Wikipedia:WikiProject Japan/Place names with unusual readings

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WikiProject Japan (Talk)

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March 18, 2006
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Japan has many place names with unusual readings (難読地名 nandoku chimei?) where the kanji are not read in the standard way. In many cases, even the Japanese need assistance in knowing the correct pronunciation unless they grew up in the area, especially when the kanji being used are not part of the 1,945 approved kanji on the Jōyō kanji list.

Overview[edit]

It goes without saying that the names of places are deeply rooted to those places' culture and history. Therefore, as long as the people of that region understand the connection between the history and culture and the place name, figuring out which kanji would be too hard to read if they were used doesn't actually become a problem.

However, as Japan modernized, people's regional awareness grew, and mass media such as television and newspapers caught on, the problem of standardizing and differentiating place names arose. Names are often chosen from outside the standard Jōyō kanji, and often reflect local dialectical pronunciations, which are unusual or unknown to those from other parts of the country. In the reorganizations of districts and towns of recent years, many unusual place names are being done away with, either through merging localities into one another, or through an alteration of either pronunciation or kanji into something more easily recognizable.

Since public education became standardized and uniform across the country beginning in the Meiji period (1868-1912), placenames that contain kanji outside of what is learned in standard schooling, or those that use pronunciations of kanji outside of the more usual or natural pronunciations, create difficulties.

For most Japanese, it is especially difficult, since those placenames that use unusual kanji are themselves fairly rare; since these rare characters, or rare pronunciations, appear so infrequently, they are difficult to learn in one's everyday life. On the other hand, since many of these unusual kanji can be compared to the widely known Jōyō kanji, it cannot really be said that the problem lies solely in the fact that these kanji lie outside those that are standardly learned.

The Jōyō kanji have formally standardized on (Chinese-style) and kun (native Japanese-style) readings, though many placenames that use widely known Jōyō kanji employ readings (pronunciations) that differ from these standards. Still, many of these non-standard pronunciations remain the same in their use across many placenames.

Another difficulty often encountered in inferring placenames from the kanji is the presence of a no or ga in the reading that is omitted from the written form. Ichigaya (市ヶ谷), a neighborhood in Tokyo, for example, is often written as 「市谷」. This form, lacking the 「ヶ」that indicates the ga sound, could be easily misread as "Ichi-ya". Amagasaki (尼ヶ崎, 尼崎) and Ichinomiya (一ノ宮, 一宮) are two more examples of this phenomenon.

A similar difficulty emerges when placenames omit a part of a sound intrinsic to the kanji. For example, 「富」is normally pronounced as tomi, but it loses the mi in the placename Toyama (富山). 「焼」, normally pronounced yaki, loses just the "k" part of the sound in the placename Yaizu (焼津).

Of course, there are also occasions when a placename's reading has no connection whatsoever with the kanji used to write it, and must simply be known or memorized. These names often derive from poetic associations, nicknames, or other pseudonyms that have come to be associated with the place over time. One of the most famous examples of this is Yamato (大和), a word that refers to the earliest Japanese state and culture, and to the Japanese people as a whole, while also being used as the name for a number of places. The characters used to write it would, in other contexts, most usually be read as "Daiwa", meaning "Great Harmony" or "Great Japan".

Sometimes kanji are given to a placename that originally derived from a non-Japanese language. Most placenames in this category are those derived from Ryukyuan or Ainu, and continue to use their traditional pronunciations, which differ from usual Japanese pronunciations of the kanji used. However, a rare few placenames in Japan are derived from English or other Western languages. In these cases, the kanji are most often chosen specifically to emulate the original pronunciation, and to be easy to interpret; the name may sound unusual to a Japanese reader not familiar with it, but it might not be difficult to read.

Regional differences[edit]

On the main Japanese islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, many of the more unusual placenames derive from those that emerged in the early periods of Japanese history. In the Asuka and Nara periods, a system called man'yōgana was used in which certain Chinese characters were used, absent of their normal meaning, purely for the sounds they produced; in this way, Chinese characters, newly imported into the country, could be used to represent already long-standing native names and words.

In addition, there are pronunciation differences purely as the result of regional dialects. In Kyūshū, for example, the character 「原」, usually read as hara, is instead read as haru. In the San'in Region in the south of Honshū, the character for mountain (山), usually read as san (as in the term "San'in" itself), is instead read as sen. Daisen (大山) in Tottori Prefecture is a good example of this.

Many of the placenames in Hokkaidō, and to a lesser extent in Tōhoku, the north-east portion of Honshū, derive from the Ainu language, and are written using rare kanji unlikely to be familiar to the average Japanese.

Okinawan placenames are generally those already in place natively prior to Japan's formal annexation of islands. Most maintain the traditional Ryukyuan language pronunciation and written form in kanji, though these may not match with the usual Japanese pronunciations of the same characters. However, some placenames have been changed so that the kanji, in their Japanese pronunciations, will better approximate the native pronunciation. Recently, the reverse is becoming increasingly common, as Okinawa becomes assimilated, and placenames begin to simply be pronounced by their usual Japanese readings, keeping their traditional written forms.

Some examples of Okinawan pronunciations for kanji in placename follow:

  • The Okinawan word for "castle" (城) is gusuku, which is read in Japanese as shiro. This is frequently seen, expectedly, in the names for castles, and the towns and areas around them.
  • East (東) and West (西), higashi and nishi respectively in Japanese, are pronounced agari and iri in Okinawan. This shows up in the name of the island of Iriomote.
  • The former capital city of Shuri once bore a pronunciation closer to Sui.
  • The town of Yonashiro, which used to be called Yonagusuku serves as an example of a placename that shifted to a more Japanese pronunciation.


Examples[edit]

The place names listed below are from north to south by region and prefecture, and then alphabetical within each prefecture.

Explanation of table[edit]

Each table has three columns. The Romaji column lists the reading of the place name. The Kanji column shows the kanji that are read as shown under Romaji. Most of these are within a larger place such as a ward, municipality, or district. The Location column names the larger ward, municipality or district where the place with the unusual reading is located.

Hokkaidō[edit]

Tōhoku[edit]

Kantō[edit]

Chūbu[edit]

Kansai (Kinki)[edit]

Chūgoku[edit]

Shikoku[edit]

Kyūshū[edit]

Okinawa[edit]


See also[edit]