sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.2.

1.2.6. Why do some gairaigo words have kanji?

The earliest Westerners to trade with and communicate with the Japanese were the Portuguese and the Dutch, from the sixteenth century onwards. The Japanese adopted many words from Dutch and Portuguese. See 4.2. Which Japanese words come from Portuguese? and 4.4. Which Japanese words come from Dutch? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they also adopted very many words from English (see 5. Japanese and English) and other European languages. These words are called gairaigo (外来語), "words from outside".

In modern Japanese, gairaigo words are written in katakana (see 1.1.9. What is used for?), and native Japanese words are usually written in hiragana. However, this is a relatively recent writing style. For a long time the Japanese thought words should be written as much as possible in kanji. In earlier times, these kanji were often accompanied by furigana (see 1.3.3. What is ?). Thus, the new words taken from Dutch or Portuguese were given their own kanji. These kanji are sometimes borrowed from the ones used in Chinese, so that the word's pronunciation and its writing can come from two different foreign languages.

Here are some examples of words from foreign languages which also have kanji forms:
Word Meaning kanji version
biiru beer 麦酒
tabako tobacco 煙草
koohii coffee 珈琲
kurabu club 倶楽部

Many more examples of ateji can be found in 4.2. Which Japanese words come from Portuguese? and 4.4. Which Japanese words come from Dutch?

A related phenomenon was words which were originally Japanese having kanji attributed to them. For example himawari, "sunflower", written as 向日葵, or mukade, "centipede", written as 百足, although the pronunciation of the word is unrelated to the pronunciation of the kanji. Nowadays animal and plant names are usually written in katakana. See 1.3.2. How are animal and plant names written in Japanese?.

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