In which a biographer is like a taxidermist

Maybe an Uberdermist, these days.

(Tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu;
“A tiger dies and leaves a skin, a person dies and leaves a name”)


Live well. Live so that your memory is honored by those who knew you; live so that the story of your deeds makes the world a better place. When a tiger dies it leaves behind a beautiful and valued pelt… and people should live in such a way that what they leave behind – their names – are similarly beautiful and valued.


Yet another parallel structure! We begin with the noun 虎 (tora), “tiger.” The particle は (wa) marks it as a topic of discussion and sets up a contrast with the second half of the saying. What does the tiger do? Well, first it 死す (shi su) “dies” (in conjunctive form, because we’re chaining verb phrases) and then it 留む (todomu), “leave behind” (in conjunctive form, so that the first and second halves of the sentence connect). The direct-object particle を (wo) tells us that what is left is 皮 (kawa), its skin.

In the second half, 虎 is replaced with 人 (hito), “person”; 皮 with 名 (na), “name”; and 留む with 残す (nokosu), which seems to essentially be a perfect synonym in this context.


Some variants (including the original!) use 残す in place of 留む for the tiger’s pelt. Others use 留む for the human name. Some even change the tiger out for a 豹 (hyou), “leopard.” However, replacing 皮 with homophone 革 is an error: while both are related to skins, the former can refer to fur, while the latter implies leather.

This saying comes to us from a Kamakura-era setsuwa collection called the 十訓抄 (Jikkinshou or Jikkunshou), literally the “ten explanation excerpts.”

Example sentence:


(“Segare yo, tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu. Tachibana-ke no meiyo wo kaifuku sase!”)

[“My son! When a tiger ties he leaves his pelt, but when a man dies what he he leaves is his name. Restore the honor of the Tachibana clan!”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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