Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, the ever-growing library of Japanese language learning resources created just for you! (ᵀʰᵃᵗ’ˢ ʳᶦᵍʰᵗᵎ ᴶᵘˢᵗ ᶠᵒʳ ʸᵒᵘᵎ) We’re Kiki and Koko, the creators and curators as well as your guides to Japanese language and culture. It’s impossible to teach language without culture, especially because language itself is a part of culture. Everything from its grammar to its idioms are a product and an element of the culture from which they originate. One part of culture that can be the most unique is its writing system. Many other languages use some variant of the Latin/Roman alphabet with a few extra elements to account for varying sounds. However, languages like Japanese have their own completely different set of phonetic characters such as kana and kanji. Though, these characters didn’t simply start out the way they look, today.
Throughout time, certain kanji characters turned to kana characters used phonetically rather than for their meaning. Kanji normally bears meaning on its own, so for those who have already read our lessons and articles concerning kanji, How Do You Write in Japanese? | Japanese Writing System Demystified and Do I REALLY need to learn Kanji? | What use is Kanji?, it may make one wonder exactly how writing like hiragana emerged as a meaningless ‘alphabet’ whilst also having kanji characters that define the meaning of the words they create. Well, what if we told you that there are actually kanji that break all of the rules, acting as if they were hiragana, just creating words without any tie-in to their meaning? But, no worries to those who have already invested much time in studying the all-important writing system of kanji, because this idea goes both ways. What if we also told you that there was also a way to assign meaning to words based on the sounds the kanji makes? Well, if you’ve spent any time with kanji, you’ll probably have stumbled upon both of these scenarios at one point. These scenarios that break many of the rules are due to that renegade writing system:当て字, ateji.
But, what exactly is 当て字, ateji? (Also known as: あてじ, 充て字, or 充て字) Though we’re talking about a type of writing system that breaks the rules, the best way to start to figure out what a word means is to have a look at its kanji. 当て, comes from 当てる, meaning to allot; to call upon; to apply, to put on; or the like, and 字 generally means character. Based on the translation alone, an allotted, applied or called upon character, it can be surmised that these are quite different to the usual usage of usual 文字, moji, or letter, respectively. Though there are a few different ways these characters are assigned, the generally agreed upon way of defining当て字, ateji, would be as kanji used differently than its intended purpose. Though, this breaks off into those few separate definitions which are:
☆彡kanji used phonetically rather than for their meaning
☆彡kanji used for meaning rather than their reading
or simply for the sake of a simple definition:
☆彡characters used as substitute
Whilst it’s maintained that kanji is an important part of leaning Japanese as it holds nuance even in these situations, even as a beginner or someone who has had any brush with Japanese culture, it’s very likely that you’ve already experienced this phenomenon! Yes, one of the staples of Japanese culture brought to Little Tokyo in the States around the mid-sixties, and that is: 寿司，sushi.
In taking a look at the kanji for the almost ubiquitous word, 寿司，sushi, it becomes apparent how the first type of 当て字, ateji, functions quite differently. The first kanji, 寿、kotobuki, means longevity, and the second, 司, shi, referring to an archaic term for an office of government, really doesn’t seem to evoke the taste of tangy, sticky rice, and seaweed. But, why is this actually a perfect example of this idea of 当て字, ? Well, one reason for this is because sushi itself is something quite ancient, arguably dating back to the middle of the Han dynasty in China, though it took on a very different form at the time.
As we discussed in a previous lesson, in ancient times, Japanese language borrowed Chinese characters in order to write. Simply put, in the early days, with 50,000 Chinese characters, it’s a bit difficult to really remember each and every one of them. (No worries, there’s only about 2,000 used in Japanese, today, and even in China, most people really only know about 8,000, and according the the BBC, apparently, to be able to make it in Chinese, you only need to know 2,000 hanzi, so it’s not so soul-crushingly much to attempt to learn.) But, even still, when trying to transcribe Japanese using Chinese characters, in ancient times, it was a bit of a random system. Much was implied and one would simply know by each sound what was being written. However, there was a step up that did occur which is referred to as 万葉仮名, man’yougana. Though it still ignored the meanings of the kanji, it served as a phonetic and semi-regulated system that actually served as origin for the kana we still use today.
Sounds without Meaning
Many loan words use 万葉仮名, man’yougana, a slightly organised form of 当て字, ateji, such as names of continents and countries, and to this day, you’ll see the remnants such as in places like 仏蘭西, furansu, shortened to 仏国, fukkoku. However, one thing to take away from this is that due to the reliance on kanji actually having to mean something in the modern day, you’ll find these loan words are usually written in katakana rather than its historical ateji, and native words are usually written in hiragana. Though, for stylisation, you may see cafes using the Chinese version of coffee, which is usually コーヒー, koohii, written as「珈琲」. But, again, due to the fact that it is a loan word, you’ll normally see it in katakana.
Meaning without Sounds
On the other end of the spectrum, there are words that use the meanings of kanji irrespective of their reading. These 熟字訓, jukujikun, are special words, phrases, and concepts that give us strange readings of kanji that wouldn’t normally exist. These archaic phrases and newly assigned meanings from ‘metal’ ways of saying 「よろしく」in the modern day, spelt 「夜露死苦」meaning night, tears, death, and sufferingーsuper edgyーto the actual traditional phrases like 五月雨, samidare, or early-summer rain, the first characters meaning 5th month, or May, and the last meaning rain. Ironically, whilst 寿司, sushi, exists on the other side, sound without meaning, ノリ, nori, or seaweed, also spelt 海苔, ignores the sound and uses the meaning；海, umi, meaning ocean, and 苔, kokera, meaning moss or lichen.
Though this section may seem like all of 当て字, ateji, is complete nonsense to newcomers, you should not fret, kanji scholars, for your efforts can still be applied to 当て字, as the same method that combines both meaning and sound! However, you may wonder why this is any different to usual words in Japanese. Well, the point of this is that these are assigned, therefore, these apply to loan words. One such instance is in the kanji equivalent for the word club. 倶楽部, kurabu, otherwise written in katakana as クラブ、takes the pronunciations of each character along with their meaning. 倶, meaning together, 楽, meaning comfort or music, and 部, meaning section, class, department, etc, makes for a coherent word using kanji that can also be sounded out. But, there are more classic examples of this such as the Portuguese loan-word, 合羽, kappa, from capa, which takes the meaning of raincoat, but if you look at the style, it makes sense that its kanji means join and feather or plumage, looking much more like a parka or a cape which definitely reminds us of the plumage of some birds.
Whether it’s sound, meaning, or both, kanji and reading in general still plays an important role in language. So, if you’re interested in learning Japanese, we definitely recommend, even with a few twists and turns, that you should certainly add reading and writing to your repertoire. Without understanding these basics, concepts that bend the rules such as 当て字 can leave learners without a clue as to what certain archaic and historical words mean as well as fun assigned meanings and even puns. Reading will enrich your experience and proves to be an important part of Japanese language and culture. So, be sure to stick with us, and we’ll help you on your Japanese language learning journey one character at a time!
We could probably write an entire book on this subject along, however when we introduce subjects like this, we feel it’s most useful to get a general idea of it in a concise way, then build upon that understanding so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. Hopefully, this introduced you to the concept of 当て字, ateji, and that this hopefully bolstered your interest in how the Japanese writing system functions as well as how the past and culture as well as the meeting of other cultures in Japan formed the language that is used today. As is probably obvious from such a statement, it’s impossible to fit in such a vast history into one lesson. So, in future, we’ll continue to add to this concept. This is a concept we mentioned in a previous lesson, and have finally been able to introduce properly. So, if at any point you see a concept we mention in a past lesson, be sure to either search the site or have a bit of a wait, and with time, we’ll get to all of your Japanese language and culture learning needs. With an ever-growing library of resources, we hope to be able to provide even more information for years to come.
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