Kanji | What Is The Japanese Letters For United States?

What Are Japanese Letters For The United States?

When people in Japan discuss the United States, there are two ways one might either write The United States or pronounce it. The United States is one of few countries to have this particular distinction where it is both written and said in two ways. 

The kanji word for the United States is 米国, pronounced as beikoku. One of the other terms is actually katakana, which is one of the ways the Japanese write and say foreign words. The letters, アメリカ, are pronounced as Amerika, which sounds very similar to America. 

Many words in katakana can be fairly easy to pronounce when written in romaji, or Latin-based lettering that most other countries will recognize, as they are often described as English pronounced with a thick Japanese accent. 

When Different Words For America Are Used 

The kanji term for the United States isn’t used as often in speech or writing. It is generally saved for more formal conversations or writing, such as when it’s discussed in the news.

More often, you’ll hear the katakana term used in daily conversation or casual writing. 

Most countries have been given katakana names since Japan only really became aware of many other countries outside of Asia when the country removed itself from isolation in the Meiji era

What Does Beikoku Mean?

Beikoku doesn’t directly translate to the United States, despite being commonly understood as a term for the country. Interestingly enough, the word beikoku translates to rice country in English. However, the first part of the word, bei, used to be considered the word for America. 

The reason Japan first started calling the United States beikoku traces back to the early days of trade between the two countries. Japan gave many countries names based on the Chinese systems of lettering at that time, which is now known in Japanese as kanji.

Sailing Ship In Yokohama

The kanji letter, 米, is the kanji for rice and is known as the “me” kanji. In Japan, it was common to use kanji, inspired by Chinese writing, to make up a Japanese word for an English word.

Many things would get lost in translation, and still can today unless you learn the context behind the original kanji words. 

How Japan Named Countries 

Many of the names that Japan assigned to other countries came from their English names. While you can find some of these countries written in kanji lettering, most countries typically have katakana spellings and subsequent katakana pronunciations.

The United States has both, but they are not the only country with an interesting translation and a kanji spelling. 

For example, Italy has a kanji term that translates to fat profits, and its pronunciation is Itariu. France has kanji that translates to Buddha country, despite the country not having ties to Buddhism. Germany has kanji that translates to single leisure and is pronounced as Doitsu

Some other countries with katakana spellings and pronunciations include:

  • ノルウェー = Norway: Noruwe (no-ru-we)
  • コスタリカ = Costa Rica: Kosutarika (ko-su-ta-ri-ka)
  • ウガンダ = Uganda: Uganda (u-gan-da)
  • プエルトリコ = Puerto Rico: Puerutoriko (pu-e-ru-to-ri-ko)
  • カナダ = Canada: Kanada (ka-na-da)
  • エジプト = Egypt: Ejiputo (e-ji-pu-to)
  • アイルランド = Ireland: Airurand0 (a-i-ru-ran-do)

What Is Kanji?

Kanji is a lettering system used in Japanese writing that was inspired by Chinese letters. It takes a lot of skill to be able to write in kanji, as there are thousands of kanji letters in this form of Japanese writing

Some of the letters and subsequent pronunciations are very similar to Chinese letters, while each country also developed its unique letters over time.

It can be very difficult to learn kanji, not only because of the intricacies involved with forming the letters but because of the various ways that kanji letters can be translated to mean different things. 

When Did Kanji Change To Katakana?

Kanji was the most frequent method used for writing for a very long time in Japan until the country developed some of its own writing and language methods. Katakana was not a typical manner of speaking or writing at the time that Japan and America began their relationship. 

As the Japanese language continued to develop, so was Japan opening itself up to trade with other countries. Subsequently, Japan was learning more about things from around the world, meaning new Japanese words would have to be created.

At this time, it was still very important for Japan to preserve the use of kanji as much as possible. 

What started to happen was that new words would be given a kanji, and that kanji would translate to that particular word.

The word would be pronounced very similarly to the word in English or the language of that other country. Eventually, a new form of writing would develop that would continue the usage of similar pronunciation using Japanese lettering; katakana

What Is Katakana?

Katakana is one of two types of Japanese writing that is influenced by the phonetic spelling of foreign words. This particular practice was inspired by the Chinese language often doing a similar thing with words from other countries.

Japan started using Chinese words to develop their own katakana words, then moved to non-Chinese words; this practice is known as ateji

Japan started this practice when they began communicating with people from European countries like Portugal and Holland, and it continued as Japan began interacting with other countries.

The origins of katakana, before it was nationally recognized, was Buddhist shorthand. It was a very simple way of writing, having an alphabet consisting of only 48 letters. 

Phonetic writing is essentially spelling out a word to look as close to the way it’s pronounced as possible. The words that are encompassed in katakana writing are referred to as loan words or gairaigo in Japanese.

Japan also uses hiragana, another form of phonetic Japanese writing. 

Katakana Today 

Japan was able to get very far in communicating with other countries and progressing to where it is today by adopting katakana.

This is because the Japanese language was able to come up with new words very easily by taking the word and pronouncing it similarly to its English pronunciation, but with a Japanese flair. 

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MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.