When looking up online, I found a seemingly old Japanese sentence highlighted in the picture below. What's the meaning?

PS: sorry, I'm not asking for a translation.

I did look up くみす in the dictionary, it means to ally or to collude or something similar.

But that is somewhat contrary to my understanding of the word "天道".

So I'm a bit confused and want some clarification. Thanks.

Edit: many many thanks for you guy's valuable responses and sorry for my slow feedback. Now I see that my understanding came from putting the sentence out of its context, once that was undone, seems everything is clear. Everyone's response is appreciated, @Nanigashi's information is especially helpful. merci.


  • 1
    We don't do translations on this site. If you've done any research at all, please present it.
    – jogloran
    Sep 24, 2021 at 6:10
  • Which did you look up, くみ or くみす? My wild guess is something like "Even if you go with 天道, keep distance from it, too", but I may be totally wrong.
    – naruto
    Sep 24, 2021 at 6:35
  • @naruto It was くみす Sep 24, 2021 at 6:40
  • 1
    Just for the record, @HuFellan, please use more informative post titles in future. "Help me with something" is unusably vague. Sep 24, 2021 at 17:26
  • 1
    @EiríkrÚtlendi: You must have meant 〜さない, not 〜せない, because the negative of 愛する is 愛さない, which is actually the negative of the older form 愛す. But I believe the negative of 与する is 与ない.
    – aguijonazo
    Sep 24, 2021 at 23:18

3 Answers 3


You've said that the meaning of くみす is contrary to you understanding of the word 天道, but you haven't said what you believe 天道 means. This term (pronounced てんどう or sometimes てんとう) can actually have a wide range of meanings and connotations depending on the context, but here we are dealing with a quotation from 『史記抄{しきしょう}』, a 15th-century Japanese commentary on the Chinese classic 『史記』 (Shi Ji, or Records of the Great Historian). Thus, the relevant context is the body of East Asian philosophical and political thought that originated in China and is broadly termed "Confucianism"*** in English. (See note below.) In such a context, 天道 is usually translated as "Heaven," and it refers to the force or set of principles that governs the workings of the universe, including the affairs of humankind. "Confucian" thinkers sometimes portrayed this force as abstract and impersonal (rather like the laws of physics), but in other cases they treated it as something akin to a deity.

With that in mind, let's look at the full sentence from which this short fragment has been excerpted. As another respondent has noted, that sentence reads as follows:


The topic of this sentence is 守道者. As modern readers, we're likely to read that as しゅどうしゃ, but since we are dealing with a text by a 15th-century Rinzai monk, it's possible that it's intended as a bit of embedded Chinese or kanbun -- in other words, we could read it as ダウをまもるもの or possibly even みちをまもるもの. Either way, it means "those who follow the Way," where "the Way" refers to the moral, ethical, and ritual standards that guide (or ought to guide) human behavior. So 守道者 are those who strive to uphold those standards, and in particular, rulers who seek to apply them to political governance. So the topic of our sentence is "those who follow the Way," with the understanding that this refers primarily to righteous rulers who seek to implement the teachings of what Westerners call "Confucianism."

Now let's look at the predicate. I'd argue that in this case the embedded kanbun reading of 守道 is probably preferable, since it supplies us with a necessary verb, so we have:


This is quite straightforward: 各々 means each; 吾が means "one's own"; 志 means "aim, intention, aspiration, etc.," and especially, in premodern religious and philosophical texts, "the aspiration to behave morally and ethically"; ニ従テ means "according to" or "in accordance with"; 守道{ダウをまもる} means "follow the Way"; and マデ and ヨ are both sentence-final emphatic particles.

So if we put the subject and the predicate together, ignoring that middle clause for the moment, that gives us

"Those who follow the Way […] all follow it in accordance with their own individual aspirations."

Now, what about that middle clause -- the one you asked about?


The key point is that although this clause contains two instances of the 命令形{めいれいけい} (せよ and あれ) and therefore looks like it could be an imperative, it is actually a "whether x or not x" clause. I'm sure this site contains much better explanations of this usage of the 命令形 than I could provide, so I'll limit myself to noting that in medieval Japanese, such clauses used the phrase 〜もせよ where modern Japanese would use 〜にせよ or 〜にしろ, and that the word preceding 〜もせよ functions as a direct object of せよ. (That's why the 連用形 of くみす is used here, rather than the 終止形 we would expect with 〜にせよ or 〜にしろ in modern Japanese.) It's also important to note that the particle following 天道 here is は, not に. This marks 天道 as the subject and not the object of くみす, which as you have already noted basically means "to ally oneself with [someone or something]."

So in light of the above, we can translate 天道ハクミシモセヨ、クミセイデモアレ as "whether Heaven allies itself with them or not" or "whether Heaven favors them or not." (The former option is more faithful to the literal meaning of the original and highlights the fact that in this particular instance, Heaven seems to be understood as an active agent rather than an impersonal principle; the latter option is more ambiguous on the question of agency, but arguably a bit more idiomatic in English.)

A clumsy, overly literal, phrase-by-phrase translation of the whole sentence would be something like

As for those who follow the Way, whether Heaven allies itself with them or not, they all follow the Way in accordance with their own individual intentions.

And a more idiomatic way of saying this in English, while also fleshing out some of the implied connotations, would be

Those who follow the Way follow it in accordance with their own individual aspirations [to perfect themselves morally and be just rulers], and they [continue to] do so whether Heaven favors them or not.

In other words, a righteous ruler doesn't conceive of following the Way as a kind of "deal" he makes with Heaven, in exchange for which he expects to receive good fortune as a kind of reward. And conversely, he doesn't abandon the ideal of following the Way if things go badly for him. Rather, he recognizes that ethical rulership is a worthy end in its own right, and he pursues that goal whether he experiences good fortune or not.

When we consider the historical context in which『史記抄』was produced, and the fact its original intended readers would have been warlords who ruled in a time of constant turmoil, this seems like a sound and necessary caveat. Classic “Confucian” political theory held that if a ruler followed the Way, Heaven would in fact reward him with its favor, with very concrete results: His realm would be prosperous and at peace, he would easily vanquish any enemy foolish enough to attack him, and even the natural world would support him (the weather would be mild and favorable for agriculture, there would be no earthquakes or other natural disasters, etc.) He would also enjoy the enthusiastic and grateful support of his subjects, and he and his descendants would remain in power for as long as they continued to follow the Way.

In practice, of course, there was no guarantee that even the most conscientious ruler would really enjoy all these benefits, particularly under the conditions of continual warfare that obtained in late medieval Japan. The author of 『史記抄』was well aware of this reality, and he was doubtless also aware that many warlords tended to behave in precisely the way he is saying they shouldn't, jettisoning ethical principles in favor of harsh repression whenever they felt their hold on power was in jeopardy.

***The term "Confucianism" is problematic, and some Japanese readers may even find it confusing, as it is meant to encompass a vast corpus of material not directly associated with the historical personage westerners call "Confucius." 儒学{じゅがく} is probably the closest Japanese equivalent to the way that "Confucianism" is used in English-language literature on East Asian thought.

  • Wow, this is incredibly helpful and I probably should say the information provided definitely cleared my doubt. thanks for your patience and excellent response. merci, merci ,merci, etc. @Nanigashi Sep 26, 2021 at 2:13
  • @Hu Fellan, you are very welcome, and I'm so glad you found my answer helpful.
    – Nanigashi
    Sep 26, 2021 at 23:51

(Disclaimer: I'm not very good at classical Japanese, so please take this with a grain of salt.)

  • : (topic marker)
  • くみし: 連用形 of くみす ("to ally", "to go with", "to agree")
  • : "also", "even"
  • せよ: "even if", "Do ~ (, but...)"
  • くみせ: 未然形 of くみす
  • いで: "not ~ing"
  • : "also", "even"
  • あれ: imperative form of あり ("Be/Keep/Stay ~!")

So I think it literally means "Go with 天道 (if you like), but also don't be going with 天道", i.e., "Even if you believe in 天道, try to keep a little distance from it, too".


The full sentence is:


天道{てんどう} is a destiny beyond human power to control humans. I think we call that 運命{うんめい} nowadays, like I said, it's basically a destiny.

守道者 is, I think, is a shortened version of 泉守道者{よもつちもりびと}, which is the keeper of 黄泉平坂{よもつひらさか} - In Japanese mythology, the 黄泉平坂{よもつひらさか} is said to be on the border between this world, where the living live, and the other world, where the dead live.

As far as I can remember, the 泉守道者{よもつちもりびと} sometimes be a messenger between God and God. I think this sentence is a story that brought some kind of revelation to human beings in the process.

So, let's modernize it:


Fate can be obeyed or disobeyed. Each of you come here(黄泉平坂) of your own free will.

Don't forget that I can be totally wrong! I just have been interested in Japanese mythology in the past. I could be wrong, so please don't take my word for it.]

Edit: I completely forgot to mention the meaning of くみす... I think you're on the right track on that.

As you said, it means to follow something or to be on the side of something. So in this sentence, it's following the fate or not.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .