I came across 当て字 in my N1 vocabulary list, and while I think I understand what it is from the definition "kanji used as a phonetic symbol, rather than for its meaning", I'm not sure what the point of that is--there's already hiragana and katagana to do that.

What is the purpose or purposes of 当て字?

  • Makes what you're saying seem more classical? Gives you a cooler looking sign? すし vs 寿司
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 3:05
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    Technically a lot more stuff is ateji than you might realize, but stuff like 亜米利加 instead of アメリカ isn't as important.. just good to know.
    – ssb
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 3:19
  • From my impression of it, new uses of 当て字 are few and far between, but they used to be a lot more common, and what we see are hold-overs from that. Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 4:37
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    Like ssb implies, you probably use 当て字 fairly often without realizing it. After all, how many people write とけい/トケイ instead of 時計 to avoid using 当て字? (Not many, I don't think.)
    – user1478
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 8:49
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    I think some part of this answer may apply to this question. It helps to delineate sentence elements (i.e. text in all kana is harder to read), and it can disambiguate words that may share the same kana spelling.
    – Flaw
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 12:00

1 Answer 1


According to wikipedia,


I.e. if they are written in hira-kana/kata-kana, it would be difficult to discern where the word starts/ends. Nowadays however, kata-kana has taken over this function. 当て字 are still useful though as they are more compact than the kata-kana counterpart. Newspapers tend to prefer 当て字 for this reason; e.g. USA is referred to as 米 instead of the more lengthy form アメリカ

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    Well it obviously comes from the 当て字 亜米利加. You couldn't do the abbreviation with kata-kana, in which case it would be ア @TokyoNagoya Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 15:45
  • ... or メ, presuming that ア would already be used for Asia, of course.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 16:07
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    @Earthliŋ I remember reading in Henshall's book that メ is an old reading for 米, which is why it got used in the ateji 「亜米利加」. Of course, 日本国語大辞典 backs up what Enno Shioji says: 「米」は「アメリカ」のあて字「亜米利加」の略
    – user1478
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:13

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