The Ubiquitous Fish Mug and Japanese Fish Words

We’ve all seen it, whether in Japan or Canada:  The ubiquitous tea cup with the kanji for dozens of fish written all over it.  Ever wonder what all those fish are, and are there way to cheat and guess as to the meaning of some kanji to know they stand for fish?  Well, this post should go some way in assisting in answering these questions.

TEC-F70_FK_TTFirst off, and most obviously, the “cheat” is to recognize the fish radical:  魚.100px-魚-order  One account of its etymology claims that the kanji is and alteration of older uo, appearing from roughly the Heian period, while another account posits that it is a compound of Old Japanese elements (saka, sake, rice wine) +‎ (na, side dish).

Whatever the source, its utility on an island nations is immeasurable to the new learner of Japanese.  Once you know it, you can at least recognize it as a left-hand radical, and know what section of the menu you’re looking at.  You can also start rolling up you sleeves and start learning the different kinds of fish (and impress your native Japanese speaking friends with your knowledge of arcane kanji).

So, where did each kanji come from?  According to Yukari Sakamoto of the Japan Times: “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.”  In short, you can use fun mnemonic devices to help you know which fish is which.  Examples of common fish include:

  • Saba (鯖) – blue mackerel, which can have a blue back and thus combines the kanji for “fish”, and the kanji for “blue”.
  • Tobiuo (飛魚) – flying fish, which combines the kanji for “flying” and “fish”.
  • Iwashi (鰯) – sardines, which combine the kanji for “fish” and “weak” because they die soon after being caught.
  • Karei (鰈) – flounder, a flat fish that combines the kanji for “fish” and “leaf” (which, like the flounder, is flat).

Yukari Sakamoto also provides a story for extra kanji-geek points, when he writes that yellow fish (buri – 鰤) that are harvested in December, are paired with the old kanji for December to make shiwasu (師走).

Armed with these “hacks”, you are in good stead to go to one of the most awesome restaurant chains ever – Za Uo – where you catch your own fish and choose how to eat it!

Like all radicals, the fish kanji can be a false friend, so beware!  Some examples include the kanji for “fresh” (鮮), which combines the kanji for “fish” and “sheep”.  Huh…  Another false friend is whale (鯨), which is not a fish at all, but a mammal, despite combining the kanji for “fish” and “capital”.

If you really want to super-charge your Japanese fish knowledge, consider learning these fish proverbs:

  • 腐っても鯛 (kusatte mo tai), which means that even a rotten tai fish has worth.
  • 海老で鯛を釣る (ebi de tai o tsuru), which means to gain a big profit with little effort.
  • 鯉の滝登り (koi no takinobori), which means to have great success in life.  Remember the koi flying on Children’s Day?
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