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“You use WHAT kanji for my country?!”

The names for countries can vary wildly between languages. Even in English the names we have for some countries are incredibly different from what the natives call themselves. “Germany” is “Deutschland” to German people, “China” is “Zhongguo” to Chinese people, and “Japan” is “Nihon” (or sometimes “Nippon”) to Japanese people.

And the same is true in the Japanese language, but they go one step further: using single kanji characters to abbreviate countries’ names. For example, rather than write out Amerika phonetically in katakana, they can just use the kanji bei 米 (“rice”) plus the kanji for country koku 国 instead.

There’s a reason why “rice” is used for the U.S., and the reasoning behind some other countries’ kanji can get pretty… interesting.

That’s why today we’re counting down the top five kanji used to represent foreign countries. What kanji do the Japanese people use when they want to abbreviate your country’s name? If you live in one of the places on this list, then today you find out!

So let’s get to it! Starting off with…

Honorable Mention: All the well-known ones

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Anyone who has studied Japanese has probably encountered some country abbreviations, so let’s just get all of the common ones out of the way first.

A lot of the country kanji are characters with a neutral meaning that simply share the same first sound as the country. For example, Italy is represented by i 伊 (“this/good”), India is represented by in 印 (“seal/stamp”), and Canada is represented by ka 加 (“addition”)

Others are kanji that are pronounced like the first syllable of the country (in Japanese). For example, France is represented by fu 仏 (“Buddha”) from the Japanese pronunciation Furansu, and Russia is represented by ro 露 (“dew”) from the Japanese pronunciation Roshia.

Others are kanji that are kind of close to the same first sound as the country in Japanese. For example, Germany is represented by doku 独 (“independent”) from the Japanese pronunciation Doitsu, and Australia is represented by gō 豪 (“great/powerful”) from the Japanese pronunciation Ōsutoraria.

Others use the borrowed Chinese pronunciation instead. For example, England is represented by ei 英 (“hero”), which doesn’t make too much sense until you find out that the kanji is pronounced ying in Chinese, which sounds just like “England.”

And lastly we have some weird ones. For example, America like we said earlier is represented by bei 米 (“rice”). This comes from the fact that Japanese people originally heard “American” as “Merican,” so they assumed the first sound was me, to which they assigned the kanji for rice. Despite being technically wrong, the name has stuck and changed over time from me into bei. Isn’t language crazy?

It should also be noted that while some of these compounds are used quite often in speech (“Amerika” and “Beikoku” are fairly interchangeable, for example), the majority of them are only used in print, and they aren’t any more or less “correct” than the spoken versions. They’re just abbreviations that save space and time when writing them out.

#5. Saudi Arabia

wtf-country-kanji-7Wikipedia/Baptiste Marcel

All right, now that we’ve covered all the boring kanji with neutral meanings, let’s take a look at the ones where the official country-kanji-designators (whoever they may be!) got a bit more creative.

First up is Saudi Arabia. When spelled out completely using kanji, Saudi Arabia looks like this: 沙地亜剌比亜 and is pronounced Saji Arabia. If you were to translate each kanji individually it would come out to something like “sand-land Asia-oppose-compare-Asia.” Now that doesn’t make too much sense.

But the first kanji there kind of does because it means “sand.” So when Saudi Arabia is abbreviated as a single kanji, it just goes by the single kanji for “sand.” For a country filled with deserts, that feels fairly appropriate.

This kanji abbreviation isn’t too well-known, so it’s not used very often, but for how well it fits with both its sound (sa) and meaning, I feel like we should really see it a lot more.

▼ This Saudai Arabian engineering student at Osaka University wants nichi-sa (“Japan-Saudi Arabia”) to become a word in Japanese dictionaries.

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Cultural Office Japan

#4. Ireland

wtf-country-kanji-5GAHAG

Ah, Ireland. Castles full of history and culture, sheep roaming the rolling hills, lighthouses peering off the edges of cliffs into the sky-blue ocean. It’s just all so… romantic, isn’t it?

Well apparently that’s what the people who gave Ireland its kanji were thinking anyway, since they gave it one of the most well-known kanji in the world: ai 愛 (“love”).

That’s a perfect fit for Ireland considering its Japanese pronunciation is Airurando, and it retains that pronunciation even when the kanji for “country” is added after it: Airurando 愛国 (“love country”).

While ai could potentially be considered a “generically nice” kanji like the ones we saw earlier, it’s definitely a level up from Canada’s “addition” kanji, or America’s “rice” kanji. Those country-kanji-designators (really, who are these people anyway?!) definitely let their favoritism show a little bit here.

▼ How many of the five country abbreviations can you read after “UAE” below?
We bet at least one of them is the “love country” of Ireland.

#3. Egypt

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When you think of Egypt, what comes to mind? Pyramids? Mummies? Ancient aliens?

How about… dust?

Apparently that’s what was going through the minds of the mythical kanji-designators when they gave Egypt its kanji: ai 埃 (“dust”). I suppose that makes sense, seeing as the old tombs of the ancient pharaohs are probably pretty dusty places. We’re guessing Egypt wouldn’t have minded getting the kanji for “sand” either, but Saudi Arabia probably got the nod instead because “sand’s” pronunciation sa is closer to its name.

Speaking of pronunciation, it might seem strange that the kanji used here is pronounced ai. Shouldn’t they have chosen one pronounced e instead, so it would line up with the Japanese pronunciation Ejiputo? This is another country kanji that was borrowed from Chinese (pronounced similarly as ai), where its pronunciation is closer to the original ancient Greek Aigyptos.

As for the Egyptians themselves, they call their country “Misr,” so take this kanji designation with a grain of… dust.

▼ A tweet that uses 埃国 (pronounced Ejiputo) to refer to Egypt. Can you spot it?
Bonus points if you can find 土国 (“soil country”) that refers to Turkey!

#2. Iceland

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Poor Iceland. If there has truly been a victim of country names being passed around from language to language, it’s this one.

There are many stories and theories about the origin of the name “Iceland,” but one of the more convincing ones is that it was named by an Irish saint who traveled there in the sixth century and was so impressed with its beauty that he named it “Island,” combining the Gaelic word for “Jesus” (“Issu”) and “land.” This theory is supported by the fact that “Iceland” in many languages has absolutely nothing to do with ice, and is simply called “Island.”

So when it came time for Iceland to get a kanji of its own, would it get a kanji pronounced ai? Or something to do with its beautiful scenery? Or maybe even-

No. It gets the kanji for ice: hi 氷 (“ice”), and becomes Aisurando 氷州 (“ice state”) when fully spelled out.

I think it’s funny how, unlike other countries that attempted to both tie in the kanji’s pronunciation and meaning, no attempt at getting the pronunciation close was made here. Hi has nothing to do with the Japanese pronunciation Aisurando, and even in Chinese the kanji is pronounced bing. This was just straight up chosen because the kanji-designators thought, “Well, it’s Iceland. So let’s give it the kanji for ice. Next!”

▼ Now the idea that Iceland is covered in ice and Greenland
is covered in green can persist in yet another language.

And the #1 kanji used to represent foreign countries is…

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1. Bulgaria

wtf-country-kanji-1Wikimedia Commons/Kyle Taylor

Bulgaria probably isn’t what you expected to be number one on this list, but let me explain.

So we’ve seen country kanji that have neutral meanings (like “rice” for America), positive meanings (like “love” for Ireland), and even meanings that describe the country (like “sand” for Saudi Arabia). But one we haven’t seen yet is a kanji that has a – probably unintended – hilarious meaning.

The kanji used to represent Bulgaria is botsu 勃 (“rise”), which makes sense because it’s pronounced bo in Chinese and that sounds pretty close to “Bulgaria.” Fully spelled out in kanji it’s Burugaria 勃牙利 (“rise-fang-profit”) which isn’t so bad but…

…some of the words in Japanese that actually use the kanji “rise” are bokki 勃起 which means “erection” and bokkifuzen 勃起不全 which means “erectile dysfunction.”

Giggling intensifies.

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Of course there are other words that use the “rise” kanji, and probably more mature Japanese people would think of those ones first. But for individuals whose minds are in the gutter such as ourselves, it’s the dirty meanings that first spring to mind. Tee hee!

▼ Poor Viktor Krum of the Bulgarian Quidditch team.
Now we know why he was so quick to catch the Snitch at the world cup….

So there you have it, the top five kanji used to represent foreign countries. What do you think of the kanji used to represent your country? Let us know in the comments, and hopefully it’s not as bad as some of the top 15 most disturbing mascots used to represent certain prefectures in Japan.

References: Wikipedia, Yahoo! Japan, Iceland Review
Top image: PAKUTASO (edited by RocketNews24)

W.T.F. Japan will be back next Thursday. In the meantime, give me a follow on Twitter and let me know if there’s any topics you’d like to see covered. See you next week!