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. 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 Which Japanese words come from Portuguese?

Add ateji to English or kana names:

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