You Can Write These Japanese Loan Words in Kanji (But Probably Shouldn’t)

You Can Write These Japanese Loan Words in Kanji (But Probably Shouldn’t)

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Woman holding up the word "concrete" in kanji
Pictures: sammy_55 / PIXTA(ピクスタ); Canva
We typically write them in katakana now - but these Japanese words originally had kanji. How many of these can YOU read?

They’re now spelled primarily with katakana, thank goodness. But did you know most loan words from foreign languages in Japanese used to be spelled with kanji, or represented by local alternatives? Here are seven that might surprise you – test your kanji skills and see how many you can read.

The country kanji – and more!

Coffee and hairpins
Pictures: freehand / PIXTA(ピクスタ); Canva

Back in the day, instead of using katakana for loan words, it was customary instead to use kanji. In these cases, kanji were used primarily as ateji (当て字) – i.e., they were used mostly for their pronunciation as opposed to their meaning.

A non-loan word example of ateji is the word 野暮 (やぼ), meaning “boorish” or “unsophisticated”. This is spelled with kanji meaning “field” and “twilight”, respectively.

One famous use of kanji for loan words in this regard is country names. For example, The United States (Amerika in Japanese) used to be spelled as 亜米利加, France (Furansu) was 仏蘭西, Germany (Doitsu, from the German Deutsch) was 独逸, etc. (And yes, EVERY country had kanji – you can see a list here.) You still see a vestige of this usage in that characters from these words are still used to represent the country in news reports (米 for America, 仏 for France, etc.)

(We won’t even get into people names or the so-called “kira-kira names” here. That’s a subject to which we devoted a whole other article.)

You can still see vestiges of these words if you live in Japan. For example, it’s common for Taisho era-style coffee shops or kissa to spell coffee, not as コーヒー, but using the kanji 珈琲. These kanji mean “ornamental hairpin” and “string of pearls”, respectively. According to Japanese coffee manufacturer UCC, the word came about because Japanese Dutch scholar Utagawa Youan thought that the red coffee beans on the tree resembled parts of hairpins, or kanzashi, used by the women in his time.

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Just old words

As an aside, there are also words used as ateji where the kanji’s meanings have a loose or figurative connection to the referent. A famous example is sushi, which is now typically spelled with the kanji 寿司. These two kanji mean “life span” and “administer” – i.e., they have no connection to fish. (Other kanji for sushi – 鮨 and 鮓 – have fish, sakana-hen, as a radical.) Their usage comes from the Edo-era phrase 寿を司る (kotobuki o tsukasadoru) and the belief that eating sushi would administer (司る) a long life (寿).

Other words aren’t ateji but are just native words for objects from abroad that lost out to their katakana counterparts eventually. One example is 氷菓子 (koori-gashi), literally “frozen dessert”. While not totally extinct, this word’s little used now, having lost out to “ice cream” (アイスクリーム) – or, as most people say, “aisu”.

Seven words that lost out to katakana

With more people willing to use katakana freely – especially for loan words – many ateji or native Japanese words for imported objects have faded into obscurity. Here are a few favorites highlighted by Japanese Web sites.

You don’t need to memorize any of these, as they’re not in common use. Even many Japanese native speakers couldn’t tell you the proper pronunciation for some of these off the bat. We print them there for funsies.

混凝土

Concrete wall
Picture: Rise / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This is a fun one: the kanji ateji spelling for “concrete” is a mash-up of kanji meaning “mix”, “congeal”, and “earth”. Pretty spot-on. The pronunciations are close as well, with kon and to being standard readings for the first and third characters. (The kurii, by contrast, is just slathered on top of 凝 without rhyme or reason, like gravy poured over gelatin.)

However, there’s an even worse way to write this kanji. Look at this example that a Twitter user found in the wild that literally just piles some katakana on top of the kanji 土. Honestly, I don’t know whether I’m impressed or terrified.

瓦斯

Gas burner with kettle
Picture: deko / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Nowadays, you’d just write ガス for “gas”. But back in the day, some clever chap grabbed the kanji for tile (瓦) and this (斯) and slammed them together to represent this new-fangled invention that powers the hot water in your homes.

加加阿

Cacao 365 from Malebranche, Kyoto
Picture: Malebranche web site

This is a fun one that my Microsoft Input Method Editor won’t even display the kanji for. 加 (ka, kuwaeru) is a common kanji meaning add or addition and is used in extremely common words like 追加 (tsuika). The 阿 can mean “Africa”, “flatter”, or “corner”. Put it all together and you have an ateji representing a delicious substance that is in no short supply in combini, supermarkets, and cafes around Japan.

While you won’t see these kanji used much, you may see them on packaging used to evoke a feeling of nostalgia. Kyoto-based sweets maker Malebranche uses it for their delicious-looking Cacao 365 chocolates.

曹達

Soda - highball (soda with whisky)
Picture: NOV / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

What do the characters for “official” and “reached, attained” have to do with soda water drinks? Absolutely nothing – except their pronunciations. You’ll still see this word used in the name of companies like Nippon Soda (日本曹達). Otherwise, you can just use the katakana version (ソーダ).

扁桃

Almonds and chocolate
Picture: 株式会社デザインメイト / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone now who refers to almonds with the word hentou (“small peach”). These days, you use 扁桃 to refer to your tonsils. You use the katakana アーモンド to mean the nut that tastes great in chocolate.

口風琴

Harmonica
Picture: sunnyfield / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

You can just say “harmonica” now. But once upon a time, the popular folk instrument was known as kuchifuukin – literally, a harp you blow with your mouth. To be honest, that sounds a lot cooler.

土瀝青

Asphalt
Picture: Ushico / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

I’ve saved the worst for last. Using the kanji for earth, dropping, and blue/green, torekisei was the old way to say “asphalt”. It seems “asphalt” was also slathered over these kanji as an alternate reading at some point.

It’s now a rare term and you’ll just see the word アスファルト instead.  Which personally, as a native English speaker, feels a lot more cumbersome than torekisei. On the flip side, 瀝 (reki; shitataru) is a rarely-used kanji that’s not part of the Joyo kanji and seems little used outside of this word.

So we lose memorizing another kanji – but get a mouthful of katakana in exchange. Life’s full of such trade-offs, I suppose.

Sources

「土瀝青」=? 「加加阿」=?正しく読める?外来語の漢字4選. Classy

難読漢字 外来語. Kanji Jiten

外来語をどう書く?カタカナで書かれるようになったのは意外と最近. Shodoukei Rajio

世界の国名の漢字表記一覧. Kanjitisiki.com

「寿司」と「鮨」では、どんな違いがあるの?Gohan Saisai

「珈琲」という漢字を最初に考案したすごい人!UCC

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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