Though the kanji can translate as “lonely country,” his complaint lies elsewhere.
For the most part, the Japanese language uses the phonetic script called katakana to render the names of places outside Asia. However, as we’ve looked at before, there are also standardized kanji, the characters originally brought over from China, that are also used to refer to foreign countries, especially in newspaper articles and other media reports.
These “country kanji” aren’t necessarily a perfect match up with the nation’s original, or even corrupted katakana, pronunciations, and are instead usually an approximation of the initial syllable. Still, it is kind of cool for people from England, for example, to know that sometimes they’re referred to as being from Eikoku, meaning “Hero Country” or “Glory Country.”
However, Tokyo resident and linguist Christoph Schmitz doesn’t feel so happy when he sees his native Germany rendered as Dokukoku, written in kanji like this:
The first kanji, read doku, was chosen because of its similarity to “Doitsu,” the corrupted Japanese pronunciation of the “Deutsch” portion of “Deutschland,” as Germany is called in the German language. Doku ordinarily means “alone,” and the kanji shows up in such dreary Japanese vocabulary as kodoku (“loneliness”) and dokudan (“arbitrary judgement”), but it’s part of more positive members of the lexicon like dokuritsu (“independence”) and dokusou (“originality”).
However, Schmitz takes issue not with the meaning of doku, but with how the character is written. The 47-year-old, who recently finished a 12-year project translating and self-publishing an English version of respected Japanese kanji scholar Shizuka Shirakawa’s Lexical Interpretation of General-Use Kanji, is specifically bothered by the left half of the character.
Like many kanji, doku is a compound of other, older kanji, which have had their shapes altered and/or compacted for aesthetic balance and ease of writing. In the case of doku, the strokes that make up the left half are collectively called the kemono-hen, or “beast radical,” which is an altered form of the kanji…
…which means “dog.” The right half of doku, by the way, is written exactly like the kanji for mushi, or “bug,” but is actually held to be a modified form of…
…which is related to the concept of avarice, leading to the image of a covetous animal taking things for itself and not showing interested in being part of a group, thus the meaning of “alone” associated with doku.
Schmitz contends that the presence of the animal-based kemono-hen within the kanji used for Germany carries discriminatory connotations. While he hasn’t filed any official complaints with the Japanese government or educational authorities, he has said that “As a German who understands kanji, I would like to see a change.”
However, Schmitz is not asking for Japanese society to decide on new kanji to use for Germany, nor for the doku kanji to be recast without use of the kemono-hen. Instead, he’s voiced his hope that instead of using kanji at all to refer to Germany, media outlets will begin rendering the country’s name using the phonetic, intrinsically meaningless katakana script in all instances, thus removing any unwanted association with the base origins of the kanji and utilizing the purpose for which katakana were developed.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s pretty much OK with America being “Rice Country” in its official kanji.