The Japanese language has a large number of terms relating to the human body and are used as metaphors to express a variety of meanings. This traditional way of thinking rose out of the apprentice system, in whereby work is seen as something learnt not from books and theories but through one`s hands and bodies. As you start working in a Japanese company, it is very likely you will hear a lot of these terms in your daily life.
The most numerous and popular body term is related to the hand.
In Japanese, 手 can mean hand, arm or palm.
- Te o someru 手を染める To dye one`s hands
This means to start working on a project.
- Te ni amaru 手に余る An amount so great it won`t stay in my palm
This means to be overwhelmed. To be in a situation out of your control.
- Te o yogosu 手を汚す To dirty one`s hands
This means to do what you are not doing yourself.
- Te o utsu 手を打つ Put one`s hands together and clap
You use this when devising plans and policies or countermeasures.
- Te o mawasu 手をまわす To rotate one`s hands
It could mean to take countermeasures or to work behind the scenes.
- Te o nuku 手を抜く Pull out one`s hands
This means trying to get out of doing one`s work or doing less.
- Te o hiku 手を引く Pull back one`s hands
This means to withdraw from a project or stop doing something.
- Te o hirogeru 手を広げる Spread your hands wide open
This means to expand your business or increase your scope of work
- Yoi te良い手, Warui te悪い手, Kitanai te汚い手
Good hand Bad hand Dirty hand
This means a good method, a bad method and an underhand method.
The next term is related to the foot. 足 can mean foot or leg.
It often means money and is an essential term in business.
- Oashi お足
Even today, merchants and business people use this term to mean money.
- Ashi ga deru 足が出る The foot that was hidden slipped out
This means going into the red, not covering expenses, exceed the budget.
- Ashi o hipparu 足を引っ張る To pull someone`s leg
This means to interfere with someone`s progress or success.
- Age ashi o toru 揚げ足をとる To lift up someone`s feet causing a fall
This means to find faults with someone or what they say.
- Ashi ga chi ni tsukanai 足がちにつかない One feet don`t reach the ground
This means that a person who is not being realistic, someone not grounded in reality.
- Ashi ga hayai 足が速い To have quick feet
This means that sales of goods or products are going well.
It can also mean food that is easily spoilt.
The next term is Mi身. This word is one of the more difficult for foreigners to understand. It can mean “self”, “body” and “mind” and has an extremely deep meaning.
- Mi ga katamaru 身が固まる. One`s self becomes fixed
This means for one`s position in life to stabilise.
Mi o katameru 身を固める means to get married.
- Mi ga hairu 身が入る Mi o ireru身を入れる
Both these terms mean to put your heart into what you are doing and giving it your best shot.
- Mi ni tsuku 身に付く Something attached to yourself
This means to acquire knowledge or techniques and master them.
- Mi o tateru 身を立てる To stand your body up
This means to advance or succeed in your life.
- Mi o kudaku 身を砕く To crush your body
This means to do your utmost and give your best effort.
Mi o kezuru 身を削る To shave off or pare down one`s body
This means something very painful or having a hard time.
Mi o ko ni sure 身を粉にする To turn one`s body into powder
This means to work very hard.
This term is Hara 腹. While literally it means stomach, in this case, it`s meaning is closer to “heart” or “mind”.
- Hara o waru 腹を割る Literally, to break or slit open the stomach
This refers to someone who is sincere and speaks the truth, frankly and openly.
- Hara guroi 腹黒い Black belly
Refers to someone who is black-hearted, malicious and hides their intentions behind sweet words.
- Haragei 腹芸 Performing from the heart
This term means to be able to tailor your strategies and tactics to particular situations, to be adaptive. It also means being able to succeed in business discussions or negotiations by force of personality.
- Hara ni ichimotsu aru 腹に一物ある Have something in your belly
Literally means to have an ulterior motive or hidden plan.
Finally, we come to the term Koshi 腰. This is literally one`s hips or waist. This is a term that is related to martial arts as the koshi is at the centre of one`s body.
- Koshi ga hikui 腰が低い. A low waist or back.
This means showing modesty or humility.
- Koshi ga kudakeru 腰が砕ける. Literally, a crumbling waist.
This refers to the process of attempting to complete something and having fall through.
While there are many other usages of these terms, I have listed the ones that apply to business and something you are most likely to hear while working in a Japanese company.