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Katakana words with Kanji. How did that happen?


Some words are written with katakana, but also have kanji. For example:

コーヒー 珈琲
ページ 頁

How did this happen? They are loanwords, but no doubt had Japanese equivalents before these variants were imported. Is that the case? And are these original words now forgotten?


had Japanese equivalents before the English variants were imported

Coffee is not native to Japan, and did not have an equivalent; that kanji sequence is ateji.

"Page" is that kanji, but it's properly pronounced 「けつ」 in sequences.

My question is though how often does Katakana-based words have an equivalent Kanji?

  • 1
    Are you asking for a percentage or something else? Can you describe what a reasonable answer would look like?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 9:26
  • @virmaior a percentage - some statistics - you know.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 10:27
  • Also related: japanese.stackexchange.com/a/14967/4914 I'm debating reposting the answer, but I'm on myphone at the moment. Maybe later.
    – Kaji
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 14:18
  • 2
    Aside from actual Japanese words that are simply written in katakana for various reasons (as indicated in this topic), I feel like any answer to "how often" will be heavily opinion-based.
    – istrasci
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 14:40
  • I have often seen 珈琲 on signs outside cafes, and sometimes on menus, but never in ordinary text. My impression is that it is a cute anachronism, similar to "Ye Olde Shoppe" signs in America.
    – user763305
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 8:26

2 Answers 2


Words that are often written in katakana but have kanji available tend to fall into several groups. These are the sorts of words I find when I look for words meeting these criteria in Jim Breen's EDICT and such:

  1. Recent loans from Chinese languages, reflecting modern pronunciation:

    • Food words: ザーサイ(搾菜)・ワンタン(雲呑)・マーボー(麻婆)豆腐
    • Numbers: イー(一)・アル(二)・サン(三)・スー(四)
    • Mahjong words: リーチ(立直)・テンパイ(聴牌)
    • Place names: ペキン(北京)
    • Interjections: ニーハオ(你好)・シエシエ(謝々)

    Of course, there's other sorts of loan words: クーニャン(姑娘)・ピンイン(拼音)・カンフー(功夫)

  2. Older units given ateji, now often written in kana: メートル(米)・トン(屯)・グラム(瓦)・ページ(頁)

  3. Foreign place names given ateji, now usually written in kana: アメリカ(亜米利加)・イギリス(英吉利)・ロシア(露西亜)・シンガポール(新嘉坡)

    Some morphemes made by abbreviating these ateji are still used. For example, in the word 英語, the first part 英 comes fromg 英吉利.

  4. Other foods given ateji: コーヒー(珈琲)・レモン(檸檬)

  5. Plants and animals which are commonly written in katakana but have kanji available: ハチドリ(蜂鳥)・ホトトギス(杜鵑).

You'll run across some others here and there. Overall, out of the words listed in EDICT in katakana, around 1% have kanji. But there are a lot of rare ateji for foreign words that are normally written in katakana. Just take a look at this list, for example.

Of course, you should take these numbers with a grain of salt. The category of "katakana words" isn't at all well defined, and I'm certain there are many examples of ateji that aren't listed in EDICT. And after all, people can make new ones any time they want—like 吐露非狩古鬱, for example.

But most of the time, you should expect "katakana words" to be written in katakana.


The only example I can think of that is in common use is tobacco. I remember being impressed tobacco was so successful in entering the Japanese language unlike all the other katakana words. I think it's たばこ、煙草 but it'd be safer to check at コンビニ .

  • 3
    That was because it was borrowed from Portuguese in the 17th century, when the convention of writing loanwords with katakana hasn't started yet.
    – ithisa
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 15:19

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