We humans share the planet with many kinds of living things. We all probably know the names of hundreds in our native languages, but what about Japanese? All speakers of Japanese will know just as many organism-related words as you do in English, or perhaps even more depending on their occupation. In this lesson, the goal will not be to learn each and every word that describe living things, but by studying them in real life examples, the hope is that you'll have a resource more useful than a simple vocabulary list.
Evolutionary Tree 系統樹
All life (生命) on Earth (地球) is thought to have a common ancestor (共通祖先)．This primitive life-form (原始生命体) is thought to have arisen soon after the emergence of water. Taxonomy (分類学) is the classification of living things in biology (生物学). This field is consistently being revamped as more is learned about living things. When you visit any zoo (動物園), aquarium (水族館), botanical garden (植物園), or any display of living things, you will encounter various classification words that aim to distinguish organisms from each other.
In English, most speakers are familiar with words such as "animal" (動物), "plant" (植物), "mammal" (哺乳類), "reptile" (爬虫類), "bird" (鳥類), "fish" (魚類) "insect" (昆虫), "bacteria" (細菌), etc. In biology class, you may have seen a more specific breakdown of life like the following:
| 生物 → ドメイン → 界 → 門 → 綱 → 目 → 科 → 属 → 種|
Organism → Domain → Kingdom → Phylum → Class → Order → Family → Genus → Species
As a quick example, humans can be simply referred to as ヒト, but there once lived other human species. Many of you have probably heard the term Homo Sapiens (ホモサピエンス), which happens to be the technical name of our species. The genus Homo ホモ属 would encompass all of our human relatives/ancestors that are deemed to have diverged from other life in our "family" (ヒト科), which includes all great apes (類人猿). Mankind then falls under the primate order (サル目), then under the Mammalia class (哺乳鋼), then under the phylum Chordata (脊索動物門), then under the kingdom Animalia (動物界), and then finally under the domain 真核生物 (eukaryote).
What Words Should You Study?
As a Japanese learner, there isn't a need to learn all these complicated terms, but it is important to know that many of them do find their way in common usage. If your goal is to learn Japanese at a conversational level, knowing how to say words like "kangaroo," "rose," "bear," etc. will be all you'll need. If your goal is to know Japanese at a near-native level, then you'll need to learn a lot more vocabulary.
Looking at long lists of words, though, is not always helpful when learning vocabulary--regardless of your goal for learning. As such, we'll be learning groups of words with similar meaning. Based on your level/aim of learning, you are free to skim for what you need. Each section will begin with a vocab chart. If a word is deemed necessary for any learner of Japanese, it will be in bold.
Orthography Note: When species are discussed in a biology setting, they are written in カタカナ. In common practice, names are written in either 漢字 or かな, with 漢字 use being determined by the complexity of the spelling.
When you think of plants and animals, you likely start off by thinking in the broadest of terms. You know there are fish, birds, etc., but you may not know the difference between a herring and a bass. Even if you don't know the difference between the two, you may still recognize them as both being species of fish. Japanese speakers are no different in this way, but if you want to talk about all the creatures of the world in Japanese, you will need to start somewhere. As such, here are the most basic broad terms you might want to learn.
1. Many more broad terms that may refer to various classes, families, orders, etc. of life do exist, but these are the most essential words you'll encounter.
2. These words are all taxonomic words and are to be distinguished from vernacular words such as 鳥 (bird), 虫 (bug), 魚 (fish).
3. Viruses are not officially viewed as living things, but they are a part of our world and are very often the topic of discussion.
Let's now look at the various species of animals that you may hear of in Japanese. To make things easier, we'll split things up by looking at mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, sea creatures, and insects.
|月の輪熊||ツキノワグマ||Moon bear||北極熊||ホッキョクグマ||Polar bear|
|水牛||スイギュウ||Water buffalo||白海豚||シロイルカ||Beluga whale|
|海獺・猟虎||ラッコ||Sea otter||膃肭臍||オットセイ||Fur seal|
|海馬||トド||Steller sea lion||海驢||アシカ||Sea lion|
|雨虎||アメフラシ||Sea hare||鼯鼠||モモンガ||Flying squirrel|
1. The word "panda" is a loanword from English. 熊猫 is the 漢字 attributed to this animal, which may be read as くまねこ (the native name) or ションマオ (its Japanized Mandarin pronunciation). 大熊猫 specifically refers to the ジャイアントパンダ (giant panda).
2. 袋熊 read as ふくろぐま is the native name for "koala," which would only be seen in literature.
3. 狩猟豹 may also be read as しゅりょうひょう, which is an older word for cheetah.
The world is full of species of birds. When it comes to Japanese, you'll need to understand that the most important words will pertain to species native to Japan. Those words will be the primary focus of this section. In addition, birds in particular are notoriously hard to spell in 漢字, many of which have more than one possible spelling. When in doubt, write in カタカナ.
|鴛鴦||オシドリ||Mandarin duck||青懸巣||アオカケス||Blue jay|
|軍鶏||シャモ||Shamo (kind of chicken)||鵞鳥||ガチョウ||Goose|
|郭公||カッコウ||Common cuckoo||山鳥||ヤマドリ||Mountain pheasant|
The reptile words in Japanese are rather limited in scope, and so you will hear most of them.
|波布||ハブ||Yellow-spotted pit viper||蜥蜴||トカゲ||Lizard|
|金蛇||カナヘビ||Grass lizard||石亀||イシガメ||Pond turtle|
|青大将||アオダイショウ||Rat snake||銭亀||ゼニガメ||Baby pond turtle|
Vocabulary Note: 鰐 refers to crocodilians in general as neither crocodiles nor alligators are native to Japan, but they have been known of for centuries. It is interesting to note that the word ワニ originally meant "shark," which may have been likened to crocodilians before people got the chance to see them firsthand.
There aren't that many amphibians left in the world, and so all related words are marked as important to learn. Note that Japanese has two words for toad, and they don't refer to different animals.
Japan is an island nation heavily dependent on its fish resources. There are hundreds of species, all of which will have their own 漢字. Fish 漢字 is a common topic for quizzes and such, and you'll see plenty of them used in markets such as 豊洲市場. Aside from fish, there are also various other organisms that will be lumped into this section.
|鱧||ハモ||Daggertooth pike conger||鮠||ハヤ||Minnow|
|河豚||フグ||Puffer fish||鮒||フナ||Crucian carp|
|穴子||アナゴ||Conger eel||雑魚||ザコ||Small fry|
Insects come in all shapes and sizes, many of which we remain cautious of. Many of the 漢字 spellings are also frequently used when testing someone's reading abilities.
|宿借・寄居虫||ヤドカリ||Hermit crab||蝗||イナゴ||Rice grasshopper|
Below are the most important plant-related words in Japanese--excluding words related to fruits and vegetables.
|桜||サクラ||Cherry blossom||蝿地獄||ハエジゴク||Venus flytrap|
|楡||ニレ||Elm tree||萩||ハギ||Bush clover|
|稗||ヒエ||Barnyard millet||菱||ヒシ||Water chestnut|
|滑子||ナメコ||Nameko||エリンギ||King oyster mushroom|
Note: Mushrooms are fungi, but they are listed here for convenience.
Although all plant and animal names have 漢字 associated with them for the most part, if the spelling is not as common than the カタカナ spelling, it will be left in parentheses for reference.
The people who visited the Kassai Marine Aquarium in Tokyo were enjoying seeing the schools of tuna swimming energetically.
The wild bear came down from the mountain.
Welcome to paradise where roses blossom.
If there were no wolves, rabbits would die out.
What happens when you step/stomp on a snake in the middle of the road?
I have run over a frog before.
Many trees were lined up by each other in the field.
In the near future, the fishes of the sea may become extinct.
Reading Note: 魚 may be read as さかな or うお. The first is typically more common, but the latter is required in certain expressions. The latter is actually from the original word for fish.
Have you ever ridden a horse?
I want to plant bamboo in my yard.
A spider web is a trap to catch flying insects.
Each time I lift the net up, 10-20 crabs are in it.
You can't plant fruit trees or cherry blossom trees in your yard.
Several cows broke that fence over there and escaped.
What should you do when you're bitten by a turtle?
I can't sleep even if I count sheep.
There is a legend in Japan that has been told since ancient times that rabbits live on the moon.
A monkey is still a monkey when he falls out of a tree, but an assemblyman is simply a regular man when he falls out of the election.
I'm a cat who dreams of becoming a tiger.
How many elephants are there currently at Ueno Zoo?
Occasionally blood gets on me when I kill a mosquito with my hand, but is that our blood? Or, is it the mosquito's blood? Someone, please tell me.
How many other countries are there aside from Japan where people eat puffer fish?
There's a small lizard stuck on the wall inside the room.
You mustn't eat squid or octopus while pregnant.
I'm looking for a place where I can ride a giraffe.
Lions eat zebras, right?
Pandas are only in China.
There are too many deer.
When you kill an ant, it rains.
Why are penguins only in the Southern Hemisphere?
I had my grandmother teach me a recipe that uses duck meat.
The lifespan of a butterfly, at the most, is around several months.
Variation Note: Butterfly may also be チョウチョウ（蝶々）or 蝶ちょ.
What sort of bait is best for fishing eels?
I want to see an actual whale.
The tanuki (raccoon dogs) is a unique animal to Japan.
In the past in Japan, it was commonplace to use deep-fried tofu as bait to trap mice.
Sharks seldom eat people.
Usage Note: Some people say フカ（鱶） for shark. This is predominantly a West Japanese word for it, and it traditionally refers to a large shark. Most sharks are large, so it might as well be the general word for shark.
Bees/wasps are flying insects closely related to ants, and exist on every continent except Antarctica. As such, there are thousands of species, most of which coexist with humans. In English, there are various bee-species words that all speakers recognize such as "bee," "wasp," "bumblebee," "yellow jacket," etc. Excluding those who are severely allergic to bee stings, many English speakers have not grown up with a strong sense of fear toward the species that live in their environment.
In Japan, there are also many species of bees, but due to the heightened threat to human safety that many of them pose, far more bee jargon is widely known among Japanese speakers. As a learner of Japanese, this means that the likelihood of you overhearing bee lingo is greatly increased the longer you stay in Japan. It is important to know your surroundings, and bees/wasps must be taken seriously.
Be careful of bees and wasps?
We've all heard this same phrase in the English speaking word, but what is so different about 蜂 in Japan? A bee-sting 蜂刺され is only as severe as the poison is potent, and this of course depends on the species of bee that stings you. In Japan, there happens to be far more dangerous species of bees, often larger and more aggressive than those that live in the English-speaking world. As such, let's learn about some of the species jargon that you may come across in Japan.
アシナガバチ and スズメバチ both would be considered wasps, hornets, or yellow jackets, but the former has long legs as the name suggests. The Japanese equivalent of "bumblebee" is クマバチ. Some Japanese speakers call them クマンバチ. Both words, though, may also refer to a オオスズメバチ (giant hornet). The American version of such a wasp is マルハナバチ.The Japanese オオスズメバチ, however, is extremely dangerous as the name suggests. キイロスズメバチ (yellow jackets) may be called カメバチ (瓶蜂), トックリバチ (徳利蜂), or アカバチ (赤蜂). クロスズメバチ and シダクロスズメバチ, are native wasps of Japan known for building their nests in the ground. Other regional names for them include ジバチ (地蜂), ドバチ (土蜂), ハイバチ (灰蜂), ヘボ (used in the 東海地方), or スガレ・スガリ (used throughout 東北). Special attention is given to ハチ because all aside from bumblebees are especially dangerous in Japan.
Aside from bee species jargon, other bee-related terminology is also important. How do you say, "I got stung by a bee"? It turns out that regardless of whether an insect 'stings' or 'bites' a person, there are three verbs that are used interchangeably in Japanese to refer to both phenomena. These verbs are 刺される (to be stung), 噛まれる (to be bitten), 食われる (to be bitten). The first verb is the standard way of saying "to be stung" whereas the second is the standard way to say "to be bitten." The actual difference between these two actions can be applied to any animal/plant. The third option is quite dialectal and actually literally means "to be eaten," but it has gained the meaning of "to be bitten" in many parts of Japan. As for bees/wasps, the most common way is to say, "蜂に刺された” with the other two verb choices being viewed as dialectal.