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I came across this phrase today while doing a lookup on 背中.

背中で教える

I checked several sources, and all listed the meaning, amongst others, "to teach with one's back". It seems related to learning by example, such as when growing up how you learn from your parents or older siblings. Things related to manners, morals and in general "how to get along in the world".

But as far as I searched, I could not find good example sentences using this phrase. I found some examples here
http://ejje.weblio.jp/content/%E8%83%8C%E4%B8%AD%E3%81%A7%E6%95%99%E3%81%88%E3%82%8B
but these seem to be general teaching references in a historical setting.

So I am wondering if this phrase has a historical background, and also where the "back" reference came from. Learning while watching someone from behind?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

To understand what this expression means, picture a father and a son. The father is a craftsman, who spends most of his time awake at work. He's not very eloquent, and while he cares about the son, he won't really say much. The son goes through the usual juvenile process, struggling with the meaning of his life, not ready to accept the simple life of his father. Eventually the father dies, and the son becomes a grown man. He'd then say 親父は背中で俺に教えてくれていたんだな to refer to his father not really telling him how to live but showing him how.

背中で教える means teaching without words. Because teaching by explaining requires one to face the other, this expression uses 背中 to emphasize the lack of words. As you wrote, this almost always refers to such teachings as morals and way of life, and not for specific techniques or knowledge.

As far as I know, this is just one of many 慣用句, and it does not have anything that suggests a historical background. None of the examples you cited in weblio.jp actually use this expression.

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