Kanji Clinic #56 The Japan Times, July 1, 2004
"Avoiding sushi surprise: Learning to swim with the fish-kanji"


Growing up in the mountains of the southeastern United States in the 1960's, gseafood for dinnerh at our house meant one of two things: canned tuna or frozen fish sticks. So coming to live in the nation that consumes 30 percent of the world's fresh fish--often with a head still attached and a gloomy eye gazing at you-- required a major attitude adjustment. Japan's rivers and seas are home to over 3,000 species of fish, and as far as I can tell, practically every one of them is sliced, boiled, fried, dried, pickled, grilled, or otherwise prepared for human consumption.

is your basic kanji for "fish," sakana. It is a pictograph illustrating (from top to bottom), the head, body, and fins of the creature the Japanese live to eat. Besides being a stand alone kanji, is also a productive component in over 150 additional characters, the majority of which represent particular varieties of fish.

Only three of these are among the general-use (jouyou) kanji, however, and none of them represent a fish in the strict zoological sense: (water) plus yields (RYOU, fishing); added to r (sheep) results in N (SEN, fresh); and ~ (whale, kujira) is composed of @and (capital), the latter lending the idea of "chief" to the kanji representing the mammal that rules the seas.

The majority of Japan's fish kanji were imported from China, beginning over 1,500 years ago. In some cases today, however, the same kanji have come to represent different varieties of fish in the two nations. The Japanese have also created some fishy characters of their own, including one comprised of and (snow): L (cod, tara). Cod live in the deep, cold waters of Hokkaido and Tohoku in northern Japan.

It should be mentioned that not all fish in Japan are represented by a single kanji. The blowfish (fugu), with its puffed-up face, for example, is written with two characters, ͓ (river-pig).

Most fish kanji are constructed with on the left side and an additional ghelperh component on the right. In the case of made-in-China kanji, this helper usually indicates the character's on (gChineseh) pronunciation. Right-hand components often provide descriptive information about the particular species of fish the character represents. Here are several memory-friendly examples:

(sardine, iwashi) is a weak wimp of a fish that dies quickly out of water.
(turbot, karei) is a fish as flat as a leaf t. (Note that the top three strokes of t@are missing in ).
(killer whale, shachi) is a gfishh as fear-inspiring as a tiger .
(bonito, katsuo) is a fish with firm flesh.

In other cases, the reason why a particular semantic component was chosen by the creators of fish kanji is not so readily apparent. I recommend making your own mnemonics for those characters, along these lines:

(carp, koi) A village holds an annual fish fry on Children's Day, serving up gvillage fish h--ornamental carp from the pond in the village square.
(tuna, maguro) The fish that exists L in every sushi shop is tuna .

To get started, create your own memory device for one of the most commonly seen fish-kanji in Japan, comprised of gfish ,h gsoil y,h and gsoil yh: (salmon, sake). Being able to decipher this kanji on the cellophane packaging of rice balls will enable you to purchase your desired salmon onigiri with the assurance you will not bite into any surprise fillings.

You may also want to commit to memory the kanji for gsushi,h , a combination of and |, the latter being a kanji meaning gtastyh (umai). To remember |, simply imagine yourself gorging on your favorite food all day using a spoon q instead of chopsticks. (Note: gSushih is also commonly written using the compound i).

At sushi shops inside and outside Japan, you will usually find fish kanji printed on menus and posters, and sometimes on large teacups called yunomi. Take a moment to analyze the components of the kanji representing the fish upon which you are feasting, and impress your sushi chef or dinner companions in the process.

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