(Kasei wa tora yori mo takeshi;
“A cruel government is more terrible than a tiger”)
The harm done by bad governance is worse than that done by a ravenous tiger. People fear wild nature, but often it poses less of a threat to us than corrupt, broken, or misused human social structures such as tyrannical governments.
We begin with a relatively rare noun, 苛政 (kasei), “despotism.” The particle は (wa) marks this as the topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with the noun 虎 (tora), “tiger,” marked by the particles より (yori), “more than” and も (mo), often “also” but in this case acting as an intensifier, and then the adjective 猛し (takeshi), “harsh,” “fierce,” “violent,” in sentence-final form.
This saying comes from a story in the Book of Rites (礼記, Raiki in Japanese), a core Confucian text. Confucius is said to have come across a crying woman. When he asked her what was wrong, she told him that all of her remaining family had been killed by a tiger, one by one: her husband, her children, her father-in-law. When Confucius asked her why she hadn’t moved to a safer area, she replied that this was the only place where they had been free from crushing taxation.
What strikes me is that the message of the words of the saying are incredibly topical: a tiger can’t steal thousands of children from their parents and throw them in concentration camps in the desert in the summer, for example, or strip health care away from millions in order to help plutocrats fund their yachts and private jets. But the origin story is also topical: irrational people so violently averse to taxation that they would rather let their entire family die of something preventable than pay the government a penny more than the bare minimum possible.
(“Kasei wa tora yori mo takeshi to iu kara, kono kuni kara wa dete ikou!!”)
[“They say that tyranny is more terrible than tigers, so let’s get out of this country!”]