japanese Yojijukugo

So, lately, on Japanesepod101.com, I’ve been exploring some of the supplemental lesson tracks like onomatopoeia and now yojijukugo. The term yojijukugo (四字熟語) refers to special 4-character phrases in Japanese, that according to JPod101, are often of Chinese origin and sometimes derived from Buddhism, though not always.

As written about before, Buddhist terms in Japanese often become day-to-day vernacular, but yojijukugo are an interesting phenomenon in Japanese language. When I mentioned it to my wife, she told me that kids in Japanese schools often study and memorize these phrases, and some are pretty widely used, while some are more obscure.

Probably one of the most common, and one that I didn’t know was yojijukugo is the phrase 一生懸命 (isshō kenmei, いっしょうけんめい). This phrase is commonly used in speech and writing and refers to trying one’s hardest. The four characters taken together convey the meaning that one is trying all one’s effort and spirit. According to JPod101, this used to be another similar phrase 一所懸命 (issho kenmei, いっしょけんめい), which had the same meaning, but its origin was in the Japanese samurai who vowed to defend the land granted to them by the Shogun with their lives. The 所 character means “place” so that makes sense.

Another very common one is 悪戦苦闘 (akusen kutō, あくせんくとう), where the four characters convey things like bad, battle, and so on. The meaning of this phrase is a hard-fought struggle, or overcoming something. In this case you make it into a verb using する and that’s it.

An example of a yojijukugo that I learned from JPod101 with a Buddhist origin is 一念発起 (ichinen hokki, いちねんほっき) which means to make a big decision to accomplish something difficult. The phrase originally meant to take refuge in the Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) and strive to follow the Buddhist path, but as with many Buddhist terms, it becomes something more general. So, JPod101 used the examples of changing one’s career and other such things. For example:


I made the big decision to move to Japan.

In any case, yojijukugo have a variety of meanings, teachings, and uses. Even this proverb I found a few days ago turns out to be another yojijukugo. There’s really a very large number of them in Japanese, and knowing some of the common ones will make your language experience more interesting. 🙂

More links here:

Enjoy! 🙂

P.S. Accidentally posted this a bit too early, so I moved it out several hours.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Japanese Yojijukugo”

  1. One of the more common one’s I hear that is Buddhist is,
    自業自得 You reap what you sow, people always use it to say it’s his own fault, he had it coming.
    Not the whole story however, the full story is
    自業自得多業自得前世業自得, the things that happen in life are not entirely due to your own deeds, but your deeds, the deeds of others, and karma acrued in past lives. Not everyone who has bad times are to blame directly (though it is hard to convince people of this sometimes).


  2. Hi Stephen,

    Excellent! Thanks for chiming in on this. Yeah, a lot of Buddhist concepts seem to get distilled a bit in popular culture, and lose some of their essence I think. That and karma’s complicated as it is.


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