Say you go to Japan for the first time, and you’re introducing yourself to some people. You learned how to say your name in Japanese and how old you are, but then you’re asked where you’re from. You freeze and realize that you have no idea how to say your country’s name in Japanese.
A big part of hammering out identity in Japanese is knowing where you’re from. It’s one of those basic, essential pieces of information (like your name and age) that gives people an idea of who you are. And since people won’t necessarily be famililar with the town or city you’re from, it’s best to start with your country and work your way down from there.
The Newer, Easier Way
Fortunately most of the time, it’s pretty to easy to say your country’s name in Japanese, because it’s more or less a straight transliteration, “America” becomes “amerika,” and “Canada” becomes “kanada”. Kinda makes sense, right?
And if you know your Japanese alphabets, then it becomes even easier. Country names (with the exception of a few Asian countries) are all written in katakana, the special Japanese alphabet specifically for foreign words (among other things).
I rounded up the 15 countries (minus Japan) where the most Tofugu readers live to give you an idea what their names look and sound like in Japanese:
Seems simple enough, right? Most of the time, it is. However, you might also see your country’s name in kanji, the complicated Chinese characters used in the Japanese language.
The Older, Harder Way
Why are there two different ways to write the name of a country? The reasons are mostly historical. As Japan was first getting exposure to the world outside of East Asia, it tried to use as much kanji as possible for foreign words, or gairaigo (外来語).
The Japanese did this by writing words out phonetically using kanji. So some older, foreign words like “tobacco” have a kanji reading (煙草).
As time went on, a few things happened: the Japanese got flooded with new words from the outside, and the Japanese language got simpler and more standardized. For those reasons (and more), the Japanese began to write foreign words in katakana. This made them easier to read, and made it very clear that they were foreign words, not Japanese.
Nowadays, it’s preferable to write foreign words (like your name) in katakana, so it’s pretty rare to see country names written in kanji. The nice thing is even when you do see the names of countries written in kanji instead of katakana, they’re pronounced the same way.
Take a look at those same countries, but with their names written in kanji:
One of the big disadvantages is that while the kanji match the reading of the word, the meanings get really wacky. 亜米利加 reads as amerika, but the meaning is kind of bizarre. Put together, the kanji have a weird combination of meanings, including “rice.” Which, y’know, isn’t exactly what you think of when you think of America.
America – land of rice?!
Other countries have weird meanings too. One of the characters in Germany’s kanji name means “alone” (poor, lonely Germany), one of India’s kanji means stamp/seal, and England’s kanji means good luck or congratulations.
Again, not a whole lot to do with what these countries are all about. Like writing your name, this is another instance where you can try and be super cool and use kanji, but it’s much easier and less confusing to use katakana.
Now when you get that oh-so-important question – “Where are you from?” – you won’t be caught with your pants down. Now you just have to navigate the rest of the conversation.
Edit: Some commenters have rightly pointed out that “igirisu” is kind of a strange term. It’s a transliteration of the Portugese word for “England,” but refers to the entire United Kingdom.
Other people have made a good point that the kanji names of countries are still sometimes used in official and formal capacities.
Thanks for the corrections!