Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 1)

You can do a lot with the written language–even do things you couldn’t do with the spoken word. Modern Japanese explores this quite a bit through the frequent application of ate-ji and what some people like to call “false furigana” (there may be an actual name for this, in which case, please somebody tell me what it is!)

So let’s look at these. Ate-ji could be described as the creative assigning of substantially irrelevant kanji to a word, in an attempt to provide onlookers all the convenience of a phonetic representation whilst still preserving the tedium of writing with kanji and the confusion of that kanji not having any pertinent meaning.


You often see the word sushi written in Hiragana because it is an old wa-go (natively Japanese word (as opposed to natively Chinese or G.I.-speak)). Just as often, however, the word is written in ate-ji–you know, to class it up a bit. I mean let’s face it, Hiragana is essentially the officially recognized equivalent of a toddler scribbling on the wall with a crayon.

So what you often see is すし. But what you also often see is 寿司. The former is a bare, elemental, phonetic representation. The latter is a phonetic representation using two relatively obscure kanji whose meanings have nothing to do with sushi. If you’re like me, you may be wondering what’s the point of replacing simple, phonetic script with complicated symbols that symbolize something that doesn’t mean the thing you’re using them to symbolize. Sure seems stupid as hell. Well, consider two things, I say to you:

1) Did I not just explain that it classes words up?
2) Chinese people do this, by necessity, all the time. Since their language is all kanji, every written thing has a symbolic meaning attached–even Coca-Cola. And you better believe it’s not just the kanji for cocaine and the kanji for kola nut.

So yeah! It happens and is relatively pointless in this day and age, but it is an example of the (literally) unspeakable foibles of the written language.

There’s also the opposite concept, also called ate-ji but for the sake of making it sound like a rad judo move I shall refer to it as reverse ate-ji henceforth. This is when you apply kanji with relevant meaning but irrelevant pronunciation to a loanword. This is an old practice that accounts for oddities like tobacco, pronounced tabako in Japanese but written with the kanji 煙草, whose meanings are “smoke” and “grass”, but whose pronunciation would normally be ensou. It allows a person who has never seen the word tabako to know what the meaning is, but also robs that reader of any indication of how it sounds. To give a relatable comparison, it’d be like reading a rebus where one of the pictures is something you’ve never heard of before. You might get the meaning, but you wouldn’t be able to recount the tale because you never actually learned the word the picture represented.

Nowadays, ate-ji are mainly used as an artistic tool for naming things in style. My buddy in Tajimi had his own izakaya called Kichizato, which came from kichi (吉 – joy) and sato (里 – village). I will roughly and cheekily translate this name to mean “Wellville.”

My friend could have let this be his izakaya’s name and called it a day, but clever and ambitious as he was, he took it the extra mile by writing the name out with ate-ji: 季 (Season) 家 (Home) 里 (Village. Okay, so that part’s not so clever.)

These ate-ji are especially interesting in that they are sort of a combination of ate-ji and reverse ate-ji. My friend put time and effort into hand-picking kanji whose pronunciations matched up with the name of his bar, and whose meanings were pleasant. He may have also selected them based on their visual appeal. The three kanji together did seem somehow aesthetically conducive to being on a wooden sign, and my friend, he was a known artist.

Particularly baller is the fact that the second kanji, 家, is not typically pronounced “chi,” but “chi” written in Hiragana (ち) is often used as a colloquial contraction for uchi (home). That is to say, he has applied the kanji for “home” to a colloquial term as ate-ji, then further applied that ate-ji to the name of his business. It’s the double ate-ji. Yeeaaah, baby, now you know why we were friends.

All right, this is getting long so I’m going to break this up into parts. That’s it for today. The point I’m getting at about “broken English” is yet to come.

3 thoughts on “Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 1)

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