Sakana: 2 Different Meanings of the Japanese Word

If you have learned the Japanese language for a while, you probably know the meaning of the word “Sakana (魚)”.

As you may know, it is the word for “fish”, but in Japanese, there is one more Kanji (Chinese character) pronounced in the same way as “魚”, which is “肴” (Pronunciation).

The Meaning of Sakana

Sake and Sake no Sakana

Actually, “Sakana (魚)” is a word derived from “Sakana (肴)”. 

Until the Muromachi period (Muromachi: 1336 to 1573), Sakana referred to foods eaten with sake rice wine.

Therefore, the accompaniment for the alcohol, Sakana was the word for various kinds of snack foods and side dishes.

However, in those days, cooked fish was often served as Sakana along with sake rice wine.

So in order to distinguish Sakana fish from other kinds of Sakana, the character “魚” came to be used.

The original “Sakana” referring to snack foods that are enjoyed with sake is still sometimes used, and “肴” is the Kanji (Chinese character) for the original meaning.

By the way, the word “Otsumami (おつまみ)” is a synonym of “肴 (Sakana)”.

Sake no Sakana (酒の肴)

Actually, not only does “Sakana (肴)” refer to a food accompaniment for sake rice wine, but it can also refer to fun things that are enjoyed together with the alcoholic drink, such as songs and dances.

In order to distinguish “Sakana (肴)” from “Sakana (魚)”, as these words have the same reading and pronunciation, we Japanese usually use the phrase “Sake no Sakana (酒の肴)” (Pronunciation) for “Sakana (肴)”.

(Reference Page: Wikipedia 肴 )


Hi, I'm Tomo, a Japanese blogger living in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. For the purpose of enriching your life, I would like to introduce things about Japan on this blog, especially unique Japanese products, cooking recipes, cultures, and facts and trivia.

2 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    What word would be used for “fish” when referring to living fish, as opposed to fish prepared to be eaten? Thanks!

    • Tomo says:

      Thank you for commenting!
      When referring to living fish too, “Sakana (魚)” is usually used. Sakana can refer to both living and dead fish.
      But the words, “Sengyo (鮮魚)”, literally “Fresh Fish”, and “Katsugyo (活魚)”, literally “Living fish”, are often used regarding sushi, and the former refers to fresh dead fish, while the latter refers to living fish.

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