J-WOTD: 天は二物を与えず

てんはにぶつをあたえず (tenha nibutsuwo ataezu)

* “J-WOTD” = “Japanese Word of the Day”

Rather than being a “J-Word of the Day”, this is a great ことわざ that I heard today. It is a strange one, and would normally instinctively go against the grain for most foreigners.

It literally means, “God (or heaven) doesn’t hand out double servings (of talent, or skill)”.

One of my bosses used it talking about another guy at work, pointing out that he is really skilled at what he does technically, but can not really deal well with other people well. He said 「天は二物を与えずですよ」 and was quite happy that this guy was highly skilled in his area. I guess this is why so many Japanese people find it easy to settle into one profession, and become a real craftsman at what they do (this is different of course from just being a stagnant salaryman all your life though!). It is interesting that 職人 (craftsmen) are valued much more in this country than overseas, and this phrase brought that realisation home for me.

Westerners (I will not go so far as to say “all gaijin”) usually will not hesitate to swap and change careers or professions in the pursuit of money, even if it is at the expense of their vault of skill, talent or know-how that they have built up in their career thus far. Japanese people do not need to be rich or famous in order to be deeply respected, and I value that part of the Japanese spirit. People here generally realise that one just can’t have it all, and are generally happy with their own natural talents. Is it better to spend your life chasing something you may never get, or just enjoy yourself, and what you have?

4 thoughts on “J-WOTD: 天は二物を与えず”

  1. Just to be contraversial, I’m going to throw in a counter example. What about ‘kaizen’ and Toyota’s production methods. If my memory serves me correctly, the beauty of the Toyota production lines was that one very small team works on each car and carries out a bunch of jobs (the exact opposite of Henry Ford’s production line). I thought the beauty of this was meant to be that people didn’t get bored that way. Perhaps Mr. Toyota gives out 二物?

  2. Thanks for your input Sotei-guy..
    By the way, you remind me of a recent article we published on our site about “MNP”, you should check it out :)

    You are missing my point. Kaizen makes people into craftsmen even more than Henry Ford did. The people who work on those lines at Toyota would be specialists in building cars, rather than specialists at putting bolts on the rear left wheel of cars (or any other mundane work that Ford would have had their production line people doing).

    I doubt the people at Toyota would switch and change their fields after becoming professionals of the overall process of making a car…

  3. ” Is it better to spend your life chasing something you may never get, or just enjoy yourself, and what you have?”

    This is a very deep and important question.

    I’ve been pondering over it again and again recently.

    Is it better to live happily and loving with your family but the price of turning your back on the hero you could become or is it better to pursue justice for the benefit of strangers at the cost of causing much pain to those who love you?

  4. The situation that has only just started to occur in Japan whereby young people are not sticking it out in the one profession gruellingly moving up chains of command is perhaps relfective of a move into the Information Society (情報化世界 as it was first termed); expert craftsmen will always be valued, I would argue that you are right in so much as the Japanese seem to vest quite a lot of value culturally in these kinds of very specific, very skilled, done-for-a-very-long-time jobs.

    However, its a fact of a globalised job market that the workforce needs to be increasingly flexible, in order to deal with new job requirements brought about by ever speedier changes in technology and the fluctuations of an increasingly interlinked world market.

    As such its not uncommon for people to change careers several times, and I dont think that it this kind of situation is a loss socially or culturally. Changing jobs only means taking the experience you’ve had in one field and applying it where approporiate to another field. Experience and skill will always accrue with time, regardless of shifts in career, and those who are able to shift around may well be of more value, if only because they are able to adapt their skills to a variety of situations.

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