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Kooky Kanji: The Surprising Origin Stories of Some Famous Characters

Kanji is fascinating when it's used in strange or unusual ways. GaijinPot looks at how the history of kanji may be even more interesting than you thought.

By 4 min read

As Japan opened its ports after years of isolation, it began to discover lots of new things. It was a fascinating time for the country as almost every new shipment would bring a new discovery or piece of technology from China or Europe. The problem was that the Japanese language soon started running out of kanji for all of these new things.

Luckily, the Chinese had a solution: make characters that look the thing being described for each new invention encountered. This lead to bizarre creations coming to Japan like the kanji for かさ (umbrella) and くし (things on a skewer).

Admittedly, some of these characters only look like the object if you screw up your eyes and squint really hard — such as horse うま (can you see the mane and the running legs in this pictograph?) and turtle かめ (can you work out which part is the shell, tail and head?).

In these days before katakana, the Japanese used kanji for almost everything, most of which by now have (thankfully) gone out of fashion. These days most Japanese people write バラ (rose) instead of the monstrosity 薔薇ばら (old form of rose) and that makes learners’ lives far easier.

Similar ones include 檸檬れもん instead of レモン (lemon), 倶楽部くらぶ instead of クラブ (club), 最中もなか instead of モナカ (wafer cake filled with bean jam) and 麦酒びーる instead of ビール (beer). Not all of these have completely gone by the wayside, unfortunately, as in older coffee shops you may still come across the kanji 珈琲こーひー being used instead of コーヒー (coffee) on the menu.

As well as these attempts to give each new item a kanji character regardless of how impractical that actually was, another way that these Japanese thinkers tried to incorporate foreign words was phonetically. To do this, they would create kanji that spelled out the new word — regardless of whether the characters used made sense or not.

A lot of these attempts to describe something phonetically explain why countries are often made up of weird characters. Unfortunately for us Brits, the kanji for the United Kingdom 英国えいこく, despite being made up of the kanji えい (for splendid) and くに (country), reflect an attempt to write えいこく (English) phonetically rather than reflecting Japan’s Anglophilia.

This also explains some of the strange kanji in other names, such as:

  • 仏国ふつこく (France), made up of the characters for ほとけ (Buddha) and くに (country)
  • 米国べいこく (America), made up of べい (rice) and くに (country)

… they would create kanji that spelled out the new word — regardless of whether the characters used made sense or not.

Easily the most bizarre of these combinations is for the terrifying dictatorship (or that country with a “funny, smart, very talented” guy to any Trump supporter) of North Korea. That one is written 北朝鮮きたちょうせん using the kanji きた (north), あさ (morning) and 新鮮しんせん (fresh) respectively.

Just for Fun: See if you can guess the countries represented by these kanji (see answers at the bottom of the post):

  1. 独国 (oneself, country)
  2. 白耳義 (white, ear, duty)
  3. 瑞典 (omen, ceremony)

Then, finally, there are the kanji that are just put together with such a vivid imagination that the learner can’t help but be enthralled. I’ve already dealt with the horrors of 踊り丼 and the deliciousness of the strangely named 親子丼, but if I was to tell you about a dish called 酢豚 made up of the kanji for (vinegar) and ぶた what would you imagine? In fact, 酢豚すぶた is used to describe sweet ’n’ sour pork!

You also have to respect the writer who decided to put the kanji つち (earth) and りゅう (dragon) together to describe an animal. What kind of horrific beastie would you imagine deserves the name earth dragon? Perhaps a Komodo Dragon or some kind of giant crocodile? Well, the answer is the unthreateningly common mole. Yep, that little guy making lumps of dirt in your garden is a 土竜.

I would also like to get inside the head of whoever decided to make the ちゃ (tea) compounds. Some of the more interesting of these include 無茶むちゃ (“not-tea”), which describes something ridiculous and all the ways to describe something jumbled up or confused like 無茶苦茶ムチャクチャ and 目茶目茶めちゃめちゃ.

All of these strange combinations show how fascinating the study of kanji is. You’re not just learning characters, but also trying to understand the people who wanted to make characters look like something or sound like something, or who were putting ideas together in bizarre and unique ways as they tried to incorporate unfamiliar languages and concepts into Japanese.

Finding these interesting points of note are one of the ways that the study of Japanese characters has been kept fresh for all these years for me. So the next time you see a mole pop its head up, spare a thought for the creative person who thought: “Yep. I’ll call that one an ‘Earth Dragon.’”

Answers to “Just for Fun”:

  1. 独国 = Dokukoku (the old name for Germany)
  2. 白耳義= べるぎー (Belgium)
  3. 瑞典 = すうぇーでん (Sweden)
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