Why does 腰抜け mean coward?

I see 腰 (waist) + 抜 (missing/losing) = 腰抜け (coward), but I fail to see how they add up.

  • 腰抜け{こしめけ} ... just wanted to add the furigana.
    – dotnetN00b
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 10:58
  • In English we say people who are cowards "have no backbone", or "have no spine". Just pointing out that certain concepts have a kind of universality among humans.
    – Questioner
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 13:19

3 Answers 3


Looking at the Daijisen definition, it seems to mean in the first definition "losing the strength of the back/waist and becoming unable to stand", and probably from that in the second definition "lacking guts"/"coward".

I would say from this that 腰抜け might be very close to the English expressions "spineless", "no spine", "lacking spine" etc for a similar reason.

  • I guess if forgot to look there. 腰の力が抜けて立てなくなること。explains it for me. thanks
    – yadokari
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 18:06
  • Also probably worth mentioning: 腰があるうどん is udon which is not overboiled, still has some chewiness to it (dang, I suck at describing food).
    – Amadan
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 16:14

An upright posture is symbolic of strength and bravery. Being able to resist being forced into other postures such as being forced to bow or kneel to another requires 腰.


I see two possible meanings for this character combination:

It's gonna sound a little gross, but the two ideographs tell me exactly what a coward is doing. When scared, most people have the fight or flight response. The body's natural reaction, to make flight (read: running away) easier is to make itself lighter. This is done by emptying itself. that's as detailed as I'll get, you can read more on what this means on the wiki article I linked.

Most people who are seen as cowards will run away from their problems, or from scary things. This might be a reason why these two characters might go together to give the compound idea of a coward. As in "A coward is someone whose waist extracts (the contents of itself) when trouble is around" <- I made that up, it's not a quote from anything (that I know of).

The other possible reason for these two characters being used together might be less likely, but it's still possible.

What used to happen to cowards and people who betrayed their masters/superiors/lords? They would be forced to commit Seppuku. Seppuku requires that the belly (just above the waist) of the coward/betrayer be opened (or emptied) and their head removed, then the head is severed. Maybe the first act of Seppuku is referenced in this character combination.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the removal of the head during the act of committing Seppuku is to save the person from too much pain, and bring a swift death. I can't remember where I read it, though. I'm sure it was either in one of my Japanese history texts or in Book of Five Rings/Bushido, but I could be wrong. anyway, that's a side note.

Again, this is just conjecture and guess work on my part. Mainly, these guesses are based on what I think the though process behind the creation/first use of the phrase may have been.

I'm sorry that I can't link to any definitive proof. I just thought that I would share my two cents on the OP.

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