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The island of Tsushima is written 対馬{つしま}. Why? No reading of 対 and 馬 can produce つしま, and clearly つしま has something to do with 島{しま}. There seems to also be no gikun-type motivation in meaning to write 対馬, which honestly is a weird name for an island ("against a horse"?).

The Korean and Chinese names do use the characters 対馬 and Chinese-based readings though (daema and duima). However, it seems unlikely that the Chinese/Korean name came first, as the island is Japanese throughout history. In any case, even if 対馬 came from Chinese, why keep the つしま name?

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The つし reading can be found in a few other names, like 対本{つしもと}. –  snailboat Dec 1 '13 at 19:25
"why keep the つしま name?" Why change it? From what I can find on the internet, historically the name has also been written as 津島, and this seems like a likely etymology for me. The motivation for writing it 対馬 could be that the Chinese/Korean wrote it that way. –  dainichi Dec 2 '13 at 0:22
The question is still relevant though. Nobody writes 日本{やまと} despite やまと being the original name. –  user54609 Dec 2 '13 at 3:16
I'm not sure 対(つい)to つし is too far of a stretch, considering how many sound changes take place in Japanese. つし also shows up under なのり readings. –  Kafka Fuura Dec 2 '13 at 5:02
considering how many sound changes take place in Japanese Not very many irregular changes. –  user54609 Dec 2 '13 at 11:39

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

According to the Japanese wikipedia page, in 古事記{こじき}, it is recorded as 津島 - this fits the reading and may indicate the original meaning of the name. The slightly later 日本書紀{にほんしょき} records「対馬洲」and「対馬島」.

So we probably have つしま as the original name, pre-dating kanji, a possible way of writing it in kanji, 津島, and another, 対馬 adopted from the Chinese/Korean. The fact that 対馬 eventually won out is just an accident of history - it probably suggests that 津島 was not an established way of writing the name.

Regarding the origin of 対馬, 対 can also mean "a couple/pair". This interesting discussion of the origins suggests it may have previously been 対島 - referring to the shape (even before it was split in two in 1671 it could have been taken as two halves), or related to an old placename on the Korean peninsula - 馬韓 - making it "the island facing 馬(韓)".

There are, apparently, no horses on the island.

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