Are French people Buddhists? Are the Germans lonely? Are the British particularly heroic, and do Americans eat lots of rice? These are impressions the Japanese might conceivably have about people from around the world, thanks to the way certain kanji were arbitrarily assigned to different countries back during the Meiji Period, before katakana started being used for expressing foreign-derived words and place names as it is today. The kanji phonetically assigned to France, Germany, Britain and the U.S. are 仏, 独, 英 and 米, which happen to mean Buddha/Buddhism, alone/lonely, heroic, and rice, and while these are largely archaic today, they’re still convenient for writing compact newspaper headlines like 日米韓首脳会談 (“a summit between heads of state from Japan, the U.S. and South Korea”). The kanji for Australia is 豪 goh which means “gorgeous” or “of high quality,” and this character is used by the shabu shabu restaurant near my house to promote their imported Australian beef. The kanji for Russia (露) might make Japanese think of an outdoor onsen bath (露天風呂 roten buro)…or possibly a person who exposes themselves indecently in public places (露出 roshutsu). Random word associations can come from anywhere, of course, like the linguistic accident that causes the English word “fillet” to have the same pronunciation as a shark’s fin (ひれ), which must cause some bizarre misunderstandings when eating a steak and shark fin soup (the fin is definitely not the “fillet” part of a fish).(If you’re as fascinated by kanji as we are, J-List has a lot of cool kanji-related products for you to get lost browsing.)
Analyzing how language affects our perception.