What’s your country’s name in traditional Japanese ateji?

In this entry, I’m going to be looking at country name ateji. Ateji (当て字), or ‘assigned characters’, are Japanese kanji characters that are used phonetically to write words without regarding the meaning of the character. An example is the word sushi (寿司), which is written with the characters for ‘long life’ and ‘office’, although they have nothing to do with raw fish. They were just chosen because they could be read ‘su’ and ‘shi’. Ateji were also often used to represent foreign loanwords when they were introduced to Japan. That is why many country names were written in ateji prior to World War II, after which Japanese started to use the simpler katakana script for transliteration.

In the table below, I have listed the countries which have their own ateji. Some of them also have abbreviated versions, where that character alone can be used to refer to the country. Where this is the case, I have bolded the word in the “kanji meanings” section.

Normally, katakana are now used to write the country names and these ateji are no longer used.  However, it is still fairly common to see the abbreviations used for certain countries, such as in 英仏関係 (Franco-British relations or eifutsu kankei) or 全米 (all-American or zenbei).

I have put the countries in order of population size. Note that many countries aren’t listed: this is either because they never got their own ateji (instead, katakana is used), or because they have a traditional Japanese name, e.g. 中国 (chuugoku, China) and 韓国 (kankoku, South Korea).

Ateji Abbr. Reading English Kanji meanings
印度 indo India stamp time
亜米利加 amerika USA sub rice benefit increase
伯剌西爾 burajiru Brazil chief oppose west you
露西亜 roshia Russia dew west sub
墨西哥 mekishiko Mexico ink west big brother
比律賓 firippin Philippines compare control guest
越南 betonamu Vietnam surpass south
埃及 ejiputo Egypt dust exert
独逸 doitsu Germany alone deviate
義蘭 iran Iran righteousness orchid
土耳古 toruko Turkey earth ear old
tai Thailand calm
仏蘭西 furansu France Buddha orchid west
英吉利 igirusu United Kingdom great good luck benefit
伊太利 itaria Italy that plump benefit
緬甸 buruma Burma (Myanmar) fine thread outskirts
哥倫比亜 koronbia Colombia big brother companion compare sub
西班牙 西 supein Spain west group fang
亜爾然丁 arugenchin Argentina sub you in that case street
阿爾及 arujeria Algeria corner you exert
波蘭 porando Poland wave orchid
蘇丹 suudan Sudan revive red
加奈陀 kanada Canada addition what steep
秘露 peruu Peru secret dew
委内瑞拉 wenezuara Venezuela commit inside congratulations kidnap
捏巴爾 nepaaru Nepal knead tomoe you
阿富汗斯 afuganisutan Afghanistan corner wealth sweat this
莫三鼻給 mozanbiiku Mozambique do not three nose grant
濠太剌利亜 oosutoraria Australia canal plump oppose benefit sub
叙利亜 shiria Syria narrate benefit sub
羅馬尼 ruumania Romania gauze horse nun
和蘭 oranda The Netherlands (Holland) peace orchid
智利 chiri Chile wisdom benefit
白耳義 berugii Belgium white ear righteousness
玖瑪 kyuuba Cuba nine onyx
突尼斯 chunijia Tunisia pierce nun this
幾内亜 ginia Guinea how inside sub
希臘 gurishia Greece hope 12th lunar month
葡萄牙 porutogaru Portugal wild grape grape vine fang
海地 haichi Haiti sea earth
暮利比亜 (1) boriwia Bolivia live benefit compare sub
洪牙利 (2) hangarii Hungary flood fang benefit
瑞典 瑞 or 典 sweeden Sweden auspicious code
墺地利 oosutoria Austria land earth benefit
瑞西 suisu Switzerland auspicious west
老檛 raosu Laos old
利比亜 ribia Libya benefit compare sub
尼加拉瓦 nikaragwa Nicaragua nun addition kidnap tile
丁抹 denmaaku Denmark street paint
芬蘭 finrando Finland perfume orchid
諾威 noruwee Norway agreement majesty
愛倫 airurando Ireland love ethics
新西蘭 nyuujirando New Zealand new west orchid
巴奈馬 panama Panama tomoe what horse
莫臥児 mongoru Mongolia must not bow child
牙買加 jamaika Jamaica fang buy addition
馬爾太 maruta Malta horse you plump
氷島 aisurando Iceland ice island

(1) Also sometimes 波力斐 (wave power beautiful).
(2) Also sometimes 牙利 (turmoil fang benefit).

Notice how many words reoccur in several country names? This goes to demonstrate that the kanji were chosen for their pronunciations rather than their meanings. ‘Shi’ often becomes 西 (west), ‘a’ becomes 亜 (sub-), ‘ri’ becomes 利 (benefit). Kanji generally have many possible readings as well, so the same character can be used to represent several different sounds. Furthermore, in the case of Iceland, it seems that the kanji were chosen for their meanings (氷島 – ice island) and given additional pronunciations (aisu rando), in an inversion of the normal rule.

As an aside, I’ve seen people proposing that the US is “rice country” because it’s the world’s “largest exporter of rice” – firstly, Thailand is actually the world’s biggest exporter (the US is not even in the top ten), and secondly, even if it were, the name was in use at least as far back as 1862: predating global rice markets. So although it’s quite funny for Japan, of all countries, to refer to the US as ‘rice-country’, don’t read too much into it.

Sources

For the ateji, I used this excellent website: 世界の地名の宛字. For those who are interested (and can read Japanese), it also has old names for continents, regions, no-longer existent countries, and cities (normally capitals). If you can’t read Japanese and there’s a particular place name you want me to check, feel free to comment below and I will check for you. If this entry has a lot of interest I will consider doing “Part II”.

For translating many the kanji, I used jisho.org. Since most of them have many possible meanings, I often had to make quite arbitrary decisions about which was the best. I tried, as far as I could, to choose the most general meaning that covered as many sub-meanings as possible. But in some cases, there is no English word that accurately conveys the meaning. Gomennasai.

Thanks to this website for the table coding (it’s been a while since I played with HTML!).

Lastly, for the countries I used Wikipedia’s list of countries by population. It is possible that over the hours it took to write this entry, I accidentally skipped some countries. If so, comment below and I will rectify it.

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2 responses

  1. Interesting to see how many of the countries’ names in ateji are identical (or very similar) to the ones used in Chinese. The readings are completely different in many cases (e.g. Iceland is written the same in both languages but pronounced as “bingdao” in Mandarin).

    How common is it to see countries’ names written in ateji in modern Japanese texts? I’m used to seeing many of these in katakana but I have a feeling ateji’s probably used in formal and official documents..

    1. Thanks for the comment! I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the full ateji name used for any country, but then it’s worth noting I only tend to read relatively simple texts. America as 米, the UK as 英, France as 仏 etc. are all really common for compound words. I’ve had a look at the Japanese foreign ministry’s website, and although I didn’t see any official/legal documents (probably wouldn’t be able to read them anyway), it seems that they normally stick to katakana on public pages except where the abbreviations are possible. I might ask around and see if any of my Japanese friends knows whether or not ateji place names are used in formal documents!

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