Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed. Expect something and the risk is you’ll be disappointed. If you know that feeling, then you should know the expression ryutodabi, an idiom that describes anticlimactic events and situations.

Ryutodabi (竜頭蛇尾)

Meaning: an anticlimax, a strong beginning and weak ending, going up like a rocket and coming down like a stick.

Literal translation and kanji breakdown: 龍頭 (Ryutou; dragon head) and 蛇尾 (snake tail) form a disturbing image of a massive dragon’s head paired with a tiny snake body.

Ryutodabi: The Origins

Ryutodabi first makes its appearance in the Blue Cliff Record, or Biyan Lu, a collection of Buddhist koans compiled in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The specific story tells of traveling monk Mu Chou meeting another monk and asking him where he is coming from. The monk simply shouts in return — to every question or comment Mu Chou makes — and Mu Chou, sick of this nonsense, calls him a fraud and a phony and hits him with a stick. He uses the term “a dragon head with a snake’s tail” when abusing the other monk. Which, in this context, is closer to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in meaning.

Ryutodabi: Related Expressions

虎頭蛇尾 Kotodabi An anticlimax, strong beginning but weak ending

拍子抜け Hyoushi-nuke An anticlimax, disappointment, let-down

頭でっかち尻つぼみ Atama dekkachi shiri tsubomi Top-heavy with a weak ending

尻すぼみ Shirisubomi Weak or tame ending

期待外れの結果 Kitai hazure no kekka A result that’s a far cry from the expectations

大残鳴動 Daizan-meidou Much ado about nothing, making a mountain out of a molehill

羊頭狗肉 Youto-kuniku False advertising, crying wine and selling vinegar

徹頭徹尾 Tettou-tetsubi (antonym) Through and through, thoroughly

Using “ryutodabi” in a sentence

このサッカー試合は竜頭蛇尾に終わると予想していた。Kono soccer shiai wa ryutodabi ni owaru to yoso shite ita. I expected this soccer game to have an anticlimactic end.

最後までモチベーションを保てず、竜頭蛇尾に終わった。Saigo made motivation wo tamotezu, ryutodabi ni owatta. I couldn’t keep my motivation until the end, so the result was a bit weak.

鳴り物入りの映画も竜頭蛇尾になってしまった。Narimono iri no eiga mo ryutodabi ni natte shimatta. The movie started with a flourish but turned out to be a dud. 

Want more? Follow our weekly Yojijukugo Japanese Idiom series, published every Friday. Learn the meaning of “chinpunkanpun” here, “yudan taiteki” here and “taifu-ikka” here.