Wordcatcher Tales: Japanese Fish Names

During our recent travels to far-outlying corners of Japan we came across several local specialties that I had never heard of before. When I solicit the names for new dishes in Japanese, I often end up learning new fish names in English, just as I did long ago doing linguistic fieldwork in a coastal village in Papua New Guinea. Here is a sample of new fish we tried at izakaya last month.

Slender sprat sashimi

At the fine Umaya Restaurant beside JR Kumamoto Station, we ordered kibinago sashimi. After failing to find kibinago in my old Canon Wordtank G55 electronic dictionary, I asked the waitress if she could find out what to call it in English. She came back and showed me the gloss in her electronic dictionary, ‘silver-stripe round herring’. This slender sprat, Spratelloides gracilis, is often used as a bait fish, but also makes a very attractive dish of sashimi.

Mantis shrimp sashimi

On the way up from Kyushu, we stopped overnight at Shin-Yamaguchi, an old railway junction city (Ogōri) that was renamed and upgraded to a Shinkansen station but still proudly displays memorabilia from the old days. The owner of the izakaya we had dinner at was a train buff and the walls of our booth were covered with posters and photos of old steam locomotives. Among the novelties we ate there was shako sashimi, mantis shrimp (Squilla sp.) with ginger mustard sauce to counter the fishy taste. This creature I could find in my electronic dictionary, so I tortured the waitress with questions about old trains. We both recalled the days when the steam locomotive whistle would signal an upcoming tunnel, and we would quickly close the window so as not to get a faceful of soot. The next day we boarded the Super-Oki limited express bound for the Japan Sea coast and up the San’in Main Line.

Dojou karaage

Deep-fried dojo loach

After making a quick visit to Tottori’s famous sand dunes just in time for the sunset, our taxi driver called his contacts at Daizen, a busy new izakaya that he recommended when I asked where we could find a place that served local specialties. We ordered fried gobo chips, which are gaining popularity, and we ate two fish that were new to us.

Broiled rosy sea bass

One was loach, 泥鰌 dojou (lit. ‘mud-loach’) ‘dojo loach’, Misgurnus anguillicaudatus, also called ‘weatherloach’, a member of the carp order (Cypriniformes). The other was broiled nodoguro (lit. ‘black throat’) ‘rosy sea bass’, Doederleinia berycoides (also called 赤鯥 akamutsu ‘red gnomefish’) in the family Acropomatidae (lanternbellies, Jp. hotarujako ‘firefly fry’).

Poached nibbler

At a small mamasan-without-papasan izakaya next to our hotel in Tsuruga, we tried mejina nitsuke ‘poached nibbler’. The Japanese name, 眼仁奈 mejina, applies to both the genus Girella and the subfamily Girellinae ‘nibblers’, members of the Kyphosidae (sea chub) family in the order Perciformes. We spent a long time talking with everyone else there: the very hospitable self-employed proprietor, who served as her own buyer, cook, and waitress (and single mother); a very talkative traveling digger and inspector of wells and tunnels; and three ladies from Shikoku on a hiking trip, one of whom had a daughter just back from Ethiopia with JICA.

Sea bass sashimi

Our second evening in Tsuruga we went to a much larger izakaya that had been too busy by the time we showed up the night before. There we had suzuki sashimi, which our waitress described as light and tasty when I asked what kind of fish it was. I hadn’t heard suzuki as a fish name, but in Japanese taxonomy, 鱸 suzukiJapanese sea bass or sea perchLateolabrax japonicus seems to be the type species or genus for a whole suborder and order of bony fish, the equivalent of Perc- in Percoidei (スズキ亜目) and Perciformes (スズキ目).

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