|sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins|
|Sign: 在日米軍基地 "US Military Base in Japan"|
The kanji 米 (Bei) used to mean "The United States of America" in words like beikoku "America" or beigun "American military" is actually the kanji for `rice'. Why is it used to mean "America"? This originates from writing Amerika (America) in kanji as 亜米利加, in the Chinese style. Here the 米 kanji is the second kanji in the word. This style of writing dates from an era in which kanji was used more frequently than now.
Using kanji to write a pre-existing word is called ateji. 1.2.6. Why do some gairaigo words have kanji? has more on ateji applied to foreign words.
The reason Japanese uses the "me" kanji (米) of Amerika rather than the `a' one (亜) may be because Japanese uses 亜 as an abbreviation of Asia, from its kanji writing 亜細亜 (Ajia).
Some other countries are similarly often written as a single kanji, especially in newspaper headlines and other abbreviated words.
|Kanji abbreviation||Full kanji writing||Country name in roomaji||Country name in English|
|英||英吉利||Igirisu||England / United Kingdom*|
|米||亜米利加||Amerika||United States of America|
|蘭||和蘭||Oranda||Holland / The Netherlands|
* See also 4.2. Which Japanese words come from Portuguese?.
An extensive list of ateji for countries and cities can be found at this web site (in Japanese)
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