As a general rule, kanji (Sino-Japanese ideographs) are classified in dictionaries according to two readings: kun-yomi (native Japanese) and on-yomi (approximation of the original Chinese pronunciation). For example, 東, the tō in 東京 (Tokyo), meaning “east,” is an on-yomi that came from the Chinese dong. Its kun-yomi can be either higashi or azuma.
Not long after the Japanese began importing kanji from China, they began to streamline the written form, using characters for writing out words based only on their phonetic value, without regard to their meaning. These man’yogana of the 7th century were to metamorphose eventually into the hiragana and katakana syllabaries in use today.
But kanji were also retained — particularly for writing proper nouns (and some verbs) — in a usage known as 当て字 or 宛字 (ate-ji). The word is variously defined as “assigned characters,” “false substitute characters,” “phonetic-equivalent characters” and “kanji as a phonetic symbol, instead of for the meaning.”
One widespread use for ate-ji was transcription of Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit or for objects imported at the time of Japan’s initial contacts with Europe. Many of these words, including 煙草 (tabako, tobacco) and 硝子 (garasu, glass), have been retained up to the present. With the ending of 鎖国 (sakoku, national exclusion) from the mid-19th century, a huge number of new words expressed with ate-ji found their way into the language.
The names of most countries were written out phonetically using ate-ji, sometimes adopted from Chinese and other times devised locally.
For instance, 米国 (beikoku), meaning the United States, is a shortened form of the ate-ji for America, 亜米利加 read a-me-ri-ka. The 米, meaning rice, would have been read “me” here; but when the name was abbreviated to “rice-country,” the pronunciation changed from me to bei, a more natural way to read the word.
When the U.S. figures in vernacular newspaper headlines, editors typically drop the koku and just use the single character 米, attached to whatever the topic happens to be.
Peering over the shoulders of fellow commuters’ newspapers while en route to work, I would encounter such words as 米ソ関係 bei-so kankei (U.S.-Soviet relations), noting smugly that my country warranted a kanji whereas its Cold War rival ソ連 (soren, the Soviet Union) did not. I also observed frequent mentions about 米軍 (beigun, the U.S. military).
But bei has other meanings, and I sometimes became confused. I constantly ran into another “rice” term in the news, 米価 (beika), which I supposed meant something about “America-value,” until I finally figured out the word had nothing to do with the U.S., but referred to the government-set price for rice.
Another ate-ji using 米 doubles as a unit of measurement. Take an apartment’s 面積 (menseki, floor area), advertised as 26平米 (heibei). Huh? Is that a flat America? No, no, in this case it’s 26 sq. meters. The 米, you see, is used to indicate the mē part of mētoru (meter).
While quirky and confusing at times, the selection of ate-ji is not entirely haphazard, and sometimes creators of such terms deserve credit for being fiendishly clever.
Take the ate-ji for the English “club,” which is often written out as 倶楽部 (kurabu), with characters that convey the meaning of together, pleasure and group. Isn’t that exactly what a club is about?
Fortunately ate-ji tend to be gleaned from a limited list of kanji, mostly easily recognized, simple characters. A good example would be 多分 (tabun, maybe), whose kanji literally mean “many minutes.”
Ate-ji are also widely applied to native Japanese words independently of the characters’ customary dictionary reading, such as combining gan and kyo as 眼鏡 (megane, literally “eye mirrors”), and meaning spectacles, or hyaku and ashi as 百足 (mukade, centipede), which means the same thing as in Latin, which is “hundred legs.”
Popular Meiji Era author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) endeared himself to readers by sprinkling his prose with ate-ji, writing out such words as 兎に角 (tonikaku, anyway) with characters meaning “horns on a rabbit,” or writing 出鱈目 (detarame, nonsense or poppycock) as “popeyed codfish.” Considering how these ate-ji spur creativity and lend themselves particularly well to humor, it’s no surprise they have endured and continue to thrive, particularly in advertising and the names of businesses.
While strolling through Yokohama recently I noticed a sign for a drinking establishment named 多恋人 (ta-ren-to, talent) — cleverly rendered in characters meaning “many-love-person.” Certainly a proprietress capable of dispensing lots of love can indeed be considered talented, and perhaps customers will be more likely to remember such a name.