Japan is blessed with an abundance of fish — drawn from the deep ocean to the coastal shores, lakes, rivers and streams. Making yourself familiar with the many kanji for different species of fish helps you get by when you run into all this slippery fare at a local restaurant, sushi counter or supermarket. Fish names, as they are spoken, existed before the introduction of kanji to Japan (beginning from the middle of the sixth century). The kanji names were chosen based on the characteristics of the fish — its appearance, how it swims, where it is found or when it is harvested — and bear no relation to the spoken form — for which the meaning has long been lost.
As for the kanji, let’s start with the one for fish (魚, sakana), which looks a bit like one of our finned friends standing on its tail. This kanji often forms the first half of a particular fish name. Sometimes different kanji can be used to describe the same fish. Hirame (Bastard halibut), for example, can be written as both 鮃 and 平目. The fish takes this kanji because it is flat (平, taira).
Next, let’s look at fish named after the seasons:
Konoshiro (鮗, gizzard shad), is written with the kanji for fish and winter (冬, fuyu). These fish are certainly best eaten in the cold days of winter. It is favored for sushi when it is younger and tender, when it is called kohada (小鰭, young gizzard shad).
The word for sawara (鰆, Japanese Spanish mackerel) also begins with 魚 and is combined with the kanji for spring (春, haru). This fish is in season in the spring.
Sanma (秋刀魚, Pacific saury) is the king of autumn’s harvest. This fish is silvery and shaped like a sword, so it is written with the kanji for a sword (刀, katana) between the kanji for autumn (秋, aki) and fish. There is another kanji for sanma (鰶). In the fall, when the first shin (new) sanma arrive at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, festival-like excitement fills the air, hence the kanji for festival (祭り, matsuri) in shin sanma (鰶).
The kanji names for some fish have to do with their color:
Saba (鯖, blue mackerel) have backs that can be a brilliant blue (青, ao) color.
Tiny shirauo (鮊, whitebait) are translucent when alive, but they turn white (白, shiro) when dead.
Tara (鱈, cod), in season in the winter and is well known for its snow-white flesh, so its name uses the kanji for snow (雪, yuki).
Hokke ( , Arabesque greenling) has a blue-green skin, and the male fish becomes cobalt blue before spawning. The written name for this colorful fish uses the kanji for flower (花, hana).
Fish come in many different shapes:
Karei (鰈, flounder) is also a flat fish and uses the kanji for leaf (葉, ha).
Sayori (針魚, Japanese half beak) look like long needles (針, hari), especially since they have a bottom lip that has a fine point.
Some kanji describe how the fish swims or where it can be harvested:
Tobiuo (飛魚, flying fish) have wings and fly (飛ぶ, tobu) above the water.
Hamo (鱧, pike conger) is snakelike and swims not in a straight line but more in a manner of winding and twisting (曲がりくねる, magarikuneru).
Mebaru (鮴, rockfish) are known to hang out between rocks and crevices in the ocean, so they are paired with the kanji for resting (休む, yasumu).
Tachiuo (太刀魚, cutlassfish) stands up when it swims and looks like a fat (太い, futoi) silvery sword (刀, katana) in the water.
The time in the lifecycle of a fish when it is caught can also determine its name:
Wakasagi (鰙, Japanese smelt) are harvested when they are young (若い, wakai).
Buri (鰤, yellowtail) can be harvested at many stages. They start out as inada
(いなだ, young yellowtail); midsize buri are called warasa (わらさ, midsize). Buri are harvested in December and are paired with the old kanji for December (師走, shiwasu).
Other kanji for fish include:
Kawahagi (魚皮, thread-sail filefish), famous for its thick, leathery skin, can be written with the kanji for skin (皮, kawa).
Iwashi (鰯, sardines) die quickly after they are caught; therefore, they are given the kanji for weak (弱い, yowai).
It is also interesting to note that one of the kanji for sushi 鮨, is written with the character for delicious (旨い, umai).
Finally, a great way to practice your fish kanji is to play karuta (a Japanese card game). Game company Okuno Karuta Ten (www.okunokaruta.com/item/item.htm) sells a ¥2,310 set of “osakana no karuta” (お魚のカルタ) with English explanations that is perfect for the task.