Tag Archives: kanji

Radically Fishy – An Adventure in Ideograms

12 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived, so be prepared to put up with me ranting about the locals’ inability to cope with the heat and humidity.

Recent news has been dominated with the story of Yamato Tonooka, whose parents left him in the forest for a few minutes as punishment, only to have him disappear and not be found for nearly a week.  The media have been tripping over themselves to bring us the exclusive reports, which now include close-up shots of the tap he drank from…

This post comes from an idea floating around inside my head for a few years but was crystallised by a school lunch, of all things.

Lunch included Japanese Spanish mackerel (“So is it Japanese or Spanish?  Make up your mind!”), which is known in the vernacular as sawara and written 鰆.  Astute readers might recognise the radical as the character for fish (魚) combined with the character for spring (春).  This fish always seems a little dry, and I quipped that since we are now in summer, it is out of season.

Time to look at some characters with the fish radical.  Let’s keep this simple and go by stroke number.

The modern character for fish.

The first one combines fish with the element for fortune telling (占) to make 鮎.  Avid readers may recognise it as ayu or sweetfish, although it originally referred to the catfish – namazu – now written 鯰.

Next is one you might be able to guess.  If we combine fish with an older version of the character for flat (平) – which I can’t reproduce here due to unicode issues – we get 鮃, read as hirame.  Hmm, a flat fish…  I hope you’re not floundering for an answer.  The answer is, of course, the olive flounder, bastard halibut or Japanese halibut.

The fish with the package (包) is a little confusing.  I’m pretty good with the fish characters – more than a match for a typical Japanese adult – but 鮑 had me stumped.  One reason is because it is not a fish at all – it is abalone!  The locals know it as awabi.

Moving along to another season, let’s look at the fish with winter (冬), read as konoshiro.  Actually, this character – one of several used for the fish – is misleading.  The answer is the dotted gizzard shad, konoshiro gizzard shad, or spotted sardine, which is actually in season in autumn.

The fish with the rock (石) makes sense.  The adults of this family of fish – known locally as kajika (鮖) – apparently lack swim bladders, and so sink when they stop swimming.  It is the sculpin, a large family of fish which inhabit a variety of freshwater and marine environments.  Interestingly enough, another character is also used for this fish.  This character uses fish combined with autumn (秋) to make 鰍, although in the original Chinese it referred to the weather loach.  The weather loach or weatherfish  – dojo in Japanese –  is now typically written as 鰌.

Sometimes the meanings of the parts of the characters is not immediately clear.  The next two are prime examples of this.  The first combines fish with the character for “to be” (有), but in this case it is to represent a fish that swims freely.  The Japanese name for the fish is said to be a corruption of meguro (“black eyes”) and is pronounced maguro (鮪).  The fish in question is the tuna.  Curiously, the Japanese have taken to using the word tsuna (a corruption of the English tuna) to refer to canned tuna…

My other example is fish combined with a character referring to a jade tablet (圭), but taken to mean a triangular shape, or possibly a good shape.  The resulting character is (鮭), referring to salmon.  The Japanese name for the fish is sake, which may have its roots in the Ainu language.  Closely related fish, which may be known as either salmon or trout in English are sold under the name saamon, a corruption of the English salmon.

How about a fish that includes the element for switch, cross over, or interact with (交)?  The resulting character becomes 鮫, and should be somewhat familiar to regular followers.  That’s right, it’s same, meaning shark.  Apparently, the shark’s twisting movements give rise to that character.  The Japanese name same may be of Ainu origin.

Our next fish has the character for village, and also for an old measure of distance (里).  I imagined that the right side referred to the fishes’ length or possibly the distance they swam, but it turns out that it is also a reference to sinews.  The resulting 鯉 is read koi, meaning carp.

We’ve already had one example of the fish radical meaning something other than a fish, so let’s finish off with three more.

The fish radical combined with 京, which typically means capital city but also has the meaning one quintillion or 1×1016 – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 – to make the character 鯨.  The ridiculously high number refers to the creature’s size.  That’s right, the character is kujira, and means whale.

Next, let’s combine the fish with a tiger (虎).  This one (鯱) shouldn’t be too hard to guess if I told you to think of a sea creature with the ferocity of a tiger.  The name is shachi, and it refers to the killer whale.  The same characters may also refer to the fanciful creature found on the roofs of castles, often known as shachihoko.

Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya Castle. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Shachihoko from the Wakansansaizue. Here it is actually written as two separate characters 魚虎 and not the single character 鯱. Interestingly, it is the second-last entry under “scaly marine fish. Mermaid is last!

Our final ideogram for this post is fish with a character meaning to surprise (咢).  In this case, however, the surprise element is similar to the character for chin or jaw.  Again, followers of this blog might recognise the resulting character as 鰐, wani.  Originally meaning certain kinds of sharks, it has been changed to mean reptiles of the order crocodilia.

I hope you enjoyed this post, because there are more interesting fish-based kanji characters out there.

Original bone oracle script.

Bronze script character. You can clearly see the fish here.

Large seal script. It’s beginning to take shape. I can’t see the fish any more.

Small seal script. It only takes a little imagination to understand what character this is, but it looks almost nothing like the original.

Further Adventures in Cross-Linguistic Nomeclature – Ideograph This!

10 Mar

Recently I was co-teaching a class of 8 and 9 year olds, and wanted them to be able to ask “Can you ~?”

After discussing the idea with the school’s staff, we decided to use the kanji names of various animals and plants.


Some background here. 

Early Japan did not have a unified indigenous writing system, and from the 6th century the Chinese ideographic script (known as kanji in Japanese) was used.  Now, Japanese is linguistically not related to Chinese, and this led to problems.  Sometimes an approximate reading of the characters was used, ignoring the actual meaning of the ideograms.   Sometimes the meaning, and therefore the ideogram, was used, but the Chinese-based reading ignored in favour of the indigenous Japanese word.  Eventually phonetic scripts were developed and came to be used alongside the Chinese characters, often replacing non-standard readings in everyday texts.  But a number of the older written forms have survived into the present, and are an interesting field of study.


A simple example is dolphin.  The Japanese name is iruka, and today it is usually written in the katakana script (イルカ).  It may, however be written in kanji as 海豚 – literally “sea pig”, which would be read [hǎitún] in modern Mandarin Chinese, or [kaiton] if one was to use the standard Japanese readings – only no such word exists.  Incidentally, the root word of the English “porpoise” comes from Latin and also means “sea hog”.


Another animal containing the character for pig is the puffer fish, globe fish or blow fish – depending which dictionary you’re using.  In Japanese, it is known as fugu (河豚), where the characters mean “river pig”.


One that is easier to imagine is uni, when it is rendered 海栗, literally “sea chestnut”.  (The other way of writing it is 海胆 – “sea gall”)  Think of a spiny chestnut husk in the sea, and you’ll probably come up with a sea urchin.  Interestingly, the English word “urchin” derives from a Latin word meaning “hedgehog”


“Sea” + “chestnut” = “sea urchin”. Pictograms can be so simple.

While we’re on the subject of sea creatures, let’s try kurage (海月).  By now you’ve probably worked out that the first character means sea.  The second one represents the word “moon”.

If you haven’t guessed, it is a jellyfish.


Let’s get out of the water for a moment and look at one of the easiest to understand – mukade (百足).  The first character means “hundred”, and the second means “leg” or “foot”.  You shouldn’t need me to tell you it is a centipede… which literally means “hundred legs”…


If we return to the chestnut and combine it with a mouse or rat (), we end up with risu (栗鼠).  If you can imagine a rat that likes chestnuts… or something resembling chestnuts…  [Hint: if you’re a follower of this blog, you may remember that the word for acorn, donguri, is written 団栗.]

If you guessed squirrel, you are doing well.


Back into the sea, and we have another very easy one – hitode (海星).  The combination of “sea” and “star” should be a dead giveaway, especially to those in parts of the world that call this creature a sea star and not a starfish.


On the other hand, you are doing incredibly well if you guessed namako (海鼠) – literally “sea mouse”.  Most of the kids I was teaching that day had little idea what the creature in question was, but got a clearer picture when I explained the English name was “sea” plus “cucumber”.


I said that most of these animal names are native Japanese pronunciation, but sometimes the phonetic name is derived from other language sources too.


Rakko, for example, comes from an Ainu word.  The most common kanji form is 海獺 (猟虎 or “hunting tiger” is also sometimes used).  By now you should be able to recognise “sea”.  The other character means “otter”.  I’m sure you can guess the rest.


The original ideogram for “sea” – it is now written 海

Another word of Ainu derivation is shishamo (柳葉魚).  This is a case where the characters were chosen to match the Ainu meaning – “willow leaf fish”.  According to Ainu legend, a compassionate god transformed some floating willow leaves into fish to feed the starving people. 

Grilled or deep fried with the roe intact, this is one of only two items on the school lunch menu that I won’t eat.  Luckily, it only appears once or twice a year.


Shishamo “willow leaf fish” – If I caught anything that small I’d throw it back!!  (Not to mention I HATE fish eggs…)

I’ve collected over a dozen of these words.  Many native speakers of Japanese can’t read them, so they are a great challenge for my workmates.  Not to mention what I learned from checking the etymology of the English word too.

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