One of the first things that British Japanese language learners go through is working out how to say and write their own country of origin. Is it イギリス(igirisu) or 英国(eikoku)? Which is best? Does one mean England and the other United Kingdom? Is their actually a difference?
Due to the fact that most people not from the British Isles (and many from within it too) do not understand the make up of the countries in it, everyone just thinks of the UK as ‘England’. The Japanese people are no different and the two words I wrote at the top of this article basically mean England but is used to refer to anywhere in the UK. The only difference between them is that one uses katakana and the other uses kanji when written down.
In Japanese katakana is generally used for words of foreign origin and kanji is used for words which came from Japan or China. Not only does each kanji have a phonetic value but also meaning. These days most countries are simply written phonetically in katakana. However a long time ago, probably around the time our grandfathers were born, kanji was used. Because many kanji have the same reading this lead to the situation where you had loads of different spellings for each country. I guess that is why this practice was discontinued.
So all of the countries of the world have various spellings in kanji and because each kanji has meaning, I was wondering if the kanji showed up and stereotypes of that country. Does the kanji for England mean ‘Nation of tea drinkers’, is Greece the ‘Land of plate smashers’?
Lets find out.
The kanji used for England is 英国 (eikoku). This means ‘Superior Country’. That’ll do me.
It’s also worth pointing out another spelling 大不列頓 which was once used to refer to Great Britain (ooburehitan???) means ‘Nothing but big bad lines’. As a member of the nation that invented a whole new verb just for queuing I must protest.
Colombia’s kanji is 哥倫比亜 (coronbia??), that could mean ‘big brother ethics ratio next rank’. Also possible is 考老比亜 (coronbia??) which I guess is ‘aged thinking ethics ratio next rank’. Both are impossible to put in coherent sentences so I’m not sure what they were trying to tell us but there must be a lot of wise old people there.
米国 (beikoku) is America’s kanji, it means ‘Rice Country’. Is there a lot of rice in America? Surely Japan has more right to be called this. Another version is 弥利堅(america), the kanji means ‘Increasingly advantage armour’, is that a reference to America’s large military presence around the world?
独逸 (doitsu) is the order of the day here. That means ‘Single Idleness’. I personally thought the Germans were a proactive group of people. Also used is 独乙 (doitsu) according to my dictionary that means ‘Single Witty’, I’d wager that whoever thought that one up had never met a German person.
The Spanish kanji is 西班牙(supein). That means ‘West group tusk’, which has absolutely nothing to do with sleeping in the middle of the day.
As a result of this little experiment I can safely say that there is no correlation between the kanji used in the names and the countries, which is a shame. I should also point out that while I said that the kanji is no longer used, it is often used in abbreviations. For example 英 is used for Britain, 米 for USA, 西 for Spain, etc.
This post has been a submission to the May 2011 Japan Blog Matsuri hosted by Me.