Learn Basic Kanji for Shopping in Japan

  • Food shopping is fun, but a challenge if you can’t read the lingo. Here are a few great Kanji to help you get the most out of your food budget, and avoid disastrous mistakes in the kitchen. Write them down. Print them out. Copy the Kanji to your phone to better help yourself out with shopping!

    1. 割引 (Discount)


    Japanese foods or other items can often be found with a yellow sticker and red writing of a single digit followed by the kanji for discount. Add a zero to the digit, and you get the percentage off. 2割引= 20% off. 3割引= 30% off. You get the idea.

    2. 半額 (Half Price)

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    This is the mother of all discounts. Often found past 6 PM in department stores or close to closing in supermarkets, you can find the half priced goods easily. One way is to look for the yellow sticker, with the kanji in bright red writing. The other is to look for a mad scramble of elderly shoppers and housewives frantically filling shopping baskets and elbowing each other in the rush to get good deals. These ladies know where it’s at. Follow them, and learn. They have survived the struggle.

    3. 砂糖不使用(No Sugar)


    There is simply nothing worse than buying what you think is tart yogurt, then attempting to make a dish, or attempting to turn it into sour cream, only to find out it is as sweet as a two-year-old who just met Santa for the first time. If I had 10 Yen for every foreign friend who misread the package, I would be a millYENare.

    4. 酒 (Alcohol)


    This, my friends, is the Kanji for ALCOHOL. No matter how cute and innocent the package seems, if this symbol is present, you can be sure there is booze in the item.

    I once had a foreign friend who consistently drank “cute” drinks at his job teaching at a high school. The can was pink, there was a picture of a peach, and he said they were delicious. After 3 months the local staff finally got the guts to offer him alcohol counselling, as he simply did not see the alcohol Kanji and had been sipping peach liquor at work thinking it was yummy juice. At least he walked to work, driving would have been the end.

    5. 鳥 Vs 馬 (Chicken Vs Horse)

    Obviously, if you are buying fresh meat the color and texture are clear clues as to what you are buying. Chicken is whitish pink. Horse meat is deep red. But these Kanji become easily confused when buying things like breaded foods meant to be deep fried, or when trying to decipher grilled meat menus after a beer or two. Pay attention to the top parts, and you will be ok. Think of the chicken Kanji as a little something popping its head out from the top. A chick, checking out the coup. No head poking out, and you are munching on Mr. Horsey, not Mrs. Cluck Cluck.


    So, you have mastered a few basic shopping kanji and want to dig deeper. You want more! You want … protein!

    Although most meat (or fish) is easily recognisable by simply looking at the package, hey, who doesn’t know a good steak when they see one, it is significantly more tricky when trying to find things that CONTAIN meat, or when reading restaurant menus.

    For meat lovers, and vegetarians alike, use this guide to help you find, or avoid, your preferred protein in Japan.

    6. 肉 (Niku) – Meat


    First, let’s start with the basics. The VERY basics. Meat. Vegetarianism is still not quite mainstream in Japan, with veggie friendly salads likely to include bacon, or vegetarian curry including ground meat, because after all, you can’t really see it. If you see this kanji, you can be sure to find some meat, from some beast, lurking in your dish. For me, this screams EAT ME. For some, it screams run away. Just remind yourself when shopping, if you see what looks like a disembodied torso with only two ribs and no arms, there is more than vegetables in this item.

    7. 牛肉 (Gyuniku) – Beef


    Ahh, the holy grail of meat. Beef. Delicious beef. Japanese beef is wondrous, slightly marbled, soft and melty, great in a variety of dishes. Of course, I am partial to steak, but hey, who am I to judge? Sliced, steak, sold in blocks, if you like beef, search for this kanji. Just be sure to check the price though – beef can be pretty pricey! Look for the kanji that resembles a telephone pole with something hanging off the left side.

    8. 豚肉 (Butaniku) – Pork


    Oink Oink. Yum Yum. This is where bacon comes from! Pork chops, pork stir fry, pork ribs, you get the idea. Pork is a popular meat in Japan in dishes ranging from soups to stir fry. When you buy pork at the supermarket, you might want to check the package to see where it is from, domestic pork is usually cheaper than American, and Iberico pork is delicious, but can sometimes demand a premium. I have no way to describe how to visualise this kanji for you, other than to imagine there is a three-story building directly next to a plank with an upside down Christmas tree, next to the kanji for meat. Just take a picture. Or oink inquisitively at the waiter.

    9. 鳥肉 or 鶏肉 (Toriniku) – Chicken


    Japanese chicken is great. Plump, delicious, usually with healthy looking fresh fat clinging to the actual meat. Where most health-conscious places prefer chicken breast, Japanese prize the more fatty, delicious thigh meat. Therefore, you can usually find chicken breasts to be cheaper than other cuts, due to the image of it being dry or needing a lot of finessing to get it to deliciousness. I personally love chicken breasts on the grill, and thighs made into fried chicken. Either way, be on the lookout for this kanji – especially on restaurant menus – as it is a safe ‘go to’ meat for picky eaters and visitors who are afraid their meal just might be raw enough to bite back. Basically a window, with four legs and a tucked in tail on the bottom, and a little nub sticking out on top. Go find yourself some chicken.

    10. 馬 (Uma) – Horse


    I know, I know. Horses are pets. Horses are friends. So were cows. Horse meat is yummy. Close your eyes, give it a try, and you may just change your mind. Rich tasting, and slightly milder than beef, this is the traditional dish of my home prefecture, Kumamoto. If you are adverse to trying the raw kind (the best there is in my opinion), give the grilled stuff a try. Steak, yakiniku, yakitori, the possibilities are endless. Look for the kanji with a broken shipping pallet on top, and four legs and a tucked in tail on the bottom. Clip. Clop. This is the horse.

    11. 羊肉 (Hitsujiniku) – Mutton – for Lamb, look for (子羊肉 Kohitsujiniku or ラム肉 Lamb Meat)


    Lamb is not overly popular in everyday restaurants or supermarkets, (with the exception of Gengis Kan – – ) But, it can be found at high end shops and supermarkets catering to the foreign crowd. If you want to get your lamb on, look for a kanji that resembles a skinny bug, with 6 long legs sticking out on the sides, and two creepy feelers on top.

    12. 魚 (Sakana) – Fish


    There is just a ton of fish available for sale in Japan. Really. Fish you have never heard of, or dreamed of eating. However, if you see this kanji, be sure to know you are eating something with gills that came out of the sea. If you don’t like fish (how could you not) avoid anything with this kanji on it, as even if it doesn’t look like it, Mr. Fishy is lurking within. This one is easy to spot, think of a window, with a hat, and four legs. That, my friends, is the kanji for fish.

    13. 豆 (Mame) – Beans


    This kanji is made up of the first part of the tofu kanji. After all, tofu IS made from beans. This is the kanji you want to find when looking at soup or curry ingredients. Healthy, packed with protein, and vegetarian-friendly, you can be sure that if this is the only kanji you see, you won’t be munching on innocent critters. Of course there are various kinds of beans, so live a little, and try some out!

    14. 豆腐 (Tofu) – Tofu! (Bean Curd)


    Tofu is one of the quintessential ingredients in many Japanese dishes, from Miso Soup, to salads, to hot pot. Very different from the western flavoured varieties, it usually comes in firm (木綿 Momen ) or soft (絹ごし).

    Especially if you have an allergy, or really hate tofu, keep an eye out for this kanji as anything with it contains tofu. Look for the kanji with a stubby legged person with a block torso and a flat line for a head, next to a whole big mess of squiggles covering the squashed down kanji for meat both above and beside.

    Hopefully, this will help you find what you need, avoid what you hate, and enjoy getting your protein on in Japan. You can also practice your kanji strokes using the pictures!

    Happy Shopping (and eating)!

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