sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins

3.4. Why is America called bei?

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 words have ? 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 rōmaji Country name in English
吉利 Igirisu England / United Kingdom*
利加 Amerika United States of America
西亜 Roshia Russia
蘭西 Furansu France
Doitsu Germany
Oranda Holland / The Netherlands
羅巴 Yooroppa Europe
Indo India
斯多拉利 Oosutoraria Australia
奈陀 Kanada Canada
西 西班牙 Supein Spain
太利 Itaria Italy
細亜 Ajia Asia


* See also 4.2. Which Japanese words come from Portuguese?.

External links

An extensive list of ateji for countries and cities can be found at this web site (in Japanese)

sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins

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