Sunday, December 24, 2017

Ateji 当て字

In Japanese, the ateji 当て字, literally "matching characters," are kanji characters matched against a word in a way or another, often in order to write with kanji a word that isn't written with kanji.

Generally, ateji words use the kanji readings to phonetically match them to syllables of the word. For example, "Canada," a loaned word, a gairaigo, is katakanized into kanada カナダ, so it's supposed to be written with katakana. However, it may be also written as kanada 加奈陀, with ateji kanji, because these kanji may be read kanada 陀.

an ateji, mechakucha 滅茶苦茶

The Problem With Ateji

It's important to be aware of the ateji because they can be confusing.

If you're learning Japanese and found out you can use kanji's meanings in a word to guess what a word means, the ateji can literally drive you crazy. Because the meanings of a kanji are disregarded in most ateji, this means that, by the kanji, the word doesn't make any fucking sense.

For example: mechakucha 滅茶苦茶. What. The. Fuck. Is this supposed to mean? I mean, let's just break it down for a sec:
  • horobiru 滅びる
    To perish.
  • cha
  • kutsuu 苦痛
  • cha
    Tea. (again)

So perish-tea-pain-tea, or destroy-tea-pain-tea. What... what the hell is this supposed to mean? If you follow the grammatical process, the first morphemes must be adjectives and the second ones nouns, and since it has four kanji, it could be a yojijukugo. So... maybe... uh... Destroyer Tea of Pain Tea?!

To make matters worse, it's sometimes written as mechakucha 目茶苦茶 instead. Now with the kanji for "eye," me 目. So eye-tea-pain-tea?! WTF?!

And there's even a synonym! The word muchakucha 無茶苦茶. This time it's no-tea-pain-tea. That's like some sort of British idiom: "there's no tea bitter than no tea," or "no tea [equals] bitter tea," nai ocha, nigai ocha 無いお茶苦いお茶.

Ultimately, it doesn't make sense. It never will. Because the kanji were chosen only because of their readings, not because of their meanings. Even the first one, see: zetsumetsu 絶滅, "extermination."

When you come across these cases, your best choice is to pick a dictionary. Then you'll see that mechakucha means "absurd" or something and be left wondering how is that supposed to mean anything in the phrase you're reading.

But that's an extreme example. Not all ateji words are so much bullshit that they even confuse natives into thinking they mean anything. (「無茶苦茶(むちゃくちゃ)」はなぜ「無いお茶、苦いお茶」と書く?)

Use Cases

There are a number of situations a word is ateji.
  • Old native words without kanji.
  • Words languageried into other words.
  • Words derived from ateji.
  • New native words, slangs, etc.
  • Foreign words.

Note that, the ateji is pretty much always used with a word that doesn't have kanji originally. Because if it could be written with kanji already, there'd be no need to choose other kanji for it.

Native Words

Certain natives words of the Japanese language weren't written with kanji, but with hiragana. Then someone decided to add kanji to them, because why not?

For example, yahari 矢張り, "as I thought," is ateji. It's written with the kanji for "arrow," ya 矢 and "to stick" or "to stretch," haru 張る. Obviously, it has nothing to do with arrows.

Another silly example: aa 嗚呼, meaning, well, "ah!", the interjection, getting written with kanji, for some reason. It's written with kanji that mean to "to scream" or "(for animals) to cry" or "to make a sound" for devices such as beeping, naku 鳴く, and "to call," yobu 呼ぶ.

More Examples

  • sasuga 流石
    Flowing rock.
    (could it be... the legendary flowing water rock smashing fist?!)
    "As one would expect." (is what it means)
  • majime 真面目
    True face eye.
  • nonki 呑気
    Drink air.
  • fuzakeru 巫山戯る
    Medium mountain frolic-ing?!
    "To fool around."
    (damn, this one is close in meaning!)


A very good example of ateji in a native word is the word kawaii 可愛い.

Now if you're wondering.... why? It's because of where the word kawaii came from.

It comes from kaho-hayushi 顔映ゆし. Now you might be thinking: wait, kao 顔, "face," is kao かお, not kaho かほ. And yes, it is. Now. It is. But long, long ago, in a galaxy country far, far away, it was pronounced kaho.

Then a lot of languagery went on, and the word deformed into kawaii かわいい. Since kawaii wouldn't match the reading of the kanji anymore, a new set of kanji had to be matched against the word. Thus, kawaii 可愛い is an ateji.

Derived Words

Any word derived from an ateji is also an ateji. This is kind of obvious, but worth of note.

For example, kawaisou 可哀想, "pitiable," is ateji, since it comes from kawaii, which's ateji.

    Foreign Words

    Pretty much every foreign word (outside of Asia) is written without kanji, so when and if it gets written with kanji, it's an ateji.

    Most notably, names of countries get ateji'd a lot. Examples:
    • amerika 亜米利加
    • mekishiko 墨西哥
    • burajiru 伯剌西爾

    This doesn't happen to all countries, just most of them. For example, Asian countries, such as "China," have kanji names, such as chuugoku 中国, "middle country." And England is called eikoku 英国, literally "English country."

    Ateji Bingo

    It's interesting to note that ateji isn't exact, but it attempts to be as close as it can get.

    For example, ka 可 and ai 愛 can't form kawai. It's close, but not exact. So it becomes a jukujikun 熟字訓, a "character compound reading." This means that ka-ai 可愛 is read as kawai only in the word kawaii 可愛い (and its derived words).

    Likewise, nomu 呑む and ki 気 can't form nonki 呑気, but it happens anyway.

    So even though ateji tries to match the kanji phonetically to the word, it doesn't always work perfectly. Furthermore, although I said ateji disregard the meanings of the kanji, it usually tries to match the meaning as much as possible too.

    That's to say, why'd ai 愛, "love," get chosen as ateji for kawaii 可愛い instead of writing it as kawa-ii 皮良い, "good skin," or something? It's because it made more sense that way. There's thousands of kanji, so you can pick the one that fits the meaning better and still has a matching pronunciation.

    This makes ateji into some sort of game of trying to match the reading and to a lesser extent meaning of kanji to words. Something like that.

    Other Types of Ateji

    Lastly, a reminder that ateji 当て字 literally means "matching characters." From the verb ateru 当てる, "to hit," "to match with." This is to say that there's nothing in the word itself that says the character must be matched phonetically.

    Most of the time, when people say ateji, they mean matching phonetically.

    However, to some people, an ateji may be a gikun 義訓, which is totally the opposite of what we have been talking about so far. A gikun matches the meaning and disregards the reading. While the ateji as written so far is about matching the reading and disregarding the meaning.


    Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

    Comments made in bad faith or containing spoilers or language inappropriate for the post will be removed.

    1. Sushi (寿司) is probably the most iconic ateji.

    2. I was under the impression 可愛い came directly from Chinese (where it's 可愛 which sounds like "kuh ai"; Chinese uses 可 more than Japanese does) and the い just means it was naturalized into a Japanese word. Same as ex. 愛す and 信じる where the Chinese 愛, 信 were naturalized into Japanese verbs using す、じる (which are just variant forms of する).