September 22, 2021

Japanese Idiom: 切磋琢磨【せっさたくま】Friendly Rivalry for Individual Cultivation

Today's word:


Friendly rivalry for individual cultivation

This idiom is used when several people compete together to better themselves individually. Through diligent application (of work or study), the individuals improve.

A friendly rivalry for individual cultivation.

This may be competing for the best grade on a test or to see who can win when sparing in karate. It is a friendly competition/rivalry.

Let's break down the four-letter word, I mean, idiom:

  • 切磋【せっさ】 this means "work hard" but it also means "polishing (stones)" and original meant to remove rough edges from precious stones.
  • 琢磨【たくま】 this means "to polish (jewels)" or to "cultivate" 

And if we break down the kanji, we see there's a lot of polishing going on. To cultivate oneself, you need to polish yourself, cut the rough edges off.

  • 切 (to cut)
  • 磋 (to polish)
  • 琢 (to polish)
  • 磨 (to polish; to grind; to brush (teeth))

An example sentence:


Shintaro was able to pass the exam thanks to his best friend, with whom he had a friendly competition.


  • 慎太郎さん Shintaro [a common male first name]
  • 試験 test; exam
  • 合格 passing (test); success
  • 試験に合格した passed a test
  • のは as for; regarding [the の makes the preceding into a noun phrase which allows the entire phrase to work with the は (topic particle)]
  • 切磋琢磨した did a friendly competition with...
  • 親友 best friend; close friend
  • 切磋琢磨した親友 a close friend with whom (Shintaro) did a friendly competition [for clauses like this, it is usually best to start at the end (the noun) and work back through the adjectives]
  • おかげ thanks to; with the help of
  • だった was

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