A Japanese Proverb in my Dreams

A few nights ago I woke three times to the same Japanese saying in my head, “Sen-Yomi-Oni-Yomi“. Because of its persistence, I wrote it down, hoping I could then fall asleep, and I did.

Having lived in Japan for 7 years and graduated from a Japanese College, I still dream in Japanese occasionally, but I always understand the Japanese in my dreams, just as you understand dreams in your native language. Yet I had no idea what that phrase meant in Japanese. I did know, however, that it had the form of a Japanese proverb (kotowaza) and was not a sentence. Specifically, I knew that it was a Japanese 4-character saying, something the Chinese have too. But I had no idea which Chinese/Japanese characters (kanji) were involved. Unlike English and other European languages, the sounds themselves were not enough. Let me explain.

Any given sound in Japanese can have a few to a dozen of meanings associated with it. And each meaning has a different character — a kanji. In English we see this with synonyms like to, too and two have the same sound but different meanings, but these are few in English while in Japanese almost every sound has many possible meanings.

So, when a Japanese person hears an expression they don’t understand, their brain has an internal slot machine which spins characters through their minds eye until they get a combination that works — one that makes sense.

Take, for example the Japanese saying of 一寸先は闇 (issun saki wa yami) which translates as “one inch in front of you is always dark” which implies that we don’t know the future, yet we still walk forward. Or something like that. But, if I were unfamiliar with the saying, my Japanese Kanji Slot Machine may throw up various characters for the each sound. For the sound “I” (top to bottom): “stomach”, “one” or “meaning”. For sound “sun” there would only be one word possible: a Japanese ancient unit of measure of about 1.3 inches. For se sound “saki”, I might see the words “cape” or “before”. For the sound “wa” I might get “peace”, the particle marker called “wa”, or the word “speaking”. Finally for the sound “yami”, either “darkness” or “sickness”. My mind’s character slot machine would spin these until I get an answer to hopefully fit the context.

So above I illustrate the various characters that my mind started spinning for me to match the proverb in my dream: “Sen-Yomi-Oni-Yomi”. At the bottom right of that diagram, I chose a saying which these characters could make.

Question to readers: Do you prefer a different reading? What do think this was a message my dreams where sending to me?

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