In Japan we have a saying, “もの言わぬは腹膨るる業 - You feel like your stomach swelling, when you are not allowed to speak up (in public).” The origin of this phrase can be traced back to “Tsurezuregusa – Essays in Idleness” written in 1330 – 31 by Buddhist hermit, Kenko Yoshida who was forced out of public activity in his early life, and still being in popular currency.

The phrase can be applied to the frustration people, particularly journalists, novelists, and poets in despotic countries feel as well .

Are there similar metaphoric phrases to express frustration you feel when you are silenced by someone else, say your teacher, boss in your office, political authorities, (or even close votes of the forum, ha, ha)? Or there’s no such expression in the countries where everyone can enjoy freedom of speech?

  • Does Japan have less freedom of speech than US? I always thought of Japan as among politcally free countries. In any case, one could be silenced by political restraint (you'll be arrested and shot if you disagree with the government), but also economic pressure (you'll lose your job), social restraint (your family and friends will be horrified if you say that causing you social problems that aren't worth it), etc. – Jay Feb 15 '12 at 17:50
  • @Jay It is not a matter of freedom of speech, but of protocol. It is probably not a good idea to contradict your boss in front of a client in any culture, for example. It can be said, though, that Japan has a very etiquette-conscious culture by Western standards. – choster Feb 15 '12 at 18:35
  • @Jay: The culture is very different. People feel more restrained by their sense of obligation to family, friends, society, employer, etc. There is a constant conflict between how one must behave and how one really feels (cf. tatemae and honne). There is also a Japanese proverb to the effect that each man has three faces: one he shows the world, one he shows his friends, and one he only reveals to himself. This is a major topic, and if you are curious you could find lots of information on it. – Robusto Feb 15 '12 at 19:05
  • @Jay In a nutshell, we all feel discomfort when we have to mask our true feelings. Japanese culture views this as a noble sacrifice; Western culture views this as a punishment for cowardice / hypocrisy. – Pitarou Feb 18 '12 at 10:26

In English, we use several metaphors to express this feeling which arises from being forbidden to speak.

  • pent-up anger, trapped like an animal in a pen
  • bottled up anger, trapped like a fluid in a sealed container
  • stifled or smothered anger, stopped from healthy flow like a person who is suffocating

Bridle? Maybe. Literally, bridle, n., is the device for controlling a horse's head. Bridle, v., can mean to control a person or to control one's own visible reactions, as a rider controls a horse using a bridle (trans.). Or, it can mean to react with anger (not necessarily hidden) when one's will is interfered with (intrans.). The problem, then, is that bridled anger may be misunderstood to mean the act of bottling up an emotion, when what you meant was the resulting feeling.

Responding to the follow-up question about where we locate stifled anger: emotional reactions are located in the stomach not because of a cultural metaphor but because of a physical cause. Release of the stress hormone cortisol stimulates the body's “fight or flight” systems and disrupts other systems which might compete for resources, notably digestion. Extreme ongoing emotion can even cause evacuation of the digestive tract and bladder (the person may vomit, urinate, and defecate uncontrollably). This is thought to be an adaptation which enhances survival when one's life is threatened by an attacker.

In English, we often describe the experience of cortisol's effects as a visceral feeling, butterflies in the stomach, knot in the stomach, or sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach.

Several emotions can trigger the stress reaction, such as fear, anger, worry, and excitement. In the case of pent-up anger, the stress is continuous because the situation is unresolved, so we are likely to feel a knot in the stomach.


We don't have such a colorful expression, but we do use the verb bridle to describe our reaction to being controlled or stifled.

bridle 2 [ no obj. ] show one's resentment or anger, esp. by throwing up the head and drawing in the chin: ranchers have bridled at excessive federal control. [NOAD]

Now, as a noun, a bridle is "headgear used to control a horse" and the first sense of the verb reveals the figurative sense in entry 2 above:

bridle verb
1 [ with obj. ] (usu. be bridled) put a bridle on (a horse). • bring (something) under control; curb: the fact that he was their servant bridled his tongue.

So when we bridle at something we are metaphorically pulling at (and resenting) some restraint.

  • 3
    Even less colourfully, we fume when we're not able to get all fired up and burst into full-blown anger. – FumbleFingers Feb 15 '12 at 1:50
  • @Fumble: Though not a common expression, I like how Joyce brought color into this feeling: Was it the raw reddish glow he had so often seen on wintry mornings on the shaven gills of the priests? The face was eyeless and sour-favoured and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger. – Robusto Feb 15 '12 at 2:06
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    Quite so. Fumes are what you get when you suffocate a fire. – FumbleFingers Feb 15 '12 at 2:33
  • Fume needs to go into an answer. That's a good choice. – MetaEd Feb 15 '12 at 18:48

It looks like in Japanese culture Anger is (Fluid) Pressure, whereas in English Anger is Heat.

These are congruent -- not contradictory -- metaphors since heat produces steam, whence the steam engine, etc. But they have different implications.

  • Pressure, once built up, must be released (the "emergency valve"). See Javanese amok.
  • Heat, however, can be turned down rapidly -- at least in our modern experience, which includes far fewer fires and far more electric and gas heaters than previous generations.

So if somebody gets "hot under the collar", they'll cool down if you wait a while.

This is quite different from the Japanese scenario presented in the question.

  • 1
    Yes, frustration is like steam to us. We feel like our “stomach gets swollen” as there is no outlet to discharge frustration when we are not allowed to “vocalize” our idea and opinion under the pressure of someone else. It never cools down. We have to swallow it, which stacks up in your stomach to come up to your throat. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 15 '12 at 4:11
  • That's a nice metaphor for what Westerners sometimes sense as the social pressure of Japanese society. – John Lawler Feb 15 '12 at 15:14
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    @Yoichi Oishi: Quite a few of these written instances of "he steamed about" are in the context of him venting his spleen, so we do use the same metaphors (but we also have suck it up and go, which I find particularly nauseating! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 15 '12 at 17:38

People are often said to fume (feel or show resentment or vexation) when they are angry but not able to express this overtly.

The metaphoric space surrounding fire is well colonised in English idiomatic usages relating to anger. We get fired up (expand Word Origin & History at the end of that link) and blaze with anger, for example. If we can give voice, we vent our frustration/anger, but just like a suffocated fire unable to burn freely, we fume if we can't express our feelings openly.

  • I think fume is the best answer. – starsplusplus May 9 '14 at 10:11

In English we do have similar metaphors, like someone's "stomach churning" or how his "guts were twisted in a knot" when he is angry, upset, or frightened. But these are not restricted to cases of being forcibly silenced. It could be anger, frustration, etc, about anything.

We have numerous terms to describe the action: the metaphorical "muzzle" that Gnawme mentions, plus the literal "censor", "silence", etc. But metaphors for the resulting emotion? I can't think of anything specific to that experience.


To muzzle is "to prevent a person, group, newspaper, etc. from expressing their opinions or ideas publicly."

To muzzle is also to put a restraint (a muzzle) over the snout of a dog or other animal to prevent it from barking and biting.

When you are muzzled (silenced), you feel muzzled (restrained, thwarted).

But, to answer your question, a fairly direct English translation of the Japanese expression is that you feel a "twisting in your gut;" in English, this expression is used to convey feeling fear or anger that you cannot at that moment externalize.

  • @Ggnawme. “Muzzle” certainly occurred to my mind, when I was posting this question. But I’m curious to know where your frustration / angry go or stored when you are muzzled. In Japanese metaphor, it goes into your stomach when you cannot throw it at others e.g. your superior. In English, does it explode or be kept inside your belly? – Yoichi Oishi Feb 15 '12 at 11:05
  • @YoichiOishi Yoichi-san, the phrase that occurred to me is that you feel a "twisting in your gut." I have added that to my answer. – Gnawme Feb 15 '12 at 17:29
  • @YoichiOishi: We can also have had a bellyful of something we won't put up with any longer. – FumbleFingers Feb 15 '12 at 17:44
  • @Fumblefingers. Yah. Kenko Yoshida should have “had a bellyful” of what he wanted to shout out before being forced out from a high official position into hermit life at the age of around 30 years old. He wasn’t able to let it out in feudal society, instead inscribed the resentment in his essay, “徒然草- Essays in Idleness” about 680 years ago to let it survive as a time-honored Japanese axiom, “You feel like your stomach swelling, when you are not allowed to speak up.” – Yoichi Oishi Feb 16 '12 at 4:55

This is not a widely used expression, but if you said:

I have no mouth, and I must scream.

It's the title of a short science-fiction horror story published in 1967 by Harlan Ellison, described by tvtropes.org as:

one of the ... most concentrated fonts of High Octane Nightmare Fuel ever created.

front cover of I have no mouth and I must scream by Harlan Ellison

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    I downvoted because I don't feel that the quote would be well-known and because the other quote from the wikipedia article is not well-supported (the reference seems to be for an advertisement which is quoting a list which I can't find). I'm only explaining because apparently it's not nice to downvote without explaining why. – Julia Feb 15 '12 at 17:44
  • In my mind's eye, the mouth was considerably larger than Munsch painted it in The Scream – FumbleFingers Feb 15 '12 at 17:47
  • @Julia Fair enough, and many thanks for investigating that Wikipedia quote. I'll delete it from the answer. – Pitarou Feb 16 '12 at 4:39
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not sure I understand you. – Pitarou Feb 16 '12 at 4:39
  • @Pitarou: Ellison's scream has no mouth at all, but it made me think of Munsch's painting. Which I thought was in stark contrast because I "remembered" the mouth in The Scream as filling most of the canvas. Which turned out to be a completely false memory when I actually found an image online. Which just goes to show you remember what makes sense to you, and amplify what struck you most, rather than having an accurate recollection of what you actually saw at the time. – FumbleFingers Feb 16 '12 at 13:55

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