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 及ばぬ鯉の滝登り “Waterfall climbs of feeble Koi”.

Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. And I bring you another Japanese proverb and the cultural implications behind it. 

This one today is a very interesting and controversial one. In Japanese it’s 及ばぬ恋の滝登り and I would translate this into Waterfall climbs of feeble Koi. Koi as in Koi fish. 

This proverb involves a smart play of words. Koi as in the fish is a homophone of this other Japanese word Koi which means “pursuit of a relationship” or “crush.” 

So with that in mind, let’s go over the proverb once more. Waterfall climbs of feeble Koi. What does that mean?

Now there are some river fish like eel and the masu salmon that actually swim against the current and go up short waterfalls. Actually, masu salmon have so much muscle they jump over short waterfalls. I found a video of them doing just that in a river in Hokkaido so I’ll post the link to it on the blog post for this podcast episode.

 But, the Koi fish unfortunately does not have enough muscle power to do the same. Scientifically, it’s not even a possibility. But from long ago, Japanese people fancied the idea of seeing a Koi fish swim up waterfalls. Because that’ll look awesome. They even made up a legend where Koi fish would turn into a dragon if they succeed in the feat. It’s probably because their colorful scales looked like a dragon’s. 

But, I need to stress here that all this is fictional. Koi are too weak to climb waterfalls. So when we convert the word Koi into the meaning “pursuit of a relationship”, the proverb “Waterfall climbs of feeble Koi” refers to a man going for a lady completely out of his league, or vice versa. 

For the longest time in Japan, really until classism officially ended in 1947, which is quite recent in the scope of Japanese history, there was a strict division between classes. The upper classes were royalty and samurai or ex-samurai families which were under 7% of the population, and then there was everyone else. 

So you can imagine how relationships across classes were not meant to happen. There were a few exceptions where a beautiful girl waiting tables was noticed by a wealthy samurai, got married and therefore jumped up a class, but that was super rare and it was possible given that the girl was exceptionally, exceptionally beautiful. 

So whenever an UNexceptional beauty mentioned her ambition of seducing a wealthy samurai, people uttered the proverb: “Oh waterfall climbs of feeble Koi.”

It’s harsh! But it’s also harsh for men, because whenever an unwealthy or ungifted man mentioned his ambition of winning the heart of a beautiful lady in town – this is even within the same class – people would say “Waterfall climbs of feeble Koi.”

The world is a beautiful place. Let me emphasize that idea to dilute our harsh reality here. 

Anyway, this proverb can also come in handy outside the dating context; it can be used towards anyone who’s absolutely determined to do something but doesn’t realize he or she is not equipped with the right resources to make it happen. 

A while ago, I read this book called The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny by screenwriter Steve Kaplan, and one of the takeaways was that a comedy setup that’s always funny is one where the protagonist is determined to succeed in a mission and tirelessly keeps attempting, but the audience knows he doesn’t have the means to accomplish his goal. 

We already know the outcome, but we enjoy seeing the protagonist trying and trying in this way and that way, and that’s what’s fun to watch. It’s your friend back in school with a lousy voice but was determined to become a pop star one day. It’s your pet kitten that smells fish on the table but has too short a pair of legs to make the leap. 

But one day, you never know; you might see that friend on a viral Youtube video. You will see the kitten grow into an agile cat. The feeble Koi may one day turn into a dragon. 

With that in mind, let’s get through another day. Thank you for listening! Please check out my Instagram account @themetroclassic. I’ve started a daily feed of useful Japanese expressions for people planning to travel to Japan some time.