So we all know that most (all?) countries' names can be written in kanji as well as kana. And occasionally kanji from these names are used to represent the language of those countries. For example, we can see 「独逸」の「独」 here:

「ドイツ統一の中心人物であり、「鉄血宰相(独: Eiserner Kanzler)」の異名を取る。」

How is 独 read in this context? Is there a consistent rule that applies to all similar instances (米, 伊, 英, etc.)?

  • I personally just read it as the country name, but I don't know if that's correct. – istrasci Apr 25 '14 at 18:03
  • 独{どく}蘇{そ}戦争, commonly written as 独ソ戦争 = ドイツとソ連れんとの戦争, Also 米{べい}英{えい}戦争, 伊{い}土{と}戦争,米{べい}墨{ぼく}戦争、普{ふ}仏{ふつ}戦争, 日{にち}露{ろ}戦争... – Yang Muye Apr 25 '14 at 18:30

Generally speaking these are read using the 音読み, and most frequently occur in pairs (e.g. 日米【にちべい】, 日独【にちどく】).

I actually did some trolling through EDICT and a couple other sources to create a master list of these, and came up with the following list:

豪   ごう  Australia
爾   る   Argentina
墺   おう  Austria
白   ぱく  Belgium
戊   ぼ   Bolivia
伯   ぱく  Brazil
勃   ぼつ  Bulgaria
加   か   Canada
智   ち   Chile
中   ちゅう China
華   か   China
漢   かん  China
哥   こ   Colombia
玖   きゅう Cuba
捷   しょう Czech Republic
丁   てい  Denmark
埃   あい  Egypt
英   えい  England
洋   よう  Europe
芬   ふん  Finland
仏   ふつ  France
独   どく  Germany
銀   ぎん  Guinea
希   き   Greece
蘭   らん  Holland
洪   こう  Hungary
氷   ひょう Iceland
印   いん  India
尼   に   Indonesia
愛   あい  Ireland
イ   い   Israel
伊   い   Italy
日   にち  Japan
和   わ   Japan
約   やく  Jordan
良   ら   Latvia
馬   ま   Malaysia
満   まん  Manchuria
墨   ぼく  Mexico
蒙   もう  Mongolia
緬   めん  Myanmar
乳   にゅう New Zealand
児   に   Nicaragua
朝   ちょう North Korea
諾   だく  Norway
帛   はく  Palau
巴   ぱ   Panama
秘   ひ   Peru
比   ひ   Philippines
波   ぽ   Poland
葡   ぽ   Portugal
普   ふ   Prussia
羅   ら   Romania
露   ろ   Russia
新   しん  Singapore
南阿  なんあ South Africa
韓   かん  South Korea
蘇   そ   Soviet Union
西   せい  Spain
瑞   すい  Sweden
瑞   すい  Switzerland
叙   じょ  Syria
台   たい  Taiwan
泰   たい  Thailand
突   とつ  Tunisia
土   と   Turkey
烏   う   Ukraine
宇   う   Ukraine
米   べい  USA
瓦   が   Vanuatu
委   い   Venezuela
越   えつ  Vietnam

Some notes on the above:

  • It's not an oversight that Sweden and Switzerland have the same character; that's how they're listed in the dictionary.
  • Japan and China each have several variations. Generally speaking it's hard to go wrong defaulting to 日中【にっちゅう】 when talking about international relations. Beyond that it's probably best left to a native to clarify the nuances of each.
  • Hungary also has two characters; of these my impression based on research is that 洪【こう】 is the preferred one in Japanese.

Also, if you're looking for continents, you've got the following:

阿   あ           Africa
南極  なんきょく       Antarctica
亜   あ           Asia
欧   おう          Europe
北米  ほくべい        North America
南米  なんべい        South America
  • Nice list :) Being Polish, it was always interesting for me if Japanese knew which kanji is used for Poland. So far I haven't met one who knew off the top of their head (not that I met that many Japanese people). I think some of those kanji are not used very often. – Szymon Apr 25 '14 at 21:55
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    Neither a country nor a continent but 欧米 is useful too. – virmaior Apr 26 '14 at 0:54
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    こんな表がありました。 ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/… 読み方が載ってませんでしたけど・・・ – user1016 Apr 26 '14 at 6:53
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    どういたしまして!Chocolate and snailboat both deserve some credit as well; they nearly doubled the list when they found the Japanese Wikipedia entry. – Kaji Apr 26 '14 at 18:30
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    @WillihamTotland The epenthetic /i/ and /u/ can only drop out before voiceless consonants. When the vowel does drop out, the first consonant in the sequence assimilates to the latter, producing a geminate sequence. /b/ is not voiceless, so gemination can't occur. Note that for historical reasons, /h/ automatically becomes /p/ in gemination. – snailboat Nov 18 '15 at 17:16

If I read aloud this sentence, I omit the parenthesis part or convert it to more understandable expression like

鉄血宰相、ドイツ語ではEiserner Kanzler、の異名を取る

The most common use of those single-kanji country names is the pairs/combinations of countries such as [日米]{にちべい}, [米中]{べいちゅう}, [日韓]{にっかん}, [日中韓]{にっちゅうかん}, and some language names such as [英語]{えいご}, [仏語]{ふつご}, [独語]{どくご}. But ふつご and どくご are rarely heard although they are written in the dictionary. ふらんすご and どいつご are more used definitely. I think it's because people tend to use easier expression for hearing.

In writing, especially when one wants to reduce the number of characters (eg. Twitter and newspapers), single-kanji country names are often used. However, when speaking, except for words which are frequently heard such as [日米]{にちべい} and [米軍]{べいぐん}, single-kanji country names are mostly converted to original names (eg. [米政府]{あめりかせいふ}, [仏大統領]{ふらんすだいとうりょう}, not [米政府]{べいせいふ} nor [仏大統領]{ふつだいとうりょう}).

This may be a characteristic habit among people using ideogram characters. Some characters are really useful for abbreviation, but reading them straightforward is not appropriate to convey the idea in oral communications.


A tricky issue with many implications! As a single character, it should just be read doku. But it is regarded as the abbreviation of 独逸語 doitsugo or shorter 独語 dokugo which Japanese and also Koreans (under Japanese rule) have chosen to refer to the German language in the 19th century. Most Japanese natives would read it doitsugo or dokugo. As the single kanji can refer to the people, their country, and their language, in this case you have to add 語 go: language in your mind. 独逸 usually should be read doku-itsu, not doitsu as the character 独 doku usually never has the reading do. Drawing on the Dutch duits for deutsch (German) it could easily be written with phonetic katakana. In this case, however, political intention overturned and twisted the established On-reading doku, i.e., there is no consistent rule applying to similar instances.

There is even more below the surface of this issue. Why was the reading twisted and the character 独 with a beast classifier chosen and not a harmless character like 都 to or 度, 土, 戸 which are all read do in Japan? To really understand the political intention and East Asian country naming policy one often has to go beyond rote vocabulary memorization and have a look at the rarely explained ideology behind. The country naming policy of Japan and other East Asian countries is originally based on the Chinese/East Asian 華夷思想 Huáyí Sīxiăng (J. Kai Shisô):Thought that the own culture is superior and contempt of others regarded asretarded Uncivilized or ‘animals’ (and vermin) below human beings (also 中華思想 Zhōnghuá Sīxiăng (J. Chûka Shisô): Superior Land In The Middle Ideology). If you’re in Japan, best look up these terms in encyclopedias of your local or university library. East Asians, intellectuals or other, however, usually are silent and do not openly inform about this state policy. With the Japanese and Korean choice of 独, this kind of naming today continues only with the naming of the Germans, their country, and their language. Certainly, diplomats of the German-speaking countries should work towards a decent naming. The 犭 beast classifier is traditionally used to name inimical peoples or countries one wants to put down as outsiders.

Take e.g. the name character for the Mongols up into Japan’s Edo period. As in 濛犭虎 Môko: Mongol(s), the 犭 beast classifier was added to the character 虎 ko: Tiger for further ‘beastification’ of their whole people. This ideological addendum here has no influence on the pronunciation. Compare e.g. this use in the ukiyoe series Kôso Goichidai Ryakuzu (1831) of Utagawa Kuniyoshi) as retaliation for their attacks on Japan in the thirteenth century. While in this case the beast classifier can be removed without change of pronunciation, in the choice of 猶 Yû: trick, scheme for the Jews in East Asia and Japan dropped all of a sudden after WWII it cannot. Here again it also is not just the otherwise often relatively harmless pride for the culture of one’s own realm, but the deliberate despite of others as beasts and treatment as outsiders. Understanding this is a matter of study of East Asian thought and history. Note that all these examples were established before the world wars. This is not sheer coincidence: The usage of the 犭 beast classifier started during China’s Warring States period 2500 years ago and therefore naturally breathes and sows aggression. I.e. in this case as as in others you cannot separate the pronunciation and ideology of Chinese characters! I hope that after full two years the question is now answered to your satisfaction.

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