The Japanese word for riddle is なぞなぞ (nazo nazo). Today I thought it would be cool to go over some Japanese riddles and let you try to figure out the answers.
In each section below there will be one riddle written entirely in Japanese. Go ahead and read it and try to figure it out. Once you’ve come up with your answer, scroll down further and you will see the answer in parenthesis like so:
(This is the answer!)
If you’re not sure about the answer, then read the explanation I provide afterwords.
Japanese Riddle #1
We’ll start with one of the most common Japanese riddles first.
If this were to be translated into English it would be something along the lines of “bread is bread, but what bread can you not eat?”
Now here’s a clue, don’t think too hard about the English translation. The key to figuring out this riddle lays in the Japanese that is used.
Once you think you’ve got it, scroll down to see the answer.
(フライパン – a frying pan)
Alright, let’s talk about the riddle and its answer so that we can fully appreciate it.
This riddle is completely based on the word パン (pan) which means “bread” in Japanese. The answer is the word フライパン (furaipan) which means “frying pan” and phonetically shares the パン part.
This is the first lesson to understanding and figuring out Japanese riddles: word play.
It helps if you’ve got a pretty good sized vocabulary so that you can draw upon words that sound like or share parts with the hint word in the riddle.
Alright, let’s move on to the next one.
Japanese Riddle #2
This next riddle is also a really common one. Having said that, it’s still pretty tricky the first time you encounter it.
I’m going to give you the English translation now and then a hint. Translated, this riddle would say “snack time is at 3 o’clock, what time is it now?”
The hint is how this riddle is written. Notice anything that seems a little weird?
Go ahead and think about the answer and then check it out below.
(にじ – two o’clock)
Alright, this one may be confusing so let’s break it down.
This riddle is all about misdirection, and the way that it does that is by using hiragana for the essential parts instead of kanji.
The kanji for o’clock is 時 (ji) and the kanji for character is 字 (ji). Now you can see that they are read the exact same way, and if we use the kanji that’s used to count characters we understand the true meaning of the riddle.
Now the English translation would be “‘okashi’ has three characters, how many characters does ‘ima’ have?” which you can count to get to two.
So the trick for this riddle is (again) hidden within the riddle itself by using hiragana to hide its true form.
It uses misdirection, and even the English translation I gave is led to make you think about time when the key is to think about spelling characters.
Japanese Riddle #3
Now we’re at riddle number three, which once again, is a common one to see.
The nice thing about all of these is that you’re learning the tricks to figuring out the correct answer in Japanese.
I’ll give you the English translation now, but maybe you’d be better off just thinking about it in Japanese. At any rate, it’s “what happens twice in a day, but only once in a year?”
There is actually an English riddle that is nearly identical to this one in the way that it’s set up and solved.
Have you figured it out?
Once you have, or if you just want to see the answer, look at it next.
(ち – chi)
This one is a phonetic riddle similar to the first one, but then the trick is hidden in the way that it’s worded (just like the second riddle!).
I’ll explain. The word for “one day” is 1日 and it’s pronounced いちにち (ichi nichi). The word for “one year” is 1年 and it’s pronounced いちねん (ichi nen).
So you can see that ち (chi) occurs twice in “one day” but only once in “one year.”
So by now you’re starting to get a sense of the things that Japanese riddles like to do. There’s a lot of misdirection, there’s a lot of word play, and the hint for figuring it out can often times be found in the way that the riddle is spelled.
It can be kind of tough to figure them out if you’re just getting started learning Japanese, but it’s also a lot of fun to play with the language like this.
Japanese Riddle #4
Alright, now we are at the final riddle for today.
Go ahead and take a shot to see if you can figure out the answer.
I’ll give you an English translation now, but it may or may not help. The key is always in the Japanese somewhere…
Alright, it’s “what is square, and yet a ball?”
Does that seem paradoxical? That’s why it’s a riddle, right?
Okay, let’s take a look at the answer below and then talk a little bit about it.
(段ボール – cardboard)
As I’m sure you can see, this one is similar to the first where the answer is based off of two different words sharing something phonetically with each other.
In Japanese, the word ボール (bōru) means “ball” and the word 段ボール (dan bōru) means “cardboard” but they both share the ボール (bōru) part with each other.
Do You Know Any Riddles?
That’s all I’ve got for today. Most of these riddles are common in Japan and your average Japanese person has most likely heard them before.
It’s fun to check them out and see how Japanese people like to form their riddles, but if you want to figure them out you have to have a fairly decent sized vocabulary so that you can think of these words that share the same reading, but have a different meaning.
If you know of any good Japanese riddles that you’d like to share, then please go ahead and put them down in the comments.
I’ll give them by best shot!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: