Japanese idioms of improbability



I'm sure most (English speakers) have heard terms like:

when pigs fly


when hell freezes over


when the Cubs win the World Series [obsolete] (U.S. only)

Am wondering if there is anything similar in Japanese.

Wikipedia has a list but nothing for Japanese: List_of_idioms_of_improbability


Posted 2017-12-26T09:09:18.930

Reputation: 1 372



You can find many idioms that denote something is impossible on online glossaries, including:

  • 石に花咲く (a flower blooms on a stone)
  • 太陽が西から昇る (the sun rising from the west)
  • 網の目に風とまる (wind being trapped by a net)
  • 畑に蛤 (finding clams in a vegetable field)
  • 山の芋鰻になる (potatoes becoming eels)

But these are all fairly rare. I think these are used like (impossible event) なんて (idiom) だ/(の)ようなものだ. As far as I know, none is widely used in the form of "~の時に", "~たら", etc. Saying 石に花が咲いたら仕事します, for example, will only confuse people.


Posted 2017-12-26T09:09:18.930

Reputation: 199 900

1The second one is the same as the Chinese one in the Wikipedia list. Is that where it's derived from? – Y12K – 2017-12-26T09:45:50.757

@Y12K Perhaps. Anyway "太陽が西から昇ったら…" makes little sense, although it may not be impossible to guess the intended meaning if someone used it. – naruto – 2017-12-26T09:55:36.520

Jisho lists one meaning of as "frog"... Two possible readings, completely opposite probabilities. :D

– muru – 2017-12-27T01:37:38.703

2@muru I've believed 蛙 (frog) and 蛤 (clam) are totally different kanji, but apparently 蛤 is listed as an alternative form of 蛙 in some dictionaries. I don't know what's behind this, but at least in modern Japanese they're totally different. – naruto – 2017-12-27T07:33:58.523


Slightly different than others. We have "逆立ちしたって出来ない": Direct translation: "Even if you did hand standing, it's impossible". It means no matter what kind of effort you put, you can't do it.

I read Japanese avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto reviewed Diego Velasquez who is famous for "Las Meninas". "俺には逆立ちしたってあんなの描けやしない" It probably means "No matter what kind of effort I put, I couldn't draw like that".


Posted 2017-12-26T09:09:18.930


1「逆立ちしたって出来ない」は、一番いいですね(+1 vote) – mackygoo – 2017-12-27T13:49:08.733

@mackygoo おそれ入ります。腹八分目もEdit後に詳細まで書いておられ驚きました。 – None – 2017-12-27T14:04:29.577


枯{か}れ木{き}に花{はな} (が) 咲く is literally translated as "Flowers bloom on dead trees".

Naruto introduces a lot of expressions as examples in Japanese language that denote things seldom happen, or absolutely never happen or impossible to happen, but in reality they are hardly used in Japan except "(A) 太陽が西から昇る", so many Japanese people including me have seldom heard of them. Therefore, it is better not to introduce other than (A) to others.

As for the expression I introduced in the first line of my answer, we hear relatively well as well as (A), but we don't immediately notice that it presents a proverb corresponding to English expressions presented by OP. However, thinking logically of the expression, it can certainly be understood as corresponding to the English examples. So please introduce it also with (A) with confidence or use them yourself.


Posted 2017-12-26T09:09:18.930

Reputation: 14 867