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In modern Japanese, ateji (当て字, 宛字 or あてじ?, literally "assigned characters") primarily refers to kanji used phonetically to represent native or borrowed words, without regard to the meaning of the underlying characters. This is analogous to man'yōgana in pre-modern Japanese. The term ateji is also used for the opposite process, writing words using kanji for meaning only, without regard to the reading.
For example, the word sushi is often written with the ateji 寿司. Though the two characters are respectively read as su and shi, the character 寿 means "one's natural life span" and 司 means "to administer", neither of which has anything to do with the food. Ateji as a means of representing loanwords have been largely superseded in modern Japanese by the use of katakana (see also Transcription into Japanese), although many ateji coined in earlier eras still linger on.
An example of the opposite process (meaning only) is 煙草 (tabako) for "tobacco", where the individual kanji respectively mean "smoke" (kemuri) and "grass/herb" (kusa) but have no phonetic relationship to the word tabako. This is also considered a kind of ateji.
Ateji today are used conventionally for certain words, such as 寿司 (sushi), though these words may be written in hiragana (especially for native words – for example, すし is also found for sushi), or katakana (especially for borrowed words), with preference depending on the particular word, context, and choice of the writer. Ateji are particularly common on traditional store signs and menus. For example, kōhī, the Japanese word for "coffee", is generally written using the katakana コーヒー, but on coffee shop signs and menus, it is often written with the ateji 珈琲. Conversely, tabako, the Japanese word for "tobacco", is generally written as たばこ or タバコ (in hiragana – despite being a loanword – or katakana), even on signs, and rarely written as the ateji 煙草.
Conversely, many characters have meanings derived from ateji usage. For example, the now-archaic ajia (亜細亜?) was formerly used to write "Asia" in kanji; the character 亜 now means "Asia" in such compounds as tōa (東亜?, East Asia), even though 亜 originally did not mean "Asia". From the written amerika (亜米利加?, America), the second character was taken, resulting in the semi-formal coinage beikoku (米国?), which literally translates to "rice country" but means "United States of America".
When using ateji to represent loanwords, the kanji are sometimes chosen for both their semantic and phonetic values, a form of phono-semantic matching. A stock example is 倶楽部 (kurabu) for "club", where the characters can be interpreted loosely in sequence as "together", "fun" and "place". Another example is 合羽 (kappa) for the Portuguese capa, a kind of raincoat. The characters can mean "wings coming together", as the pointed capa resembles a bird with wings folded together.
The ad hoc usage of Chinese characters for sound dates to the introduction of Chinese characters to Japan, in the man'yōgana – the same sound might be represented by many different characters, at the discretion of the author. The kana (hiragana and katakana) were then developed as systematic simplifications of man'yōgana, to be used for sound – each Japanese mora corresponds to a single hiragana character and a single katakana character (with some exceptions due to sound shifts over the centuries – see historical kana usage). Despite the existence of the kana, ad hoc Chinese characters continued to be used for representing words, as is traditional in China.
Ateji are primarily used today for historical terms – in historical order, these are primarily Sanskrit terms dating from the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, Portuguese terms from the 16th and 17th centuries, and Dutch terms from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries – see Japanese words of Portuguese origin and Japanese words of Dutch origin. Ateji found some use in the Meiji era and in the 20th century, but has largely been superseded by katakana.
In Buddhist Japanese, Sanskrit terms used in some chants also derive from ateji but were not called such. These Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese (in a Literary Chinese style) in China long ago. The translation rule for mantras were not to translate the mantra, but instead to represent it phonetically with Chinese characters. For the sutras, they were translated into Chinese Literary Language (Wenyan). The terms prajnaparamita (般若波羅蜜多 hannya-haramita?) and samyaksam-bodhi (三藐三菩提 sanmyakusanbodai?), or "Perfection of Wisdom" and "Fully Enlightened", both appear in the Heart Sutra, but are written using ateji kanji that preserve the pronunciation, but have no other logical connection.
Ateji should not be confused with kun'yomi (訓読み), Japanese reading, or native reading, where a kanji is assigned the native Japanese equivalent as its reading – ateji refers to compounds (two or more characters).[clarification needed]
When a native Japanese word is written as a compound by meaning only, and this spelling is established in the language, as in otona (大人?, adult), the word is a kind of ateji (because a meaning-only compound), and is known specifically as 熟字訓 (jukujikun). Intentional improvised uses of irregular kanji spellings (instead of as spelling mistakes) are referred to as 義訓 gikun, and generally require furigana to be read properly; many jukujikun (established meaning-spellings) began life as gikun (improvised meaning-spellings). A loan-word example is reading 宿敵 shukuteki 'mortal enemy' as the English-derived word raibaru 'rival'.
While standardized ateji uses okurigana, as in 可愛い (kawai-i) having the 〜い so that it can inflect as 可愛かった (kawai-katta) for the past tense, gikun that is only intended for one-off usage need not have sufficient okurigana. For example, 辛い kara-i, "spicy, salty" is an adjective and requires an 〜い, but it might be spelt for example as 花雷 ka-rai (both legitimate on readings of the characters) on a poster, for example, where there is no intention of inflecting this spelling.
Single-character loan words
Most ateji are multi-character, but in rare cases they can be single-character, as in 缶 kan (simplification of 罐, for which kan is the Chinese pronunciation), used for "can, metal tin" (罐 originally means "metal pot, iron teakettle", so this is similar). This is classified as ateji.
In some rare cases, an individual kanji has a loan word reading – that is, a character is given a new reading by borrowing a foreign word – though most often these words are written in katakana. Notable examples include pēji (頁、ページ?, page), zero (零、ゼロ?, zero), dāsu (打、ダース?, dozen) (these three are the only widely recognized or used), botan (釦／鈕、ボタン?, from Portuguese botão)), and mētoru (米、メートル?, meter) (marginally understood, used in some settings), while the rest are obscure – see list of single character loan words for more.
These are classed as kun'yomi of a single character, because the character is being used for meaning only (without the Chinese pronunciation), rather than as ateji, which is the classification used when a loan-word term is using existing sounds only (as in 天麩羅), or alternatively as a compound with meaning only (as in 煙草 – the sound タバコ cannot be broken down into readings of individual characters). In principle these could be considered as 1-character meaning-only ateji, but because the reading corresponds to a single character, these are considered readings instead. Note that while kun'yomi are generally written as hiragana when writing out the word in kana instead of kanji (because native Japanese), these gairago "kun'yomi" are generally written as katakana (because a foreign borrowing). See single character gairaigo for further discussion.
Note that numerically, most of these characters are for units, particularly SI units, in many cases using new characters (kokuji) coined during the Meiji period, such as kiromētoru (粁、キロメートル?, kilometer, 米 "meter" + 千 "thousand"; this character is obscure and not in common use).
Some non-kanji symbols or Latin character abbreviations also have gairaigo readings, often quite long; a common example is '%' (the percent sign), which has the five kana reading パーセント, while the word "centimeter" is generally written as "cm" (with two half-width characters, so occupying one space) and has the seven kana reading センチメートル (it can also be written as 糎, as with kilometer above, though this is very rare).
In a few cases, etymology of a word is unclear, and hence whether the term is a borrowing or not cannot be determined. One such example is bira (片、枚、ビラ?, bill, flyer, leaflet), which may be from native Japanese hira (片、枚?) or びらびら (bira-bira?), or may be from English "bill"; it is currently frequently written in katakana, however.
There are occasional spellings which derive from Kanbun (Japanese form of literary Chinese), where the kanji form follows literary Chinese, but the pronunciation follows Japanese. An example of this is writing 不〜 ("no, not") before a kanji for a verb, corresponding to the verb inflection 〜ず – for example, writing 不知 for 知らず shi-razu "not knowing". The word 不知 is read as shirazu (as if it were a native Japanese verb), though in this case 不知 is also a Sino-Japanese word (a noun), read as fuchi, meaning "ignorance". These are primarily found in older literature, but find occasional use in variant spellings of everyday words, such as 親不知 oya-shirazu "wisdom tooth".
- Painting Worlds and Words by Mia Lews