This is another kotowaza that I learned early and remembered. It’s simple, evocative, and occasionally useful.
(Kusatte mo tai; “Even rotten, it’s still sea bream”)
Something of high quality or class is still high quality or class even if it’s declined over time. Tai (a.k.a. sea bream or “porgies”) is considered both delicious and nice to look at among the fishes traditionally known and eaten in Japan; it’s also associated with celebration through the pun めでたい (medetai), “auspicious” or “joyous.” This saying asserts that it’s such a great fish that, even if it’s a little old and has gone off a little from its peak flavor, it’s still a special treat. Be careful about using this to describe people you like, though! Even though the overall meaning is positive, it still implies that what’s being described isn’t as good as it used to be.
We start with the verb 腐る (kusaru), “to rot,” “to go bad” (or “to ferment,” as in 豆腐: tofu!). The verb is in conjunctive form, followed by the intensifying particle も (mo), here translatable as “even (if).” And finally the noun 鯛 (tai).
A slightly longer form, 腐っても鯛の骨 (kusatte mo tai no hone), “Even rotten, it’s still sea bream bones” is also possible. I’m not sure about the implications – does it mean that even if you have to throw away the flesh, the bones can still be used for stock or whatever? – but there you have it. (If anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them!)
This is a relatively old saying in use since at least the early 1600s.
(“Kono jitensha, mou nijuunen mo tsukatterun da. Mattaku mondai ga nai wake de wa nai kedo, ima da ni juubun sumuuzu ni ugokun da. Kusatte mo tai da ne.”)
[“I’ve been using this bicycle for a whole twenty years. It’s not like it doesn’t have any problems, but it still works smoothly enough. Quality is quality, I guess!”]