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Advanced Japanese Lesson: 早起きは三文の徳;The Early-Bird gets the Mon

「早起きは三文の徳」ということわざを知っていますか? 辞書には「早起きをすると、何かしら得になる」と書かれていますが、具体的にいくらの得になるか気になりますよね。





Do you know the Japanese proverb ‘Hayaoki wa sanmonn no toku‘ (早起きは三文の徳) (Like the English proverb “The early bird catches the worm.” ) ? The dictionary defines the meaning of this proverb as ‘Waking up early brings benefits,’ but you have to wonder what kind of concrete benefits are we talking about here?

The word ‘mon‘ (文) used in the proverb is an archaic unit of currency that was used during the Edo period. There are records from this time showing that kake soba – a simple bowl of soba noodles with broth – sold for 16mon. Today a bowl of kake soba noodles sells for between 500 to 700-yen, so we could calculate that 1-mon was worth about 31 to 44 yen by today’s standards.

Of course during the Edo period there was a large degree of fluctuation in the value of the currency, so there are number of theories about exactly what the equivalent value of 1-mon would actually be today. But it seems that according to this proverb, waking up early will save you roughly 100-yen.

And by the way, the kanji characters “徳” and “得” are both read ‘toku,’ but the meaning of each character is slightly different. “徳” expresses a ‘superior character trait gained through experience’ and is the same character used in the word ‘doutoku (道徳) – meaning the standards individuals should protect in order to maintain social order and discipline. On the other hand “得” simply expresses profit or gains.

However, the two characters are often used interchangeably. The word ‘Tokyou‘ (徳用) is a good example of this. If you found the characters “徳用品” (tokuyou hin  “economy-size” ) at a market in Japan, you would know that this means you’ll likely be getting more volume than is in the standard package for that product. You’d also know that this will likely mean ‘greater value and more savings.’

As it turns out though, the monetary unit ‘mon‘ no longer exists, but a number of phrases like ‘Ichi-mon nashi‘ (一文無し) or ‘Bita ichi -mon, kasanai‘ (びた一文、貸さない) (‘bita‘ means money without value) still exist today.  Both phrases are different ways of saying that one is ‘penniless’ or that one ‘doesn’t have a penny (a red cent) to their name.’