Japanese

10 Japanese Expressions Found in Light Novels

One of the best ways to improve your Japanese abilities, and grow your vocabulary, is to read lots of books. For the Japanese language in particular, reading light novels is a very common thing for both natives and learners. Keeping that in mind, I decided to share these 10 Japanese expressions found in light novels.

There’s no particular theme or organization to this list, but I ran into them several times while reading, so I figured that they were fairly common ones that would be useful to know in case you decide to read LNs yourself. The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to expressions is that the message each one conveys is usually greater than the sum of its parts.

Meaning that a word by word translation often times won’t help you understand what the character is trying to say. Instead, it’s best to think of them as a single idea, and then study and practice them in that way. I’m sure you’ll realize this once you think about the ones we use in English.

For example, when you say “break a leg” to your friend, what you are actually saying is usually something quite different from the literal meaning of the words. I mean, unless you hate your friend and you really DO what them to break their leg… But I digress!

What Exactly is a Light Novel?

Now before we hop into the expressions themselves, I figured that I would spend a little bit of time going over what constitutes a “light novel” so that we’re all on the same page (heh!).

What, you didn’t like that joke? Moving on!

A “light novel” is Japanese book that is primarily intended for readers who are in middle and high school. Although it’s certainly not limited to just these demographics, if you keep this audience in mind it should give you an idea of what most of the stories are like. An equivalent in English might be the “young adult” section or something.

The length is usually about 50,000 words, with the occasional illustration thrown in there to represent key characters or events that are an integral part of the plot. This is done in a very manga-esk style, and many of the most popular light novels get adaptations into both manga and anime at some point.

In case you’re interested, the Japanese word for light novels is ライトノベル which is of course just a loan word from English. And if that wasn’t enough, true to Japanese style, the name often times gets shortened to just ラノベ.

All of these 10 expressions that I’m sharing today can be found in the following two books, the first of which I’ve already finished and the second of which I am currently reading:

  • 三姉妹探偵団
  • 盾の勇者の成り上がり

Also, if you do decide to read light novels in order to improve your Japanese, I highly recommend that you try to get both the digital version of the book and the audio book of it as well.

Yes, it will end up costing you more money to get both, but having the audio book in combination with the text is an incredibly powerful way to improve listening comprehension. And having a digital version of the text will make looking up new words an easy and quick task, which will be important due to the sheer volume of words.

The Ten Japanese Expressions and Their Explanations

Alright, let’s hop right into it going over the literal translation, the actually meaning, and any interesting thoughts I may have on them (yup, you’re stuck with me for this one!).

1. 一か八か「いちかばちか」

Here we’ve got the numbers one and eight combined with the particle か after each one. At first glance it seems like it’s asking “one? eight?” or possibly the か in between numbers functions as “or” and the second one performs the question to make it “one or eight?”

But really this expressions means sink or swim; high-stakes; desperate. It’s interesting to note the phonetic change that 八 receives in this expression.

2. 今泣いた烏がもう笑う「いまないたからすがもうわらう」

This one is actually my favorite that I’ve encountered. If we break it up into two parts we can see that the first half 「今泣いた烏が」means something like “The crow that was crying up until now…” and then the second half 「もう笑う」means “now laughs.”

So what exactly does this phrase mean? What it is describing is a person who was just crying a moment ago, but now they have cheered up (in an instant!) and are laughing. Now who does that sort of thing I wonder…

You’ll see it at the 0:18 mark:

In other words, this expression is saying “a child’s emotions change easily” but it can be applied to adults as well. It’s pretty interesting that the Japanese choose the animal crow for this saying.

3. 右から左へ「みぎからひだりへ」

This expression can have a few meanings, and the first one is pretty straightforward from the kanji and kana. It simply says “from the right, to the left.”

But I feel that the second possible meaning is more useful to know. It means “in one ear and out the other” which is exactly what we say in English when we give a person some information and they either disregarded it, or forget it immediately.

4. 息を呑む「いきをのむ」

This one is pretty interesting, and like the last one you can probable figure out one of its meanings just from reading it literally. This sentence basically says “drink breath” and assumably it is referring to your own breath. In other words, a *gulp* that you make when, for example, someone tells you something terrifying.

Another way to understand this phrase is “to have one’s breath taken away,” which is also a correct translation for the phrase, and means the same thing for the most part. But a different understanding that is also possible is “to catch one’s breath” which has different connotations from the earlier understandings.

Basically, you’ll need to pay attention to the situation that occurs right before this one is used in order to pick out the most appropriate understanding.

5. 懐が寂しい「ふところがさびしい」

Alright, here is one of my favorites because I think it is so funny! It literally says “The pocket is lonely” which isn’t really something that an English speaker would understand right away. In this case, we’re talking about the pocket in your pants or jacket.

So who the heck is the pocket’s companion? One word: Money!

That’s right, this expression means “strapped for cash” and is something you’ll say or hear when personal funds are low. When I first started learning Japanese back in college, I didn’t know it, but this phrase was my best friend, lol!

6. 我を忘れる「われをわすれる」

This expression (and the next) are pretty interesting since they both use the pronoun 我 which means “I” or “oneself” and many times refers to one’s ego. You combine that word with the verb 忘れる for “to forget (about)” and you start to get a grasp on what this phrase it trying to say.

It can mean either “to forget oneself” which is probably what you would initially think, but it can also mean ‘to lose control of oneself” which is how I first encountered it in the LN 三姉妹探偵団. Basically, one of the sister’s “lost her shit” so to speak and blew up on her sister because of something she said.

7. 我に返る「われにかえる」

So if you keep in mind what the last example meant, then you can probable figure out what this expression means. It’s basically the opposite, which makes sense when you see that verb 返る which means “to return” in Japanese. Expression number seven means “to come to one’s senses” and by extension “to calm down” from a rage, or something.

8. 玉に瑕「たまにきず」

So now we have an idiomatic expression, and first I’d like to go over it literally before then seeing the English equivalent idiom. Then I’ll explain exactly what it means, since truth be told I didn’t even understand the English version (don’t judge!).

玉 can mean either jewel or ball, but in this case it means jewel. Then we have the lovely に particle which can have literally over ten different possible meanings! Here it simple means “in” but if you’d like to learn Japanese particles, then click that blue link. Finally, we have 瑕 which means flaw; blemish.

So, literally it means “A flawed jewel” or “A jewel with a blemish” and the equivalent English idiom is “A fly in the ointment.” Like I said, I didn’t really know what that English equivalent meant when I entered 玉に瑕 into jisho.org and got that answer, but what is means is that “a small defect ruins the whole.”

So like, if you ordered a soup from a restaurant, and then you found a tiny hair in it (not yours), then that small thing ends up ruining the entirety of whatever nice thing you were going to enjoy. Does that make sense? I feel like I’m rambling at this point. My bad.

As a last note, I think it’s pretty interesting that despite the huge differences between Japanese and English, there is basically an identical idiom in both languages. I guess being a human is the same no matter where on Earth you are.

9. 目の色を変える「めのいろをかえる」

Now we get to an expression with a body part. In this case it’s an eye 目 but you should know that there are a BOAT-LOAD of Japanese body-part idioms out there! I would say that these are by far the most common type of idioms and expressions out there, and a lot of them make no sense literally, so it’s good to go over them once in a while to know what’s really going on.

Anyway, in this particular expression it says “The color of the eyes change” which is interesting, as a study done at Tohoku University revealed that about 85% of Japanese people have brown eyes. Normally a physical change like this isn’t something that most people can do at will (I can’t, can you?), so what do you think it means?

Well, it describes that moment when “one’s eyes light up” and when a person “has a different look in one’s eyes” that is usually reflective of an emotional change (anger, rage, etc). For example, your best friend let’s slip that it was he who killed your sensei, and therefore he is the one you’ve been hunting all this time. That change in your eyes from calmness to one of murder, describes this expression.

Not that I speak from experience or anything mind you!!!

10. 眉を顰める「まゆをひそめる」

So now we come to the last Japanese expression and this one also includes a body part. This time we start off with 眉 which means eyebrow. Isn’t it interesting which radicals were chosen for this kanji? Obviously you’ve got the radical for eye 目 but the one above it is a distortion for flag 尸. What is the deeper meaning behind this? Are eyebrows nothing more than eye flags?! I must know!

Alright, enough drama from me.

You’ve got the kanji for eyebrows, and then you’ve got this monster of a kanji for “to scowl; to grimace; to frown” 顰める. honestly, there are so many strokes on this puppy that you’ll probably want to grab a magnifying glass in order to see them all.

At any rate, this last one is a little shocking because it’s an expression, but it still makes perfect sense when you read it literally. This final expression means “to knit one’s brows (in discomfort, unease, disapproval, etc.)” and perhaps it is the information in parenthesis that makes is an expression rather than just a regular phrase, but whatever the reason, I felt it would be nice you end this jam packed article with an easy one.

See? I AM a nice guy! (^_^)b

What Japanese Expressions Do You Know?

One of the noticeable differences between people who are good at Japanese and people who are great at it, is their ability to both comprehend the meanings of Japanese expressions, and use them correctly.

Even if your course or textbook has a chapter devoted to this topic, there’s still likely to be hundreds that you won’t know about until you encounter them in the wild, so to speak.

But the good news is that the more you learn, the better you become at getting a feel for when you read or hear a new one. It’s just one of those things that you pick up through a lot of exposure and study.


What Japanese expressions do you know and like? Share them down below with a comment and let me know the meanings behind them!

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