365 Days of Japanese Day #6

Yesterday I told a story about eating おどり えび (odori ebi) – the “dancing shrimp”.

For the image, I used a place in Japan that was where the story took place and I said I would reveal where that was in today’s post.

But…that reveal will wait another day. I have used a different view of the same place for today’s image. Perhaps that gives another clue?

The reason that I am delaying the reveal is that yesterday was the day I decided to tell my friends about this 365 day project, and it turned out that the story and blog were well received, attracting some attention.

I even got a comment from writer and translator Patrick Miles.

Hey…that’s my Dad!

Dad says:

A wonderful story! Could there be a Japanese proverb lurking in here?

So I researched this and found three Japanese proverbs related to shrimp.

Let’s look at them!

“ebi de tai o tsuru”
fishing bream with shrimp as bait

This saying is about using something of smaller value (the shrimp) to catch something of bigger value (the bream). It is a straightforward concept and the proverb would be used as a reminder or a reassurance that making a modest investment is necessary – or even wise – to get something larger, that you desire. I can think of two loosely similar proverbs/metaphors in English:

1. “You have to spend money to make money”

2. “Priming the pump”

“Priming the pump” is the idea that with a water pump you have to put a bit of water in to get the pressure working correctly to pump more out. It was used by President Roosevelt in association with his 1930s plans to pull America out of the depression (and harshly criticised in this iconic cartoon). Hey, wait! This is a Japanese language blog, not an American History blog! Onto the next.

“kurage wa ebi to odoru koto wa kesshite arimasen”
The jellyfish never dances with the shrimp

I had difficulty finding a reliable source for both the original Japanese and a clear interpretation of the meaning of this proverb, so my apologies in advance if the Japanese above is slightly inaccurate or my interpretation sucks.

What I take from this is the rather questionable notion that people of different backgrounds don’t tend to mix together. It is demonstrably untrue in modern society, but the proverb no doubt comes from a time (perhaps feudal Japan) where it simply described a reality that different social classes did not consider themselves on the same level and would in no way treat each other as equals.

Perhaps a gentler interpretation is as a one-off saying to indicate superiority/inferiority, rather than a more society-wide statement. In the modern day there is a trend for business school dropout entrepreneurial types to fill their social media with the phrase “A wolf does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep”. I think “the jellyfish never dances with the shrimp” could be taken this way.

A tricky one.

What do you think?


“ebi odoredomo kawa o idezu”
Although shrimps may dance around they do not leave the river

This is about how people don’t change (or may not) change their occupation/specialisation. That’s an extremely odd concept to us in 2017 with the freedom to career-hop and develop new skills while working with our current ones, but in the feudal period in Japan there were strict laws preventing a man from changing his occupation and indeed there is an English proverb that loosely covers the same ground: “Let the cobbler stick to his last”.

The cobbler proverb perhaps more means that people should only concern themselves with what they know something about, whereas – much like the previous Japanese proverb – this “shrimps may dance around but do not leave the river” has a feeling not of giving advice or stating a belief in how things should be, but rather just grimly and stoically observing a societal truth.

Many Japanese proverbs seem to take that “grimly and stoically observing a societal truth” angle…

On a brighter note, I had fun finding these and I particularly enjoyed that two of them even featured the shrimp dancing! That suggests to me that Dad is right in his instinct about there being some proverbial background to the おどり えび (odori ebi).

Many of the terms in these proverbs could use a good unpacking, but to keep this entry short and snappy I’ll save that for another day with a future “glossary” entry related to them.

Tomorrow I really will reveal where the shrimp story happened. One of my friends knew, in fact, and naturally he will be getting big ups.


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