The proverb 死人【しにん】に 口【くち】 無し【なし】 (the dead do not have a mouth) is listed e.g. here and I've also heard it from my (native) teacher.

Here's what I'm wondering:

  1. From what I've heard so far, it should be understood to mean "You can say anything about a dead person. They will not talk back". Is that how everyone will understand it? I want to be sure that I'm using it correctly. An alternative interpretation would be "If you want someone to keep her mouth shut, kill her". Can I be sure that this is never meant? (I could imagine such a thing being said in a gangster movie)

  2. How old is this saying/are its origins known? Is it connected to a religion, is it maybe originally Chinese, etc.?


From what I gather, the connotation of the English phrase "Dead men tell no tales" is the latter -- "It's safe to kill everyone who knows the secret". Am I right?

That's not the primary meaning of Japanese 死人に口なし, although it looks very similar. As your teacher said, this should be understood as "You can easily accuse a dead person, even unjustly, because they can't argue back". This is usually used for someone who is already dead, and that person does not necessarily have a secret.


死人は無実の罪を着せられても釈明することができない。また、死人を証人に立てようとしても不可能である。 (デジタル大辞泉)

And I think this proverb is frequently used in the sense along the lines of "If you want to ask something from a dead person, it's too late", typically in police dramas.

That said, if Japanese people see 死人に口なし in subtitles of foreign spy films, etc., I believe they can easily understand that implication. ("Ah, this must be a euphemistic and cool way of saying kill'em!")

  • Thank you very much for your reply. Unfortunately I cannot answer your question about the phrase "Dead men tell no tales" with certainty since I'm not a native speaker of English either. In case you find out more about the origins of the Japanese phrase, please let me know! :)
    – anonymous
    Jan 15 '15 at 8:49
  • 3
    Yes, English "dead men tell no tales" does indeed generally mean "dead people can't reveal secrets".
    – senshin
    Jan 15 '15 at 16:12

Additional information on question #2, at OP's request:

日本国語大辞典 records a usage that dates back to 1788, which is mid-Edo period.


And its relationship with Chinese is unclear. They have a bit different expression 死无对证 "the dead cannot testify" in Chinese, which seemingly traces back to Yuan dynasty. Yet it seems several languages also have similar sayings.

  • Thank you for taking the time to investigate! I find this very interesting.
    – anonymous
    Jan 15 '15 at 23:56

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