A Guide to Unique Japanese Fish Names

This post contains affiliate links. See the affiliate disclaimer here.

Are you fascinated by the rich diversity of marine life? If you’re a fish enthusiast, you’ll be intrigued by the intriguing world of Japanese fish names.

Japan is renowned for its vibrant seafood culture, and with that comes a plethora of unique and sometimes peculiar names for different fish species.

From seigo to suzuki, the Japanese have a knack for giving their fish distinctive names that change depending on the size of the fish.

This practice, known as “promotion fish” or Shusseuo, has its roots in the samurai tradition. Just like how a samurai’s name would change as they progressed in rank, certain fish species in Japan undergo name changes as they grow.

We’ll explore the fascinating historical and cultural significance behind this naming convention and discover how it adds an extra layer of intrigue to the world of Japanese seafood.

Why Learn the Names of Japanese Fishes?

You might wonder, why should you bother learning the names of Japanese fishes? Well, the answer is simple. When you’re exploring Japan’s coastal regions, dining at seafood restaurants, or simply conversing with locals, having knowledge of the fish names elevates your experience.

It allows you to make informed choices while ordering seafood dishes, recognize different fish species, and engage in meaningful conversations about Japan’s rich marine life.

Understanding the Rich Marine Life in Japan

Exploring Japan’s Coastal Waters

Japan boasts a stunning variety of marine ecosystems due to its extensive coastline that stretches over 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles). These coastal waters provide a favorable environment for diverse fish populations to thrive. From the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, the archipelago teems with life beneath the surface.

Japan’s Unique Fish Species

Japan’s geographical location and the merging of various oceanic currents contribute to its unique fish species. Over 3,000 different types of fish call these waters home, each with its distinct characteristics and names. The popularity of seafood in Japanese cuisine further highlights the significance of fish in the country’s culinary traditions.

Cultural Importance of Fish in Japan

Fish holds immense cultural importance in Japan, going beyond its role as a staple food source. It has deep symbolic and historical roots, representing luck, prosperity, and even spiritual significance. In traditional festivals, fish-shaped flags called koinobori are flown to celebrate Children’s Day, symbolizing strength and good fortune for kids.

Popular Japanese Fishes and Their Names

Now that we understand the significance of fish in Japanese culture, let’s explore some popular species and their names that you should be familiar with.

Maguro (Tuna)

Maguro, or tuna, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known Japanese fish around the world. Its rich, tender flesh and versatility make it a prized ingredient in sushi and sashimi dishes. From the lean Akami to the fatty Otoro, different cuts offer distinctive flavors.

Suzuki (Sea Bass)

Suzuki, also known as sea bass or Japanese seabass, is a popular fish found in both Japan’s coastal and freshwater regions. With its delicate texture and mild flavor, suzuki is a favorite among local chefs. Grilling or steaming brings out the best in this fish.

Tai (Red Sea Bream)

Tai, or red sea bream, holds a special place in Japanese cuisine and culture. It is often served during celebratory occasions as it represents good luck. Tai sashimi, grilled tai, or tai cooked in a rice dish called “tai meshi” are all delicious ways to enjoy this fish.

Saba (Mackerel)

Saba, or mackerel, offers a delightful combination of bold flavor and rich omega-3 fatty acids. Whether marinated, grilled, or pickled, saba provides a culinary adventure on your palate. Its distinct taste makes it a beloved ingredient in various traditional and modern Japanese dishes.

Hamachi (Yellowtail)

Hamachi, or yellowtail, is a highly prized fish in Japanese cuisine, particularly as sashimi. Its buttery texture, delicate taste, and beautiful marbling make it a favorite among seafood enthusiasts. Hamachi’s name derives from its yellow-colored tail, distinguishing it from other fish species.

Hokkigai (Surf Clam)

Hokkigai, or surf clam, is a marvelous mollusk with a deep red, tender flesh. It is often enjoyed as sushi or sashimi, adding a distinct briny and slightly sweet flavor to these dishes. Its lovely pink color and unique taste make it a must-try seafood delicacy.

Ebi (Shrimp)

Ebi, or shrimp, is a versatile ingredient prevalent in Japanese cuisine. Whether served tempura-style, grilled, or as nigiri sushi, the taste and texture of ebi never disappoint. It’s worth noting that Japan takes pride in offering an array of shrimp species, each with its own name and characteristics.

Unagi (Freshwater Eel)

Unagi, or freshwater eel, holds a special place in Japanese culinary traditions. Grilled until succulent and glazed with a sweet soy-based sauce, unagi becomes a mouthwatering delicacy. Unagi restaurants are popular, and the dish is often enjoyed during the hot summers.

Hotate (Scallop)

When it comes to Japanese shellfish, hotate, or scallop, stands out for its succulent texture and mild, sweet taste. Often served raw as sashimi or lightly grilled with butter, hotate offers a delightful seafood experience. Its versatility allows it to shine in both traditional and modern dishes.

Aji (Horse Mackerel)

Aji, also known as horse mackerel, is a widely consumed fish in Japan. Its firm and flavorful flesh make it suitable for various cooking methods. From salt-grilled aji to aji sashimi, this fish offers a delightful taste profile that appeals to seafood lovers.

Ika (Squid)

Ika, or squid, holds a distinctive place in Japanese cuisine, elevating the flavors of many dishes. From calamari rings to grilled whole squid, ika showcases its tenderness and mild taste. Japan is known for its meticulous preparation and presentation of ika in various culinary delicacies.

Katsuo (Bonito)

Katsuo, or bonito, is a member of the mackerel family and holds a special place in Japanese gastronomy. It is commonly caught using traditional methods, such as the art of fly-fishing known as “tataki.” Katsuo is valued for its distinct smoky flavor, often enjoyed as sashimi or in dashi, a traditional Japanese broth.

Kanpachi (Amberjack)

Kanpachi, or amberjack, is a fish renowned for its tender flesh, mild flavor, and high-fat content. This makes it ideal for sashimi, allowing you to relish its delicate taste and buttery texture. The popularity of kanpachi continues to grow, both domestically and internationally.

Fugu (Pufferfish)

Fugu, or pufferfish, is a highly regulated delicacy that only skilled chefs can prepare due to its infamous poisonous parts. Enjoying fugu is not just about the taste; it’s an experience in itself. If you have the opportunity, try fugu in a reputable restaurant under expert supervision.

Kani (Crab)

Kani, or crab, holds a special place in Japanese hearts, particularly during the winter when crab season is in full swing. Whether it’s the prized snow crab, king crab, or hairy crab, Japan offers a wide variety of crabs to satisfy every culinary preference. From savoring its rich, delicate meat to enjoying a crab feast, kani offers an unforgettable experience.

Other Japanese Fish Names

While the previously mentioned fishes are more commonly known, Japan also boasts various lesser-known species that are equally fascinating. Let’s explore a few of these captivating fishes and their unique names.

  1. Kohada (Gizzard Shad):Kohada, or gizzard shad, is a small, silver fish with a rich umami flavor. Its flesh is often cured or pickled to enhance its taste and prolong its preservation. Kohada is highly regarded among sushi connoisseurs, loved for its distinct texture and complex flavors.
  2. Hirame (Flounder): Hirame, or flounder, is a flatfish found in Japan’s coastal waters. With its delicate white flesh, hirame is a versatile ingredient in Japanese cuisine and is popular for its superior taste. Whether enjoyed as sashimi, sushi, or grilled, hirame offers a delightful seafood experience.
  3. Mutsu or gnomefish: This unique fish, known as Mutsu鱫鯥 in Japanese, is characterized by its distinct appearance and behavior. With its bulging eyes and odd-shaped body, it’s no wonder it is commonly referred to as the “gnomefish”. The name Mutsu not only captures the fish’s physical attributes but also signifies its place in Japanese folklore.
  4. Namazu or catfish: The Namazu鯰, also known as the catfish, is a freshwater species commonly found in Japan. Its name originates from the Japanese mythological creature, Namazu, which was said to cause earthquakes by thrashing its tail. The name reflects the fish’s powerful movements and its importance in Japanese culture.
  5. Nanyoubudai or blunt-headed parrotfish: The Nanyoubudaiナンヨウハギ, also known as the blunt-headed parrotfish, is a vibrant and colorful fish species found in the waters of Japan. Its name refers to its distinctive head shape and is indicative of its role in maintaining the health of coral reefs.
  6. Noresore or conger eel whiting: The Noresoreのれそれ, also called conger eel whiting, is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Its name emphasizes its slender and elongated body, distinguishing it from other types of fish. The unique taste and texture of Noresore make it a sought-after delicacy in Japan.
  7. Oaka Aji or Red tail horse mackerel: The Oaka Ajiオアカアジ, also known as the Red tail horse mackerel, is a popular fish in Japanese cuisine. Its name highlights its vibrant red tail, making it easily identifiable among other mackerel species. Oaka Aji is highly valued for its rich flavor and is commonly served as sashimi or grilled.
  8. Koi (鯉) refers to ornamental varieties of domesticated common carp (Cyprinus carpio) that are kept for decorative purposes in outdoor koi ponds or water gardens. Koi is a homophone for another Japanese word that means “affection” or “love”; hence koi fish are also a symbol of love and friendship in Japan.
  9. The term “Hikari” in the context of fish typically refers to a type of metallic sheen or coloration on koi fish. “Hikari” is the Japanese word for “light,” and in the world of koi, these fish are known for their lustrous, shiny scales that reflect light. Hikari is a broad classification, and there are various types of Hikari koi based on their patterns and colors, such as “Hikari-Moyomono,” “Hikari-Utsurimono,” and “Hikari-Muji,” among others.

Takeaways from Japanese Fish Names

As we conclude our journey through Japanese fish names, it’s important to recognize the significance of these terms. Behind every name lies a story of cultural heritage, flavorful traditions, and the connection between Japan and its oceanic surroundings.

Familiarizing yourself with the names of Japanese fishes not only enhances your dining experiences but also deepens your understanding and appreciation of the country’s rich marine life.

Exploring Japanese Fishes Beyond the Names

Beyond their names, Japanese fishes offer a world of culinary delights and cultural significance waiting to be explored. From unique cooking techniques to traditional festivals and intriguing folklore, immersing yourself in the world of Japanese seafood provides a deeper understanding of the country’s gastronomic heritage and its relationship with the sea.

In conclusion, learning and appreciating the names of Japanese fishes opens doors to a captivating underwater realm. Next time you indulge in sushi or visit a bustling fish market, remember the journey and stories that lie behind each fish name.

Embark on this aquatic adventure with an appreciation for Japan’s rich marine life, cultural traditions, and the flavors that make it a seafood lover’s paradise!


1. Are all Japanese fish names difficult to pronounce?

While some fish names might initially appear challenging to pronounce, with practice, they become easier. Embrace the opportunity to learn these names, and soon you’ll master their pronunciation.

2. Can I find Japanese fish species outside of Japan?

Certain Japanese fish species can be found outside of Japan, particularly in countries with a strong seafood culture and Japanese culinary influence. However, the availability may vary, and some species might be specific to Japan’s coastal waters.

3. Are all Japanese fishes safe to eat?

Japanese fishes are generally safe to eat, but it’s important to ensure they are sourced from reputable suppliers and prepared properly. Some fish, like fugu (pufferfish), require special handling and precise preparation due to their potential toxicity.

4. Is it necessary to eat raw fish when enjoying Japanese cuisine?

While raw fish (sashimi) is a significant part of Japanese cuisine, it is not the only option. Japanese cuisine offers various cooked and grilled fish dishes, allowing you to enjoy a wide range of flavors and cooking styles.

5. Can you suggest any resources to learn more about Japanese fishes?

There are numerous books, websites, and documentaries available that provide in-depth information on Japanese fishes. Some popular resources include “The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Fish” by Nishiki Matsumoto and the documentary series “Japanology Plus” by NHK World.

Leave a Comment