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I know of four countries with a specific kanji besides Japan: China, the Netherlands, the USA and UK. The last two must be quite recent (I presume 19th century) but I wonder on the details and context of the selection.

There is of course 蘭, abbreviated from 阿蘭陀 (o-ran-da/holland) used in 蘭学, dutch learning.

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Australia can also be written in two major different ways in kanji, one has several variants, all are either obsolete or archaic except in some compounds. –  hippietrail Jun 23 '11 at 9:22
    
I now see that there was 仏蘭西 for France, back when it was considered for Japanese terminology as a subdivision of Holland? –  ogerard Jun 23 '11 at 9:53
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@ogerard: 仏蘭西 for France, likely has nothing to do with Holland. These names are all ateji for whatever the Japanese (or the Chinese) perceived the country name to be. Try reading "仏 蘭 西" and you'll see it more or less matches "france" ("fa-ran-su")... –  Dave Jun 23 '11 at 9:58
    
@Dave: I realized that as soon as I had clicked "add comment"... I was polarized by the ran kanji from rangaku. –  ogerard Jun 23 '11 at 11:33
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@Dave: actually it matches "Français" (fu/ran/sei). There you go, 6 years of French study put to use at last grin –  crunchyt Jun 24 '11 at 0:32

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Good question!

「米国」 According to Japanese Wikipedia, the pronunciation of American was メリケン during the Meiji period, and was rendered into kanji as 「米利堅」

Since the first character is 米 (べい、まい、めい) the abbreviation became 米国. This was despite the fact that the full kanji representation of アメリカ is 亜米利加. I suspect it was because 亜 is already used to represent Asia.

Source

「英国」 Similarly, the Meiji era phoneticisation of England was エイギリ or 英吉利 in kanji. Taking the first kanji of this for the abbreviation we get 英国.

Since England is also synonymous in Japan with Great Britain, 大不列頓 or だい-ブリテン was also used (in Meiji times, not now)

Source

Here is a complete list of (nearly) all countries foreign to Japan and their corresponding kanji-fied versions.

国名の漢字表記一覧

Very interesting link that one.

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Thanks for the list. It is interesting as it compares the two chinese versions (traditional and simplified) with the japanese versions. –  ogerard Jun 23 '11 at 9:42
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I'm having a hard time understanding the grammar in the American article — think I'll even open a question — but isn't it offering 亜米利加 as an alternate explanation? –  Louis Jun 23 '11 at 9:45
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“Since England is also synonymous in Japan with Great Britain” That is probably true for some people who do not know geography, but not true in general. In Japanese, UK is called 英国 or イギリス, and England is called イングランド. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 23 '11 at 13:40
    
ito-san that is absolutely correct in modern japanese. in fact i think you'll find i was referring to meiji times. i'll edit it to make it clearer. thank you –  crunchyt Jun 23 '11 at 22:33
    
The use of the present tense means otherwise. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 23 '11 at 22:42

Most, if not all, of foreign country Kanji names (not including names with obvious different origins such as China and Korea) - and there are many more than 4 - are exactly this kind of abbreviation from a phonetic Kanji spelling of the country's name. 米 is an abbreviation of 亜米利加, 英 is 英吉利.

Look in any Japanese dictionary and you'll find most prominent countries have this kind of Kanji spelling and abbreviation.

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Yes, but my main dictionary is Japanese->English, so they are not so easy to find. I would have been interested by any information about the timeline and evolution. –  ogerard Jun 23 '11 at 9:43
    
Actually I suspect this is incorrect. Perhaps you can provide some examples? Most Japanese kanji names for countries came from phonetic use of kanji, where the meaning was discarded/ignored. –  crunchyt Jun 24 '11 at 0:29
    
In Japanese, would "phonetic Kanji" be referred to as ateji, which Wikipedia describes as a broader term that also covers using kanji for meaning but not for the pronounciation, or is there a more specific term? –  Andrew Grimm Sep 16 '11 at 3:10

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