We have a popular Japanese saying, “敵に塩を送る” — literally, “present (supply) salt to one's enemy”, meaning ‘play fair and square, not taking advantage of the weak point of your rival.’ It’s different from an act which serves the interest of the enemy by the basic spirit.

This proverb came from the historic episode that Uesugi Kenshin (1530–1578), the Middle Ages warlord of Echigo Country which faces to the Japan Sea, therefore is abundant with salt resources kept supplying salt to his rival, actually enemy, Takeda Shingen (1521–1573), the warlord of Kai Country, mountainous country adjacent to Echigo, which lacks in salt essential to human existence during long lasting and consuming wars that lasted eleven years (1553–1564) between them, with 5th fatal campaigns. Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin actually crossed swords once for all on the sandbar at the confluence of Chikuma River and Sai River, which is famous for the name of the showdown on the Kawanaka-jima sandbar.

However, Uesugi never shut off the supply rout of salt to Takeda for the cause of engaging fair play. He firmly believed the war should be won in the battle field, not on the sideline such as supply rout or logistics.

With that said, we use the saying, “Present salt to one's enemy” as the metonym of fair play, gentleman-ship and sportsmanship, we call it 武士道 — Bushido — in other words, Samurai Spirit sometimes, though I don't mean every Japanese has observed or observes it.

I’m curious to know if there are counterpart English sayings, maxims, or expressions portraying the meaning to the same effect.

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    Perhaps the closest saying in English is one you have included in your question - "play fair". An interesting parallel could be found with Byrhtnoth's actions at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_of_Maldon - ironically, Maldon is now associated with the production of sea salt!
    – user11752
    Jun 25, 2013 at 12:08
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    @MarkBannister: +1 for the reference to Byrthtnoth at the battle of Maldon... I was thinking of it too. However, there's a fine line between honorably giving one's enemy a fair fight, and arrogantly risking the lives of one's own people (who have entrusted their lives to their leader) for the sake of pride. This is somewhat controversial, but Byrthtnoth's action is seen by many as a symptom of "honor" gone too far and become arrogance, an end in itself. Of course, some might argue the same for Uesugi (I don't know the history).
    – LarsH
    Jun 25, 2013 at 17:39
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    So, who won, between Uesugi and Takeda? Jun 25, 2013 at 19:17
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    Adrian Petescu. There was no winner albeit 11 years consuming battles. The war ended by the death (1573) of Takeda Shingen from a disease 3 years earlier than that of his rival, Uesugi Kenshin. Both Takeda and Uesugi are known as one of the strongest warlords in Japan's Age of the Warring State, though both failed to become the supreme ruler - Shogun albeit their wishes. Jun 25, 2013 at 20:28
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    There's also the more mean spirited rub salt into the wounds, where the one who's currently winning (or has won) does take advantage of his enemy's weakness to inflict an even more crushing victory. Jun 25, 2013 at 22:22

13 Answers 13


I would think the idiom we are looking for is closer to Provide him with a fighting chance or a level playing field

As for the Don't kick a man... I would contest that the rival in the narrative might not have been down, just lacking salt... I think the saying reflects something earlier than when the enemy is down (but could possibly also be used in that context)

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    +1. Leveling the playing field seems more apt, since it's keeping the opponent alive and kicking vs giving them another chance.
    – WernerCD
    Jun 25, 2013 at 16:11
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    @Werner: One place where level playing field doesn't capture the spirit of the original is that the phrase is often used when some outside arbiter is the one who "levels the field," rather than the opponent. I suppose it could be used when an enemy helps an opponent, but I don't think it's usually used in that sense. For that reason, I like provide a fighting chance over level the playing field, although both suggestions have merit.
    – J.R.
    Jun 26, 2013 at 9:01
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    I've always heard it "Give 'em a fighting chance". For the other, it's more common in my experience to use "level" as a verb: "Let's level the playing field."
    – Muhd
    Apr 14, 2014 at 21:56
  • Any explanation for the single downvote out of 46 votes?
    – mplungjan
    Jan 3, 2019 at 13:25

In addition to phrases such as "play fair" and "don't kick a man when he's down" is the concept of Chivalry.

When used in a modern day context, this entails standards of conduct such as courtesy, generosity, valour and fairness towards one's antagonists.

Originally (and still today, when used in a historical context) Chivalry meant the code of conduct required of a knight in armour - as such, there appears to be a strong parallel with the original question's reference to Bushido.


Based on your historical narrative, it seems that an ideal counterpart would emphasize a spirit of fairness that trumps an opportunity to exploit a weakness during some struggle between two opponents.

That being said, an English saying that I would offer is:

Don't kick him when he's down.

The saying refers to some kind of fistfight between two opponents, with the exhortation that, should you manage to knock your opponent to the ground, you shouldn't start kicking him while he is unable to defend himself.

The phrase is often used in a figurative sense. I managed to find one instance where it was apparently used by a former U.S. president1, 2:

“Don't kick him when he's down,” the president warned. “We can't. We have to be very conscious of Gingrich's standing. He's the only one that can pull it together.”

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  • I'm pretty sure that's still a figurative usage - "standing" there means "social standing", not "standing up"
    – Izkata
    Jun 25, 2013 at 15:19
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    I'd take "kicking someone when they are down" to mean that once one has won, it is unsporting/unkind/unnecessary to totally obliterate the opponent, which is slightly different from ensuring that the upcoming fight is on a level playing field (which actually might work pretty well for answer itself!) Jun 25, 2013 at 15:24
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    I have to agree with @MattKrause on this. Jun 25, 2013 at 15:34
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    @jwpat7: +1 for "Heaping Coals of Fire . . .." I read about this perplexing saying in G. Christian Weiss's book "Insights Into Bible Times and Customs" (Lincoln, NE: Back to the Bible Broadcast, 1972), p.68ff., which is probably long out of print. Along with Jesus' teaching on "enemies," we have plenty of practical --albeit difficult at times--guidance as to how to treat those who are "at war" with us. Jesus says pray for 'em and love 'em, which goes way beyond letting them have the salt (or burning coals) they need. Jun 25, 2013 at 17:23

I think the closest English analogue (at least in the UK) to "bushido" might be "cricket." In English, it's usually used in the negative: "that's not cricket," describing something that gives you an advantage perceived as unfair.


Honor among enemies, seems to me to be exactly what you are looking for.

The word honor has been around for a long time and can mean several things, but I think the most applicable would be:

a : a keen sense of ethical conduct : integrity (a man of honor)

b : a showing of usually merited respect : recognition (pay honor to our founder)

c : one's word given as a guarantee of performance (on my honor, I will be there)

So the phrase honor among enemies literally states that all involved will conduct themselves in such a way that they may be said to have honor(recognition, respect and a guarantee of good conduct) from their opponent.


It's not exactly analogous, but "[playing by the] Marquis of Queensbury rules" might work here.

The rules dictated how boxing matches were to be run to ensure a fair fight where the outcome was determined largely by participants' boxing ability rather than outside interference, equipment, etc. However, it can be used more generally to refer to determining ground rules for a fight and staying within them. It might be a little obscure now, and it sometimes has a slightly derogatory tinge to it (i.e., "We can't play by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules--this is really important").

More generally, you might also describe that as ensuring that the opponent has a "sporting chance" or invoke other fair play/sportsmanship metaphors.


The only two proverbs I could find in the Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (1983) that seem directly relevant to "Present salt to your enemy" are ones I have never heard used in the wild:

Fair play's a jewel.


He that makes a good war makes a good peace.

The former emphasizes the value of fair dealing for its own sake; the latter suggests that dealing justly with enemies before the outcome is decided leads to a more lasting peace afterward.

In addition, a couple of proverbs emphasize honorable dealing as a practical (or perhaps spiritual) advantage:

A clear conscience is like a coat of mail.


Do right and fear no man.

There are, on the other hand, many common English proverbs that justify taking whatever advantage one can in real or figurative warfare:

All's fair in love and war.

It signifies nothing to play well if you lose.

Turn about is fair play.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

What goes around comes around.

Honor and profit lie not in one sack.

Discretion is the better part of valor.

Gain savors sweetly from anything.

Losers are always in the wrong.

Some of these sayings justify adopting dishonorable tactics if one's enemy has already done so. Others simply assert than any tactic is justified if it leads to victory—or contrarily, that any mode of conduct that leads to defeat deserves censure.

  • You missed out my personal favourite history is written by the winners/victors, but it's a good roundup of sayings relevant to honour/judgement/truth in the context of "real or figurative warfare". Jun 25, 2013 at 20:18
  • A true and sobering aphorism, FumbleFingers. Thanks for pointing it out.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 25, 2013 at 21:05
  • I'm not sure that aphorism ("History is written...") is so true. Aside from the question of whether it fits with actual surviving literature from the past... Like most postmodern-ish ideas, it's somewhat self-defeating: if it's true, then it can't be trustworthy. This is more obvious if we rephrase it as "Statements that remain extant today [such as this one] are untrustworthy."
    – LarsH
    Jun 26, 2013 at 13:25

"Fight above the belt" means not to hit your opponent in their vulnerable parts, although the inverse phrase "fight below the belt" is more common.


Bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6: 28)

But the quotee wasn't speaking in English.

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    Is there English counterpart(s) to Japanese old saying, “Present salt to your enemy.”?: Is there a problem with this often-quoted Bible verse? It seems to me to fit the bill. Jun 25, 2013 at 17:02
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    While Jesus wasn't speaking English in the original, nevertheless many of his phrases have become a standard part of English vocabulary through Tyndale's (King James') hugely influential translation. As for whether this answers the question ... I think it's as close as some of the other answers; but not the closest.
    – LarsH
    Jun 25, 2013 at 17:43

Of the two phrases that immediately spring to mind, one has already been mentioned:

Queensbury Rules!

However, in England at least, there is another phrase sometimes used:

Play the white man


Personally, I wouldn't recommend the latter phrase, as in this day and age it is not exactly PC.

  • I remember hearing (and occasionally using) "That's mighty white of you" in the 1970s and early 1980s. Definitely fell out of usage after that...
    – RonJohn
    Jun 1, 2019 at 3:39

I can think of a couple but they are a little childish..

"Playground rules" from the "Playgound honour" which can be found here

I suppose in that case "Play(ing) by the rules"

"Sportsmans bet" - not really the same thing.


Something that came to mind when I read your question was an English saying that actually has the opposite connotation to your own: "selling guns to the Indians". It's a well-established tenet of military strategy that your adversary needs weapons to make war. The rifle, especially repeating rifles like the iconic Winchester lever-action carbine, tipped the scales sharply against the Native Americans' archers (who until then had enjoyed a significant advantage in rate of fire) beginning shortly before the American Civil War. The native tribes thus sought to level the playing field by getting their hands on as many guns as they could, both by taking them off the bodies of settlers they killed in raids, and by trading with unscrupulous merchants. Those merchants were typically viewed as traitors to the United States and were hanged when caught, so "selling guns to the Indians" is typically viewed with the connotation that you are breaking an embargo, providing your enemy with the means to fight you more effectively.

Now, weapons aren't food (or salt, in this case), so it's not an exact opposite worldview. I doubt very much that Kenshin would have taken the same view to supplying Shingen with swords or spearheads. However, Western military thought typically holds that a fair fight is a fool's fight; any advantage you can get, you should take. A European or American battle commander would see absolutely nothing wrong with besieging an enemy encampment, cutting off food and water supplies and simply waiting until there was nobody left to fight, which would be a direct analog to Kenshin cutting off salt supplies to Shingen's region.

To be fair, this is not a worldview that is unique to the West; Japan itself invaded Manchuria in 1931 and occupied it until the end of WWII, for the express reason that, as an island state, they had limited access to mineral resources like metal ore and petroleum, and were almost totally dependent upon China to provide them, which is not a good strategic position for a world superpower.

  • The win by any means school of thought you describe in this answer only became really prevalent with industrialisation, as we started living in a time where anyone can kill anyone in an instant, no matter whether they are weak or strong.
    – Paul S.
    Jun 25, 2013 at 23:04
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    I disagree. The practice I mentioned of besieging an enemy fortification was a common practice all the way back to feudal times in Europe. In fact, the democratization that typically goes in hand with industrialization has actually resulted in many formerly common practices being banned as atrocities. Things like germ warfare (dating back to plague-infested bodies flung over castle walls), mistreatment of noncombatants including women and children (for instance grabbing yourself some female entertainment for the next few days while sacking the village you just conquered), etc.
    – KeithS
    Jun 25, 2013 at 23:24
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    In fact, using deception—like, say, parking a large hollow horse filled with armed men in front of a walled city so that it (the horse) will be dragged inside—to defeat an enemy whom you can't overcome by main force goes way, way back.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 26, 2013 at 1:02
  • As a matter of fact, Kenshin did not personally “present” salt to Shingen. He simply did not close the supply rout of salt to Shingen, because in my view, salt traffic between two countries wasn’t strategic matter of importance that can affect on the outcome to the war to Shingen. It may have been a trivial matter to him. By the way, I’m not arguing whether it was wise or stupid, moralistic or immoral. MMV. It’s a different matter. I’m simply asking whether there is similar saying or not just from linguistic point of view. Jun 26, 2013 at 6:07
  • I don't think it's strictly an either-or matter between @PaulS.' and KeithS' positions. In the case of the American revolutionary soldiers against the British, there certainly seems to have been a progression from fighting by the accepted rules (line up in rows and wear bright red, e.g.) to winning a just fight even if it means hiding and sniping; and that progression has gone much further when we look at the battles of the last century. But that doesn't mean the progression is universal: certainly there were always unfair fighters, since Cain killed Abel.
    – LarsH
    Jun 26, 2013 at 13:48

It's not really a saying, but I'm reminded of a quote from Robert McNamara, from during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"...look at the crisis from his point of view, look at the options that you are considering from his point of view. Try to pick an option that achieves your purpose at minimal cost to him, political, military, otherwise to him. That avoids pushing him into an emotional frame of mind in which he is likely to lash out irrationally with great cost to him and you."

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