This week’s yojijukugo is inspired by one of the most pivotal moments in Japanese history. If you’ve been watching Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan, you may have an inkling as to what this is about. Seizing power is never an easy task and sometimes, it doesn’t work out as planned. If you make a grab for the thrown but are summarily usurped, you may be suffering from a case of mikkatenka — a short-lived rule. 

Mikkatenka (三日天下)

Meaning: Being in power for a brief amount of time, short-lived rule, brief championship

Literal translation and kanji breakdown: As is often the case, breaking the idiom into two parts helps simplify its explanation. 三日 (mikka; three, day) literally translates to three days, but it often used as a synonym for an exceedingly short time. Mikkabouzu (三日坊主), an idiom that literally reads “a three-day monk”, describes a person who can’t stick to anything for a long time. Meanwhile 天下 (tenka; heavens, below), which reads “under the heavens”, means anything from the whole world to supremacy of a country, or even the shogun himself. If you’ve ever read or seen the Crows series about delinquent schoolkids, you’ll see the phrase “天下を取る” (tenka wo toru) a lot. The characters are obsessed with gaining the upper hand by becoming the ultimate fighter and thus gaining everyone’s respect. 

Mikkatenka: The Origins

In 1582, samurai and clan leader Oda Nobunaga was at the height of his power and was preparing to unify Japan as one nation. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. One of his commanders, Akechi Mitsuhide, changed the course of Japanese history by marching into Honnoji, where Nobunaga was largely unprotected, with a private army of his own. Nobunaga realized it was all lost and chose to die by his own sword. Mitsuhide then attempted to establish himself as shogun but hadn’t counted on Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a loyal commander of Nobunaga’s) to get wind of the coup so quickly. Barely a dozen days later Hideyoshi’s troops decimated Mitsuhide’s army at the Battle of Yamazaki. Mitsuhide managed to flee but was killed by bandits during his escape. His rule was very short indeed. Longer than three days? Sure. But not long enough to do anything of importance — except for inspiring the idiom mikkatenka, of course.

For a short and humorous summary of the Honnoji incident, check out this viral video by Egu-splosion:


Mikkatenka: Related Expressions

三日大名Mikka-daimyo Feudal lord for three days, short-lived rule

百日天下 Hyakunichi-tenka Very short-lived rule, Napoleon’s hundred days

三日坊主 Mikkabouzu Monk for three days, someone who cannot stick to one thing, an unsteady worker

短期政権 Tanki-seiken Short-term government, the maintenance of power doesn’t last long

Using “mikkatenka” in a sentence

Despite the seemingly negative tone of the expression — it’s “only” three days after all — this can be used as a positive expression as well.

たとえ三日天下に終わるとしても、私は大統領の座を奪いたい。Tatoe mikkatenka ni owaru toshitemo, watashi wa daitouryo no za wo ubaitai. Even just for a short while, I want to take over the presidency.

今回の総理は三日天下で終わるだろう。 Konkai no souri wa mikkatenka de owaru darou. This prime minister won’t last long, that’s for sure.

もしも三日天下に終わったとしても、私が成し遂げたこの業績は残っていくに違いない。Moshimo mikkatenka ni owatta toshitemo, watashi ga nashitogeta kono gyouseki wa nokotteiku ni chigainai. Even if it’s all over in a matter of days, the work I have done will remain.

Want more? Follow our weekly Yojijukugo Japanese Idiom series, published every Friday. Learn the meaning of “kanzenmuketsu” here, “ikitougou” here and “souseki-chinryu” here.