KANJI-GATE: Fish Radical

From Origami Magazine

Welcome to Eve Kushner’s Joy O’ Kanji, a great tool for Japanese language learners and fun way to probe the various meanings of the 2,136 Joyo Kanji needed for basic literacy in Japanese. To learn more about her project and subscribe to her essays, go to joyokanji.com.

“Fish” Radical

When it comes to most aspects of the “fish” radical 魚, things are straightforward. This radical is on duty in only three Joyo kanji, including the autonomous 魚 kanji itself.

To understand the radical, we should start by looking at that character:


This 11-stroke shape is a pictograph of a “whole fish,” according to Henshall in his newer edition. So even though the four dots at the bottom look exactly like 灬, a variant of the “fire” radical, they instead represent a tail. That’s a relief; I would hate to think this fish was grilled from the get-go.

What Is the Japanese Name for the “Fish” Radical?

The 魚 kanji carries three Joyo readings: うお (uo), さかな (sakana), and ギョ (gyo). The first two matter here, as they pop up in the radical names.

That is, we can refer to the 魚 radical of the 魚 character as うお or as さかな. (Well, Nelson includes the さかな reading, but Kanjigen does not.)

When the radical shifts to the left side of a kanji—the -へん (-偏) side—the names うおへん and さかなへん become appropriate, as with these two kanji:


鮮 (fresh; vivid; skillful; Korea)

I often exercise with these fish. That is, they appear on a T-shirt that I wear for workouts. All 13 of these kanji feature the left-side 魚 radical, and all are regrettably non-Joyo, including the important character at the center:

鮨 (すし: sushi)


People more often render すし as 寿司, but neither character features a “fish” radical, so how satisfying is that?

Author profile

Bruce Rutledge loves books, baseball, and Pacific Northwest beer, He also loves Japan and has dedicated his career to telling more stories about the country through books, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, and now, on Origami magazine. He works in Seattle's Pike Place Market. Come visit him in his store in the Down Under.