Japanese Proverb: A monkey in a top-hat



(Photo by Aramand Agasi)

By Greg Beck

I thought with Halloween coming, I’d give you my favorite Japanese proverb (諺 / ことわざ)

Kanji: 猿に烏帽子

Kana: さるにえぼし

Translation: A monkey in a top-hat

Explanation: If you’re like me, a monkey in a top hat sounds like a plan you can get behind, but if you’re Japanese, you’ve either never heard this obscure saying, or understand it as a “bad thing”. An えぼし is not really a top-hat, but a tall black-lacquered hat that was worn by nobles since the Heian Era. The monkey — like Puss in Boots — is trying to elevate his status by wearing a nice hat, but ultimately just looks foolish. This proverb is not used to ridicule something or someone just for acting like something they are not, nor point out things that look peculiar for being out of place, but both! If you go to Taishoin (the Buddhist temple) on Miyajima, for example, mixed in with all the tanuki and Buddha statues is the children’s cartoon character Anpanman. That in itself is out of place, but imagine if his statue were sitting in the Lotus position all enlightened-looking and you’ll get the nuanced difference.