Japanese Proverb: Everything In Life Is Like The Horse Of The Old Man, Sai

Today, Shin shared one of his favorite Japanese Proverbs with me in reference to my poignant story of what rooted me to Japan. Shin is one of my private students, a wise man who’s pretty much ridden the rollercoaster of life. Sometimes, I feel like I am doing all the learning since he speaks English pretty well already. While I give him the opportunity to continue practicing his English, he teaches me so much about Japanese culture and life in general. Needless to say, I often look forward to our lessons.

The Japanese proverb Shin shared today in reference to my story is this: “Jinkan banji saio gauma (じんかん ばんじ さいお がうま),” which he translated as: “Everything in our life is unpredictable; we (humans) can’t possibly know what our outcomes will be, only God knows the truth.”

When he said this, it deeply resonated with me, especially after some difficult events during my first month here (about which I wrote a poem: https://chivesrichards.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/i-do-not-blame-you-a-poem-2/), but this proverb only confirmed an absolute truth for me: nothing lasts except God. Of course, we should be thankful and treasure the blessings in our lives – our families, friends, careers, homes, etc. – but with the awareness that even these are not absolute, I believe we have a greater ability to appreciate these precious things. But the only thing that never changes – that’s eternal and invariable – is God. How, then, can we not trust an unchanging being? The world may crumble and fall apart, and there, God will still remain, unwavering. Thus, this proverb was a gentle reminder not to root my confidence in earthly things, but in heavenly things; a reminder of 2 Corinthians 4:18: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” In doing so, I am better able to appreciate my blessings, and give perspective to my suffering.

This proverb also calls to mind an excerpt from a daily wisdom book I read in my early 20s:

“What is the basis of our security? When we start thinking about that question, we may give many answers: success, money, friends, property, popularity, family, connections, insurance, and so on. We may not always think that any of these forms the basis of our security, but our actions and feelings may tell us otherwise. When we start losing money, our friends, or our popularity, our anxiety often reveals how deeply our sense of security is rooted in these things.

A spiritual life in which our security is based is not in any created things, as good as they may be, but in God, who is everlasting love. We’ll probably never be completely free from our attachment to the temporal world, but if we want to live in that world in a truly free way, we’d better not belong to it. “You cannot be the slave of both God and money (Luke 16:13)”.”

After work, I wanted to know more about this Japanese proverb. Shin would’ve liked to explain the proverb’s source as it was derived from an ancient story, but I sensed that he didn’t want to cut into our time-sensitive lesson (since we always seem to run out of time so fast). So when I got home, I looked it up. The literal translation of this proverb is this: “Everything in life is like the horse of the old man, Sai.”

The story of the old man Sai is called Enanji, and can be dated to the second century BC. So why is everything in life like the horse of the old man, Sai?

Here’s the story:

There was an old man who was good at fortune telling in northern China.

North of his place lived the people 胡of Ko (こ), where a fort existed at the border between the two countries.

One day, the old man’s horse had broken loose and ran away towards the northern country Ko.

Horses around this northern area were generally pretty good, and often fetched a good price, so his neighbours felt sorry and visited him to cheer him up.

However, the old man didn’t look remotely sad and said,

“You can’t really say that this is never going to be a fluke afterwards.”

After a while, the horse came back to the old man with many excellent horses from Ko.

When the neighbours visited the old man for a celebration, the old man shook his head and said,

“You cannot really say that this is never going to be a disaster afterwards.”

After a while, the old man’s son had fallen off one of the horses and broke his leg.

The neighbours felt sorry for the old man and his son, so they visited them to offer consolation. The old man then said,

“You can’t really say that this is never going to be a miracle afterwards.”

A year later, the people of Ko attacked the fort.

All the youngsters near the fort went to war.

They managed to save the fort from Ko, but most of them were killed during the war.

However, because the old man’s son had a broken leg, he didn’t go to the war and was safe.”

Thus, this story is delineating that Sai’s horse caused unhappiness from happiness, and happiness from unhappiness in his life. “What you think is good or bad can easily betray your judgement,” said a blogger regarding the interpretation of this proverb.

In other words, as another blogger said, this story comes down to this truth: everything happens for a reason, which I think we’ve all heard. It’s one of the most universal truths after all. This story truly encapsulates that sometimes, things we imagine to be the best for us aren’t always so, and the terrible things in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.

Simply put for me: if the tragedy that opened my eyes to Japan never happened, I wouldn’t be immersed in one of my greatest blessings to date: being in Japan. It was like the horse of the old man, Sai – I gained much happiness from unhappiness. I know other challenges await, but knowing that I am merely a visitor on earth with numbered days helps me to remember that nothing lasts anyway, even suffering; that even throughout such unhappiness in the eyes of the world, I can be joyful because I know where I am going, and to know where one is going provides unwavering hope.

So yes to Shin – everything in life is, indeed, unpredictable. Only God knows the truth.


Kurashiki, Japan


Okayama, Japan


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