What Is The Japanese Kanji For Fish?

The Japanese kanji for fish is 魚. In this article, we break down the components of 魚 and understand pronunciation and writing. Read on to find out everything about 魚.

Kanji, the logographic writing system of the Japanese language, is a rich tapestry of characters, each holding unique meanings and cultural significance. 

One of the most commonly recognized and cherished kanji is that of “fish” (魚). Throughout Japan’s history, fish have played a vital role in the country’s diet, folklore, and artistic expression. 

In this article, we delve into the intricacies of the kanji for fish, exploring its origins, symbolism, and enduring significance in Japanese culture.

Japanese Kanji For Fish Is 魚

The Japanese kanji for fish, 魚, is a logographic character used in the Japanese writing system. It is one of the essential and commonly used kanji characters, representing the concept of fish.

Here’s a breakdown of the components of the kanji:

魚: This kanji consists of three parts:

  1. 魚 Radical (さんずいぶし / sanzuibushi): The left-hand side of the character contains the radical 魚, which specifically means “fish” in the context of kanji.
  2. 口 (くち / kuchi): The top part of the character includes the kanji 口, meaning “mouth.” This component gives the idea of a fish’s mouth, which is a distinctive feature.
  3. 高 (こう / kou): The bottom part of the character contains the kanji 高, which originally means “high” or “tall.” It is used here to represent the fish’s tail, as the tail often extends upward and resembles the shape of the kanji 高.

The kanji for fish, 魚, visually resembles the outline of a fish, with the radical on the left denoting that it represents a fish-related concept. 

Over time, the character has undergone slight simplifications and variations in different writing styles, but its core meaning has remained unchanged.

The kanji 魚 is not only a part of everyday Japanese language but also plays a significant role in various cultural contexts. 

As mentioned in the previous elaboration, fish hold great cultural and symbolic importance in Japan, and this kanji represents not only the literal fish but also broader concepts related to prosperity, abundance, and good fortune.

It is essential to note that while the kanji 魚 represents the concept of fish, the pronunciation and context may change when used in different words or sentences. 

For example, “fish market” is 魚市場 (sakana ichiba), and “fisherman” is 漁師 (ryōshi). Japanese words often combine kanji characters with hiragana or katakana characters to create meaningful and well-formed expressions.

Origins of the Kanji for Fish

The origins of the kanji for fish, 魚, can be traced back to ancient China, where it was originally part of the Chinese writing system.

The evolution of this character is fascinating and provides insights into how it came to be an essential component of the Japanese writing system.

  • Oracle Bone Script
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The earliest known form of the character for fish dates back to the Shang Dynasty in ancient China (around the 16th to 11th centuries BCE). 

During this period, divination using oracle bones was a common practice. These oracle bones were pieces of turtle shells or animal bones on which diviners would carve inscriptions.

The character for fish was represented as a simple pictograph, resembling the shape of a fish.

  • Bronze Script

As Chinese script evolved, the fish character became more stylized during the Zhou Dynasty (around the 11th to 3rd centuries BCE). 

The character was engraved onto bronze vessels, and its structure became more intricate compared to the earlier oracle bone script. It retained the basic fish shape but gained additional strokes and details.

  • Seal Script

During the Qin Dynasty (around the 3rd century BCE), the seal script style emerged. This style featured more standardized and formalized characters, and the fish character underwent further modifications. 

The fish shape became more distinct, with a square-shaped body and a more pronounced tail.

  • Introduction to Japan

The Japanese writing system was heavily influenced by Chinese script, which was introduced to Japan through cultural exchanges and diplomatic missions during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. 

The character for fish, 魚, along with many other kanji characters, was brought to Japan and gradually adopted into the Japanese writing system.

  • Simplification in Japan

Over time, the Japanese developed their own writing style, Kanji, based on the Chinese characters but with some adaptations. 

The character for fish, 魚, underwent minor simplifications in its strokes and form to fit the unique writing style of Japan.

Despite these simplifications, the essential shape and meaning of the character were retained.

Today, the kanji for fish, 魚, continues to be an integral part of the Japanese writing system and is widely used in various contexts, such as in menus, cooking recipes, seafood-related industries, and cultural celebrations.

The origins of the kanji for fish illustrate the historical connections between Japan and China and reflect the cultural exchange that has shaped both countries’ writing systems and artistic expressions. 

The character’s evolution from a simple pictograph on oracle bones to its prominent place in modern Japanese culture is a testament to the enduring significance of fish and its representation in the written language.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance

The kanji for fish, 魚, holds profound symbolism and cultural significance in Japanese society.

Beyond its literal representation of the aquatic creature, this character carries a range of meanings that have become deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of Japan.

Let’s explore the various aspects of its symbolism and cultural significance:

  • Dietary Staple
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Japan’s geography, surrounded by the ocean and dotted with rivers and lakes, has made fish a fundamental part of the traditional Japanese diet.

As a result, the kanji for fish, 魚, represents not only a source of sustenance but also the country’s reliance on marine resources for nourishment.

  • Prosperity and Abundance

Fish symbolize prosperity and abundance in Japanese culture. The abundance of fish in the waters signifies a bountiful food supply, which has historically been essential for coastal communities and fishing-dependent regions.

  • Luck and Fortune

In the realm of symbolism, fish are often associated with luck and good fortune. Their swimming motions, particularly when moving upstream, are seen as a symbol of perseverance and determination to overcome obstacles. 

This symbolism is especially pronounced in the depiction of koi fish, which are often associated with success and prosperity.

  • Metaphorical Meanings

The kanji for fish, 魚, extends its symbolism beyond its literal meaning. It is often used in idiomatic expressions and proverbs to convey broader meanings.

For example, “fish in troubled waters” (濁水魚) refers to a situation where someone benefits from chaos or conflict. 

Another saying, “a dragon’s gate, a fish’s leap” (龍門魚躍), signifies a powerful leap or advancement in life.

  • Spiritual and Folkloric Significance

Fish have deep spiritual and folkloric connections in Japanese culture. In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, fish are considered sacred beings and are sometimes associated with water deities. 

Fish are also integral to various Japanese myths and folktales, contributing to their mystical significance.

  • Festive Symbol

The kanji for fish, 魚, often features in celebratory contexts, especially during festive meals and special occasions. 

Fish dishes are prevalent during significant events, such as New Year celebrations and traditional festivals, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune for the coming year.

  • Tango no Sekku (Boys’ Day)

In Japan, May 5th is celebrated as “Tango no Sekku” or “Kodomo no Hi” (Children’s Day). 

This festival includes the custom of flying carp-shaped koinobori flags, where each carp represents a family member, with the largest representing the father, the next largest the mother, and smaller ones for the children. 

The koinobori symbolize a wish for boys to grow up strong and determined like fish swimming upstream.

Fish in Japanese Art and Literature

Fish have long been a source of inspiration for Japanese artists and writers, resulting in a rich array of creative expressions in both traditional and contemporary art and literature. 

The graceful form of fish and their cultural significance have made them a captivating subject, and they often appear in various artistic mediums and literary works.

Let’s delve deeper into the role of fish in Japanese art and literature:

Fish in Japanese Art:

Traditional Paintings and Prints: In traditional Japanese art, fish have been a popular subject for painters and printmakers.

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Artists often depict fish with meticulous attention to detail, capturing their vibrant colors and elegant movements.

Paintings and woodblock prints featuring fish swimming in tranquil waters or vibrant koi ponds are common themes, symbolizing serenity and beauty.

  • Koi Fish

Koi fish, a variety of domesticated carp, hold special significance in Japanese art and culture.

They are admired for their striking patterns and vibrant colors, and their association with determination and success makes them a popular motif in Japanese art.

Koi are often depicted swimming upstream, symbolizing perseverance and overcoming adversity.

  • Symbolism in Art

Fish are not only depicted for their aesthetic appeal but also for their symbolic meanings. They represent prosperity, abundance, and good fortune, making them a favored subject in auspicious and celebratory art.

  • Ceramics and Pottery

Fish motifs frequently appear on Japanese ceramics and pottery, adding an element of charm and nature-inspired beauty to these functional pieces.

Fish in Japanese Literature:

  • Haiku and Poetry

Fish frequently find their way into haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry known for its concise structure and focus on nature. Poets often use fish to symbolize the ephemeral nature of life, the passage of time, or to evoke a sense of calm and harmony with nature.

  • Folktales and Myths

Fish feature prominently in Japanese folktales and myths, where they are often depicted as mystical beings or symbols of transformation. One well-known tale is “Urashima Taro,” where a fish grants the protagonist a journey to an underwater kingdom.

  • Metaphorical Use

Fish are employed metaphorically in literature to convey various ideas and emotions. The image of fish swimming in clear water might be used to evoke a sense of clarity and transparency, while fish in turbulent waters might symbolize chaos and uncertainty.

  • Novels and Modern Literature

In modern Japanese literature, fish continue to be used metaphorically and symbolically, adding depth and layers to characters and themes.

Cultural Festivals and Fish

Fish-themed festivals are prevalent in Japan and demonstrate the profound cultural significance of these creatures. 

One notable event is the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, which features “Nagoshi no Harae,” a ritual where participants immerse themselves in water, symbolizing purification and protection from misfortune. 

Additionally, the traditional Tango no Sekku (Boys’ Day) on May 5th often includes flying carp-shaped koinobori flags, symbolizing a wish for boys to grow up strong and determined like fish swimming upstream.


The Japanese kanji for fish, 魚, is a powerful representation of the country’s rich cultural heritage and relationship with the sea. Beyond its simple appearance, this character encapsulates centuries of tradition, symbolism, and reverence for nature. 

From nourishing the Japanese people to inspiring art and literature, fish remain an integral part of Japan’s identity and a symbol of prosperity, abundance, and endurance.

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