While the phrase “survival of the fittest” conjures up images of cutthroat competition and everyone fighting for themselves, the reality is that it’s the most clever and cooperative live on — both in the animal kingdom and the human world. The development of vaccines and people cooperating by wearing masks and staying home are pursuits more likely to conquer Covid-19 than immune systems alone. That’s why jakuniku-kyoushoku, or the law of the jungle, can represent cooperation as well as competition — the former is, after all, a successful survival strategy that has gotten us this far.

Jakuniku-kyoushoku (弱肉強食)

Meaning: The weak are meat; the strong do eat, the law of the jungle, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, the weakest goes to the wall, survival of the fittest, the stronger prey upon the weaker.

Literal translation and kanji breakdown: In order, 弱肉強食 reads “weak meat, strong food”, which arranges neatly to mean “the flesh of the weak is the food of the strong”.

Jakuniku-kyoushoku: The Origins

The expression, or at least a rough version of it, is attributed to an 8th century Tang dynasty poet, prose writer and government official, Han Yu. He’s considered one of the eight major writers of the Tang and Song dynasties and was a champion of clear, concise prose. He penned a version of “the flesh of the weak is the food of the strong” in a text known as “Preface to seeing off the Buddhist master Wenchang”, which, given his disgust for Buddhism and its followers, may have been more of a threat than a motivational speech.

Jakuniku-kyoushoku: Similar Expressions

優勝劣敗 Yushou-reppai Those with ability win, while those who are inferior lose, survival of the fittest

自然淘汰 Shizentouta Nature’s way of weeding out, natural selection

適者生存 Tekisha-seizon Those who adapt survive, survival of the fittest

共存共栄 Kyouson-kyouei Co-existence and co-prosperity

Using “jakuniku-kyoushoku” in a sentence

This is a commonly used expression in business circles, especially in conversations about mergers and acquisitions and marketing.

人間の世界が弱肉強食だ。Ningen no sekai ga jakuniku-kyoushoku da. The human world involves the survival of the fittest.

ネズミが狐に食べられるのは自然界の弱肉強食だ。Nezumi ga kitsune ni taberareru no wa shizenkai no jakuniku-kyoushoku da. When a mouse is eaten by a fox, it shows the natural order of the strong preying upon the weak.

資本主義は弱肉強食の世界だ。Shihonshugi wa jakuniku-kyoushoku no sekai da. Capitalism is a dog-eat-dog world.


Want more? Follow our weekly Yojijukugo Japanese Idiom series, published every Friday. Learn the meaning of “inga-ouhou” here, “kimenbusshin” here and “shikuhakku” here