Fish Kanji and “Sushi Secrets”

Charles Tuttle was only half the team who built Tuttle Publishing. The other half was his wife of almost 50 years, Reiko Chiba Tuttle. On January 24, Reiko would’ve been 97, and this month we’re highlighting aspects of Japanese culture that Reiko took special interests in. Today I’m combining two of them: language and cooking.

Fish Kanji

Fish name lists are a common decorative motif in Japanese restaurants.

If you ever eat in Japanese restaurants, you’ve almost certainly seen something like the picture on the left. It might have been on the wall, but it’s often a design motif on a dish, placemat or teacup. At a glance, it has all the august authority of a Buddhist sutra, but in fact it’s just a list of fish names. I’m going to tell you why this pops up so often.

If you’re new to character-writing, this is a good spot to offer a quick explanation. Complex characters (like these) have two parts: one part for the core meaning and a second part either to further clarify the meaning or to give a pronunciation key. Even if you don’t read characters, you can see that on the left-hand side of every character on this board is the same thing: 魚. That’s a fish. Squint and you can pretend the top is the fish head, the middle is the scale-clad body, and the four dashes at the bottom are the tail.

Fish characters all have 魚 on the left. The right-hand part is a hint about what kind of fish it is. Take the character in the upper-right corner. Alone, the character 平 means “flat”. Make a new character by combining 魚 (fish) + 平 (flat) and you get 鮃, which is a “flat fish”, or, as we usually say in English, flounder. (Red Sox fans, you know this fish as “floundah” and you’ve often eaten it as “scrod”.) The road from character to meaning is not always that short and flat, but that’s how characters work.

The thing about characters is that the Chinese have been working on them for (conservatively) more than 3,000 years, so by the time the Japanese starting sending exchange students to the continent to learn how to read and write, the Chinese pretty much had everything labeled.

Except fish. The Japanese and fish are like Eskimos and their proverbial 16 words for snow (note to self: go see if that’s true). Sure, in English we’ve got words like albacore and bonito, but people just say “tuna”. I’m looking in (shameless product plug) Tuttle’s Concise Japanese Dictionary and there are actually five everyday Japanese words for “tuna”.

The Japanese filled the gap between the number of fish characters the Chinese had created and the ones they needed, and this contribution to the nomenclature of gastronomic ichthyology is something they take some home-team pride in. That’s why fish kanji often show up in sushi restaurants as decorative motifs and conversation starters.

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, let’s look at a few other examples of fish characters the Japanese created:

  • 鮨 – sushi – the second radical is the word for “umai”, which means “delicious”. Related to “umai” is “umami”, a fashionable new word in cooking circles.
  • 鱈– tara – codfish. Cod, it was thought, was a fish best caught “after the first snow”. The second radical in 鱈 (雪) means “snow” and is itself a pictograph of a broom under a snow-cloud, because snow is the precipitation that you sweep. (Unless you live at my house, in which case you need a $700 snow blower.)
  • 鰯– iwashi – sardines. The second radical 弱 means “weak”, which reminded fisherman to take it easy on the sardine because its flesh is easily bruised.
  • 鯱– shachihoko – orca or killer whale is the “tiger” of the sea and the second radical in 鯱 is 虎 “tiger”.
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Rising sushi star, Marisa Baggett’s debut cookbook.

With that in mind, this week’s free book is our new Sushi Secrets. The perfect intro for new and aspiring sushi-chefs, Sushi Secrets is by freelance writer, sushi consultant, sushi event chef, and sustainable seafood advocate, Marisa Baggett. In addition to traditional sushi recipes, she has created kosher and vegan options using authentic ingredients and techniques.

If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me and put “Sushi” (or 鮨) in the subject line.

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2 thoughts on “Fish Kanji and “Sushi Secrets”

  1. I think my sushi place writes “sushi” in hiragana. This box isn’t letting me type hiragana here. What’s the difference between that and the kanji you listed? Interesting post. I love learning about kanji.

    • Good observation! I hesitate to use “sushi” as a jumping off spot for a general conversation about Japanese writing because “sushi” is frequently written as many as four ways, which, even in the rather flexible world of Japanese writing, is unusual. The kanji I’ve given here (鮨) is one. Very frequently, however, you’ll see “寿司”, which is a use of kanji the Japanese call “ateji” (当て字), meaning the characters are used only for their phonetic value, not for their meaning. The third way is “寿し”, where the “su” is written with ateji (寿 means “longevity”) and the “shi” is written phonetically with hiragana. The simplest way, which is also quite common, is just to use hiragana: すし.

      Some less common options are 鮓, which is a single kanji, and 酸し,where first syllable is written with the character for “vinegar”, which is very logical and may be the closest true etymology of the word. And as an aside, just because a restaurant writes “sushi” one way in one location doesn’t mean they’ll write it that way everywhere! I can’t think of any words in Japanese with a bigger variety of “spellings”, but if anyone knows any, please write in!

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