The Japanese language, like any other language, has a rich inventory of witty and useful proverbs.

In this short episode, show host Kyota Ko explains the meaning and cultural background behind the proverb 虎穴に入らずんば孤児を得ず “No entry into a tiger’s den brings about no capture of its cub”


Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. I’m Kyota Ko. I’d like to introduce another Japanese proverb and the cultural background behind it. So by listening to this until the end, you’ll learn a proverb along with an interesting story in a Japanese cultural context that will help you remember it.

Today’s proverb is: 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず, which I would translate to “No entry into a tiger’s den brings about no capture of its cub.” 

What it means is: you’re not going to get a big prize without taking a big risk. We all know that, but we all hesitate. We think about the negative what-ifs, right? I’m sure many of you listening to this have hesitated to make a move before although you knew you should.

So this proverb is something you tell yourself in your mind when you’re having trouble taking a step forward out of your comfort zone. 

This is actually originally a Chinese proverb, and besides there are no tigers in Japan except at the zoo. It’s a quote from a historical record of the later Han Dynasty, and it was a line one of its warlords said in a speech to raise the morale of his 40 men before they successfully assaulted an enemy camp with twice as many enemy troops. 

This warlord lived between 32 and 103 AD, so our proverb today has been used for close to two millenniums. That’s how true it is, probably. So it was so famous that it reached Japan and became used widely here too. 

So how has this proverb “No entry into a tiger’s den brings about no capture of its cub” been used in Japan?

I’d like to share an interesting story related to this proverb from 16th century Japan. It was a time period that’s often referred to as the Sengoku Era, or in other words the War-infested Era. It’s a time when samurai lords in all corners of the country were fighting each other to either grow or protect their territories. 

Thousands of samurais and their soldiers were having large-scale battles with swords, spears, bows and arrows, horses and guns. As a metaphor, imagine Google, Amazon, Apple, Toyota, Tesla, all sorts of powerful companies literally waging war onto each other and their directors and managers leading staff as soldiers and thinking of battle strategies and tactics to destroy their competitors.

That was what Japan was like in the 16th century. Samurai lords were like entrepreneurs and business owners who hired the best talents, led war campaigns as their business ventures, and their staff climbed up the corporate ladder by making achievements in battle, which were like the modern day projects at work. 

Eventually all these powerful samurai enterprises got defeated by or surrendered to a single samurai lord who united Japan under his power.

Anyway, the last moment of a samurai lord during the Sengoku Era was often at his home castle. And by that, I mean his castle was surrounded by enemy forces, and if his defensive side managed to withstand the attack for several months until harvest season, the offensive side would have to retreat to cut their crops, and therefore it translated to the victory of the defensive side, but if not, that usually meant genocide. 

So to avoid that, in general, the Japanese castle was a defensive weapon in itself that would make it easy for the guards to kill off invaders. 

On your next visit to Japan, if you have a chance to visit Nijo Castle in Kyoto, or Odawara Castle in Kanagawa prefecture which is near Tokyo, you’ll see that the castle is more like a fortress surrounded by a wide ditch filled with water, and there are turrets with small slits on the wall that gunman used to stick out their guns from.  

When you get passed the fortress walls, it’s a bit like a maze and you’ll be forced to walk to the right and to the left, and at every corner you’ll see slits on the wall again, and there will be super thick, massive, heavy doors that will force you to stick around in one place so that you’ll be a target that stands still. So you’ll be able to imagine how hard it would be to get to the castle’s main building alive if you were not welcome. You have a better chance of getting killed at one of these traps. 

So if you were a soldier on the offensive side during battles at enemy castles, you’d be terrified to go to the next level. You have no idea how they’ll try to kill you next. 

Now it’s said that almost all castles built in the latter half of the Sengoku Era had a special facility called “Koguchi” and this literally translates to “The tiger’s mouth.”

Koguchi is the entrance to the headquarters of the castle, so it’s like the last gate you need to overcome in order to fully defeat the defensive side. 

Koguchi was therefore where the latest warfare tactics were applied. The defensive side wanted to be certain they will be able to kill off every soldier that came through it, because letting even one soldier pass means defeat. An enemy pawn will get their King. 

So from the offensive side’s point of view, it’s a figurative tiger’s den. There was a high chance of getting killed, but the reward was a most certain promotion and a huge bonus for beheading the enemy King. 

Now there were a few types of Koguchi, for example the Kuichigai Koguchi had an interesting shape. It was a winding narrow pathway that was shaped like the letter S. There were high walls on both sides, and the defensive soldiers would pop their heads up from above the walls with their bows and arrows and guns to pick off invaders who would have to slow down to change the way they were facing. 

And the ultimate type of Koguchi that many of the latest Japanese castles installed was the Masugata Koguchi. Masugata refers to the shape of the traditional Japanese measuring cup for measuring the amount of rice. Some households in Japan still use it. I use it too, and this wooden measuring cup called Masu has a cubic shape. I’ll put a photo of it in the blog post for this podcast on www.metro-classic-japanese.net so please check it out. 

Anyway, so this Masugata Koguchi is shaped like a big cube. You enter the gate and you’ll find yourself in a big open space surrounded by walls that are too tall to climb. So there is absolutely nothing you can hide yourself behind, and that means if the defensive soldiers pop their heads above the walls with their bows and arrows, you’ll be shot from 3 or 4 directions, and that’s exactly what was plotted.

It’s mighty difficult to protect yourself on all 4 sides – the front, back, left and right all at once. So, the basic principle of warfare tactics in the samurai world was to surround and eliminate. It’s easy to win battles where you do the surrounding, but in order to do that, you need significantly more soldiers on your side than the opponent’s, and that’s usually not a luxury you enjoy when you’re protecting your last stronghold. 

So by narrowing the entrance into Koguchi, you force the invaders to come in in small dosages. Then, you get to do the surrounding, and by not letting them have anywhere to hide, you can swiftly do the elimination. 

If you’ve seen the 1954 classic film The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, you’ll see the samurais taking this tactic. They lure the enemy mobs into the village, a few at a time, so that they can surround and eliminate them one by one. 

Jogger jogging into a Masugata Koguchi

You can actually see an example of a Masugata Koguchi at the Imperial Gardens, which is right in the center of Tokyo. The Imperial Gardens used to be the premises of a castle called Edo Castle, so you see its stone walls preserved very neatly. If you input Sakurada Gate on Google Maps, it’ll show you where you’ll find a Masugata Koguchi. Admission is free, and it’s actually now a very popular jogging course for locals. 

So anyway, today’s proverb was 虎穴に入らずんば孤児を得ず: “No entry into a tiger’s den brings about no capture of its cub.” So the next time you feel hesitant to take a risk that you know will give you a chance to move you a step further in your career or potentially win you a date with your crush, please remember there were soldiers and samurai in Japan who needed to charge into a Masugata Koguchi for the betterment of the lives of themselves and their families. 

So what’s your next challenge going to be? Feel free to leave me a comment on my Instagram account which you will find by searching @themetroclassic. And please subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen.

So thank you for listening. それでは、またお会いしましょう。