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).
|亜米利加||米||amerika||USA||sub rice benefit increase|
|伯剌西爾||burajiru||Brazil||chief oppose west you|
|露西亜||露||roshia||Russia||dew west sub|
|墨西哥||墨||mekishiko||Mexico||ink west big brother|
|比律賓||比||firippin||Philippines||compare control guest|
|土耳古||土||toruko||Turkey||earth ear old|
|仏蘭西||仏||furansu||France||Buddha orchid west|
|英吉利||英||igirusu||United Kingdom||great good luck benefit|
|伊太利||伊||itaria||Italy||that plump benefit|
|緬甸||緬||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|
|加奈陀||加||kanada||Canada||addition what steep|
|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||濠||oosutoraria||Australia||canal plump oppose benefit sub|
|叙利亜||叙||shiria||Syria||narrate benefit sub|
|羅馬尼||ruumania||Romania||gauze horse nun|
|和蘭||蘭||oranda||The Netherlands (Holland)||peace orchid|
|白耳義||白||berugii||Belgium||white ear righteousness|
|突尼斯||chunijia||Tunisia||pierce nun this|
|幾内亜||ginia||Guinea||how inside sub|
|希臘||希||gurishia||Greece||hope 12th lunar month|
|葡萄牙||葡||porutogaru||Portugal||wild grape grape vine fang|
|暮利比亜 (1)||boriwia||Bolivia||live benefit compare sub|
|洪牙利 (2)||洪||hangarii||Hungary||flood fang benefit|
|瑞典||瑞 or 典||sweeden||Sweden||auspicious code|
|墺地利||墺||oosutoria||Austria||land earth benefit|
|利比亜||ribia||Libya||benefit compare sub|
|尼加拉瓦||nikaragwa||Nicaragua||nun addition kidnap tile|
|新西蘭||新||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|
(1) Also sometimes 波力斐 (wave power beautiful).
(2) Also sometimes 匈牙利 (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.
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.