Exonyms in Kanji-rare foreign-place names

Cover page of the 桑港時事 May 12, 1896. Image from the Hōji Shinbun Database

One of the challenges in learning to read old Japanese newspapers and documents that refer to the Americas are Japanese exonyms (invented Japanese words for foreign place names) or ateji ( use of kanji rather than katakana to phonetically represent borrowed terms). You will run into them most often in newspapers and in statistical tables. For non-native Japanese speakers, the rare kanji in these names can pose a real challenge. Scholars of the Japanese empire will be familiar with such names in reference to names in the Pacific, but may not be familiar with the names for San Francisco, Seattle, or Hawai’i. Though not comprehensive, the list below includes the major place names relevant to research on Japanese in North America. (Content from Wikipedia and my own findings)

English nameJapanese name (rōmaji)AtejiAbbreviation
Americas アメリカ州 amerika-shū亜米利加州米州 beishū
North America 北アメリカ kita amerika北亜米利加北米 hokubei
Californiaカリフォルニア karifonia 加利福尼亜,加里保爾尼, 嘉理符尼亜加州 kashū
Oregonオレゴン州 oregon-shū 阿里干, 俄勒岡央周 oshū
Washingtonワシントン州 washinton-shū 華盛頓華州 washū
Hawai’iハワイ州 hawai-shū 布哇ハワイ hawai
New Yorkニューヨーク nyū-yōku 紐育, 紐約
Utahユタ州 yuta-shū 武達, 犹他ユタ yuta
Coloradoコロラド州 cororado-shū 科羅拉多, 格州コロラド kororado
San Franciscoサンフランシスコ san furanshisuko 桑港 sōkō, 桑方西斯哥
Honoluluホノルル honoruru 花瑠瑠
Los Angelesロスアンジェルス rosu-enjeresu 羅府 rafu
Seattleシアトル shiatoru 沙市、舎路
Chicagoシカゴ shikago 市俄古、市高俄
Denverデンバ denbā 伝馬
Portlandポートランド pōtorando 波的蘭, 葡萄蘭土
Vancouverバンクーバー bankūbā 晩香波, 晩香坡, 晩克坡
Torontoトロント toronto 多倫多
Central America 中央アメリカ chūō amerika中央亜米利加中米 chūbei
South America 南アメリカ minami amerika南亜米利加南米 nanbei
Asiaアジア ajia 亜細亜亜 a
Oceania オセアニア oseania大洋州 taiyōshū

Doing text searches with these older, kanji versions of names can produce many more results when using the Hōji Shinbun database, the National Diet Library Digital Collections, or other Japanese-language research portals. If you are looking for other specific ateji you can do a google search with the contemporary katakana name for the place plus 漢字表記 or try checking the Japanese wikipedia page for that place. Kotobank is also a great dictionary for finding old place names. If you have an unknown ateji, use a phone app with hand writing input or an electronic dictionary to try searching for the name or just the kanji themselves. If you don’t find the name that way, at least you can enter the kanji into a browser search and identify the place that way. You can also reference this page for US states, and a global (but not comprehensive) list on Wikipedia. There is also a useful guide to foreign country names. It’s search function is a great reference for Japanese-language global places names from all over the world. As I go forward, I’ll add a section for South American country and city names to the table above.

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