There is a Japanese proverb, 武士は食わねど高楊子、of which literal translation is “Samurai uses (show off) a toothpick, even he hasn’t eaten meal,” meaning a Samurai glories in his honorable poverty. Samurais were esteemed as a warrior class, but many of them lived on meager salary. I’m curious to know if there is a similar saying in English.

Yahoo Japan Glossary lists “Better go to bed supper-less than rise in debt” as the equivalent expression, but I don’t think it well conveys the notion of Samurai’s self-esteem and honorable endurance of poverty.

By the way, “have eaten” meant “to fare well," in the Oriental world, as I heard that Chinese people used to exchange "你, 吃了飯么?" – “Did you eat (finished) meal (breakfast)?” each other as a day-to-day salute up until early 20 century. I wonder this concept and expression – having had a meal implies to fare well – applies to western culture and English language or not.

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    There is the phrase "keeping up appearances" But this has the connotation of being too proud to admit to your bad fortune.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 7:01
  • A somewhat related question that I posted a few days back...
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 7:06
  • I think that the concept of 'honorable poverty' is not much praised in Western cultures.
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 7:12
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    I think “better to go to bed supper-less than rise in debt” does actually imply self-esteem and honorable endurance of poverty. Even though the person is hungry, they refuse to go into debt to someone else. Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 13:49
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    This page kotowaza-allguide.com/hu/bushiwakuwanedo.html also suggests "Eagles eat no flies" for the English, but I've never heard that used. Indeed, the top search hits only turned up pages in Japanese!
    – Kimball
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 13:53

5 Answers 5


In addition to the phrase suggested by Elian, I feel that keeping a stiff upper lip, is close to the meaning of the Japanese proverb you quote.

Someone who has a ​stiff ​upper ​lip does not show ​their ​feelings when they are ​upset (Cambridge Dictionary)

To be courageous or stoic in the face of adversity. (The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

A steady and determined attitude or manner in the face of trouble (Merriam-Webster)

One who has a stiff upper lip displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion. (Wikipedia)

The Phrase Dictionary further expands on its meaning, saying

That 'do your duty and show no emotion' attitude was expressed in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade:

  Theirs not to make reply,
  Theirs not to reason why,
  Theirs but to do and die:
  Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

Which makes me think the phrase may in some ways reflect the martial (?) philosophy of the samurai, although maybe not which as much weight on honour or wealth as the question implies the Japanese phrase has.

Related phrases suggested by the Phrases Dictionary, which have more to do with keeping a sunny disposition, are "keep your chin up" or "keep your pecker up".

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    re the Tennyson quote -the vital part of that stanza was the previous two lines. They (i.e. the soldiers) didn't know that 'someone had blunder'd/' In any case, the 'English public school system' was a million miles away from any experience the standard infantry would have experience. But that's literary criticism and I gave your answer +1 anyway because I think the phrase 'stiff upper lip' is probably as close as it gets.
    – Jascol
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:43
  • @jascol Well, I certainly agree with that, but I still think the quoted part of the poem is the one which deals with doing your duty and show no emotion - the exact circumstances aren't relevant in that context. If someone wants to fully understand what the poem's about, you'll of course have to read the entire thing :)
    – eirikdaude
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 22:35

Consider, put on a brave (or bold) face/brave front

To react to or face difficulties, setbacks, or adversity with high spirits or good cheer. Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

To behave in a way that makes people think you are happy when you are not Cambridge Dictionary


The one that came to mind for me is from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”


In English we have a phrase, "dress for success". There are some who believe that success and respect will come to those who look successful, and when some of these people become pundits, they tell people to dress for the life they want for themselves, the life they deserve.

Some films about grifters show that advice in action, sometimes comically, in a way that is reminiscent of Kurosawa's depiction of the poverty-stricken but plucky samurai.


I agree, partially, w/ @Josh61's assessment of the proverb's meaning: Not to appear downtrodden in the face of adversity. "Keeping a stiff upper lip," (as provided by @eirikdaude) is close, but in keeping with the legendary stoicism of the Samurai, I think that the meaning also implies keeping "cool" (in the "Fonzie" sense). May I suggest:

"Playing your cards close to the vest."


"Don't show your ass."

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