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Using Chinese characters (kanji) to write Japanese bird names

■ Japanese Bird Names in Kanji
Of Orioles and Warblers
Poor Translations of Species Names

Japanese possesses a complicated writing system, but possibly nowhere does it reach such complexity as it does in bird, animal and plant names. Indeed, this was a major factor behind the decision to write scientific names in katakana.

Elsewhere I've described the writing system of Japanese as the 'outcome of a struggle to adapt Chinese characters to the writing of a completely different language, involving many makeshift strategies and compromises' (see Writing System of Japanese).

The fact that the vocabularies of Chinese and Japanese frequently featured differences created problems in matching Japanese words to Chinese characters. In the case of bird names, Japanese often had specific bird names for which no suitable Chinese characters could be found. The result was a number of fascinating workarounds.

The following description proceeds from the assumption that the Japanese asked themselves a basic question: 'Here we have a Japanese bird name. How best can we write this with the Chinese characters available to us?' Since compound words in both Chinese and Japanese are a complicating factor, I've separated simple Japanese words from compound words.

The actual process took place over a long period of time and was obviously more complex and dynamic than this treatment suggests, with a certain creative interaction taking place between Chinese characters and the Japanese language, but this approach is useful for throwing the issues into relief. These notes are based on secondary sources that I happen to have to hand. They are thus of a preliminary nature. In particular, I have relied heavily on Obunsha's Kanwa Jiten to clarify the original usage of many characters.

1. Simple Japanese Bird Names


(a) Straightforward adoption of Chinese characters

First, let us look at the ideal case, that of a reasonable fit between the two languages. Some examples can be seen below.

To write the Japanese words in the first column, the Japanese simply turned to the names of the equivalent birds in Chinese (Chinese meaning and modern pronunciation shown in columns 4 & 5).

Japanese word Meaning Chinese character chosen Chinese meaning Modern Chinese pronunciation Comments
kiji 'pheasant'
'pheasant' zhì  
tsuru 'crane'
shigi 'snipe'
'snipe' A Japanese character, , has also been invented to represent this bird.
kamome 'gull'
'gull' ōu  
taka 'hawk'
'hawk' yīng  
sagi 'heron'
uguisu 'warbler'
'warbler' yīng  
tsubame 'swallow'
'swallow' yàn Also represents the variants tsubakuro and tsubakura
suzume 'sparrow'
'sparrow' què In Chinese, the sparrow is now usually called má-què
Fuller list of examples... (in popup window)


(b) Where more than one suitable character was available

Occasionally Chinese offered two or more alternatives for writing the same Japanese word. Sometimes this resulted in a choice of characters for writing the same word; in others only one character came into general use. The table below shows cases where a single Japanese name (first column) could be written with two different Chinese characters (columns 3, 4 & 5):

Japanese word Meaning Chinese characters available Chinese meaning Chinese pronunciation Result
fukurō 'owl'
'owl' xiāo Only is used
'owl' xiāo
karasu 'crow'
'crow' Either character can be used to write karasu
washi 'eagle'
'eagle' jiù In modern Japanese only is used
'eagle' diāo
kamo 'wild duck'
'duck' is the normal usage. is also used for the lapwings
'wild duck'


(c) Where the Chinese equivalent was a disyllabic word

In some cases the Chinese equivalent name was a disyllabic word. The Chinese writing system traditionally splits disyllabic words into two syllables (i.e., two separate characters), as though they were compound words. Note that, contrary to the myth that Chinese is a monosyllabic language, these are naturally disyllabic words; they are not compounds made up of two separate words. In Japanese, the somewhat ungainly result is that a single Japanese word is written with two characters.

Japanese word Meaning Chinese characters chosen Chinese meaning Chinese pronunciation
kaitsuburi / kaitsumuri 'grebe'
'grebe' pìtī
mozu 'shrike'
'shrike' bóláo
misosazai / sazai 'wren'
'wren' jiāoliáo


(d) Where a compound word (two or more characters) was adopted to write a Japanese word

In some cases, a simple Japanese bird name was equivalent to a Chinese compound word of two or more characters. In this case, Japanese used the compound word as a whole to write a single Japanese word. Again the result is ungainly. In some cases more than one compound word was chosen to write the same Japanese word.

Japanese word Meaning Chinese compound Chinese Reading Literal Chinese Meaning Notes
zuku '(eared) owl'
mù-tù 'tree + rabbit' (archaic character usage) Also 木兔 'tree-rabbit'
kera 'woodpecker'
zhuó-mù-niǎo wood-pecking bird' Also read ki-tsutsuki ('wood-pecker'). 啄木 is read takuboku.
semi / kawasemi 'kingfisher'
fěi-cuì 'kingfisher' See below for more on 'kingfisher'
yú-gǒu 'fish-dog'
toki 'crested ibis'
zhū-lù 'red heron' I have yet to confirm a Chinese source for 桃花鳥.
táo-huā-niǎo 'plum-flower bird'
mozu 'shrike'
bǎi-shé-niǎo 'hundred tongue bird' Also written .
bǎi-shé 'hundred tongue'
isuka 'crossbill'
jiāo-huì 'cross beak' Also written with a Japanese-made character (see below)
Fuller list of examples... (in popup window)



In other cases, the Chinese language seems to have lacked an identifiable equivalent to the Japanese name. In this case, there were three main options:

(a) The phonetic option: Use characters for their sound

While this approach involves using characters for their sound only, given the nature of the script (ideographic), the tendency is to find characters with some identifiable meaning. A strict phonetic match may therefore at times be sacrificed in favour of characters conveying some kind of meaning. (Such an approach may verge on "folk etymology".)

Japanese word Meaning Characters assigned Meaning Explanation
aisa 'merganser'
'autumn sand' Characters have been chosen for their attractive meanings. Mixture of kun and on readings. The first character, 'autumn', should actually be pronounced aki (kun reading), the second should be either sa or sha (on reading)
-semi 'kingfisher'
'cicada' -semi in the sense of 'kingfisher' is not actually a word, being found only in kawa-semi (River Kingfisher) and yama-semi (Greater Pied Kingfisher). The use of the character semi 'cicada' is based on the sound.
hamu 'diver / loon'
'wave warrior' Appear to be phonetic, but the characters are chosen to convey some kind of meaning. Rather forced mixture of kun-yomi (ha) and on-yomi (mu). The more common reading of is bu)
keri 'lapwing'
'measure league' Phonetic. The name is derived from the cry of the bird. Modified on-yomi - characters would normally be pronounced keiri. Reason for choice of characters unclear
sekka 'cisticola' & others
'snow add' Purely phonetic. Both characters are read with on-yomi.
'snow under'
binzui 'pipit'
meaning unclear - literally 'mail chaser' Phonetic?
ōchū 'drongo'
'black/crow autumn' Phonetically very approximate - normal on-yomi would be ushū. Etymology and reason for character choice unclear

binzui and ōchū are of unclear origins. I've treated them as phonetic renderings, but the possibility can't be ruled out that the characters used have some basis in etymology (e.g., borrowing from Chinese, etc.)


(b) Make up a new character

This involved creating a completely new character, one that did not exist in Chinese. Such characters were known as kokuji, 'national characters' or 'indigenous characters'. In coining these new characters, of course, the Japanese followed the Chinese rules of character formation.

Japanese word Meaning Character created Comments
shigi 'snipe'
The Chinese character is also used for shigi. The radical 田 means 'field'
aji 'Baikal teal'
nio 'grebe' (old term)
The character is possibly based on the fact that 入 is read nyū in its on yomi
toki 'crested ibis'
One of several ways of writing toki (see below). The radical 年 means 'year'
shime / hime 'hawfinch'
exists in Chinese but not with this meaning. Obunsha claims it as a Japanese invention
hime 'hawfinch'
ikaru 'grosbeak'
One of several ways of writing ikaru. The radical 角 means 'corner, angular', a reference to the bill
isuka 'red crossbill'
Also written 交喙.


(c) Take an existing Chinese character and give it a new meaning:

This involves assigning to a Japanese word a Chinese character that originally referred to a completely different bird. In some cases the identity of the original bird is unclear. This is in some ways the most intriguing method. Given that Chinese characters are said to be ideographic in nature -- i.e., they are associated with a specific meaning -- and given the degree of pedantry surrounding the tradition, one can only surmise why a character with a particular meaning (even if somewhat obscure) was applied to a different bird. To what extent was this a conscious decision and to what extent was it due to lack of precise knowledge of the original meaning?

Japanese word Meaning Character chosen Modern Chinese pronunciation Original Chinese meaning Notes
nosuri 'buzzard'
kuáng 'owl' or 'nightjar'  
toki 'crested ibis'
bǎo 'bustard' also used for the 'bustard' (no-gan). In addition, several other ways of writing toki exist (see below)
móu 'kind of quail'
keri 'lapwing'
'wild duck' In Japanese also used for the 'wild duck' (kamo). Keri can also be written 計里.
uguisu 'warbler'
yīng 'oriole' The Japanese use the character for their own cultural equivalent of the oriole.
uso 'bullfinch'
xué type of bird related to rollers, etc.  
hiwa members of Carduelis
ruò 'large fowl'  
nue 'thrush' (type of)
'type of bird' Name refers also to a mythical monster with the head of a monkey, the body of a racoon-dog, the tail of a snake, the limbs of a tiger, and the voice of a White's thrush
kōng 'monster bird'
tsugumi 'thrush' (derived from verb tsugumu 'to close the mouth')
dōng Used in names of other birds  
shitodo 'bunting' (old term)

Of the above, uguisu is worthy of special notice. This is a case where the character has deliberately been applied to what the Japanese perceived as a culturally equivalent bird. The character in Chinese is used for the Oriole (the Black-naped Oriole), a bird famous in Chinese tradition for its golden plumage and its beautiful song. The bird is found in Japan, but is a relatively rare visitor. Rather than apply to the oriole (with which they may or may not have been familiar in their own country), the Japanese took the character and applied it to what they considered the Japanese equivalent of the oriole, a bird noted for its beautiful song that is celebrated in traditional Japanese poetry as a harbinger in spring. Unlike the Chinese oriole, however, the Japanese warbler is a small, inconspicuous, rather dowdy bird.

The following is an example where a Chinese compound word has been given a new meaning in Japanese:

Japanese word Meaning Chinese compound Chinese pronunciation Literal Chinese Meaning Notes
hibari 'lark'
yún-què 'cloud sparrow' The 雲雀 or 'cloud finch' referred to the phoenix in Chinese.

(d) Other

Some irregular examples also exist. For instance:

Japanese Name Type of bird Characters Comment
mashiko 'rose finch' 猿子 Means 'monkey', due to the bird's red face resembling a monkey. The reading is quite unusual.


2. Compound Japanese Bird Names

(a) Straightforward use of characters to write a Japanese compound word

There are a number of cases where Japanese has formed its own compound bird names. Writing such words was a simple matter of putting together two appropriate Chinese characters. Although such compound words were purely Japanese and (probably) did not exist in Chinese, their general meaning would be clear to a Chinese speaker:

Japanese word Meaning Characters used Meaning of individual characters Comment
umi-tsubame Petrel
'sea swallow' I am assuming that this was coined by the Japanese
umi-neko Japanese Gull
'sea cat'  
kake-su Jay
'hang nest' Can also be written kakesu (character created by the Japanese themselves)
koma-dori Japanese Robin
'pony bird' Allegedly because the cry of the bird sounds like the neighing of a horse
aka-hara Red-billed Thrush
shiro-hara Pale Thrush
shiro-gashira Chinese Bulbul
'white head'  
yama-dori Copper Pheasant
'mountain bird'  
no-gan Bustard
'field goose' The character , meaning 'bustard' in Chinese, is also used. Unlike Japanese, Chinese uses a single word for the bustard.
Fuller list of examples... (in popup window)

In a few cases the Japanese seem to have created Chinese-style bird names. Although Chinese in form, they do not appear to have come from Chinese.

Japanese word Meaning Chinese characters Meaning of characters Comment
haku-chō Swan
'white bird' Characters can also be read shiratori (kun-yomi)
ren-jaku Waxwing
'link sparrow' The term is used in Taiwan, but may be a borrowing from Japanese


(b) Where a Japanese compound word is written with a single Chinese character

In some cases, the Japanese preferred to borrow a single Chinese character for a Japanese compound word:

Japanese word Meaning Could be written Actually written Chinese meaning of character Chinese pronunciation Comment
niwa-tori 'garden fowl' = 'domestic fowl'
'(domestic) fowl' 庭鳥 is not used
no-gan 'field goose' = 'bustard'
'bustard' bǎo Both 野雁 and are used


(c) Where a single Japanese character is created to write a Japanese compound word

Above we noted that Japanese compound words were sometimes written with a single Chinese character where this existed in Chinese. In fact, the Japanese themselves have sometimes come up with individual kanji to represent compound words. An example is the locally coined character kakesu, created for the kake-su 'hang nest' or 'jay'.


(d) A Japanese compound word written with a Chinese compound word

An even more complex case is where a Chinese compound word is used to write a Japanese compound word. In such cases, the elements of the Chinese compound and the elements of the Japanese compound do not match. For instance, the Japanese word for 'hoopoe', yatsu-gashira, means 'eight head', a reference to the distinctive crown. Rather than writing this 'eight head', the Japanese take over the entire Chinese name 戴勝, meaning 'wear headdress'. Note that there are sometimes multiple choices.

Japanese word Type of bird Literal Japanese meaning Could be written Actually written Chinese pronunciation Chinese meaning Comment
yatsu-gashira Hoopoe 'eight head'
dài-shèng 'wear headdress'  
ki-tsutsuki Woodpeckers 'wood-pecker'
zhuó-mù-niǎo 'wood-pecking bird' 木啄 is found in pre-modern Japanese literature
mimi-zuku Eared owls 'eared owl' Japanese has no single character for zuku.
chī-xiū 'compound word meaning owl'  
mù-tù 'tree + kind of plant' 耳木菟 ('eared tree + plant') is an alternative writing -- see below
jiǎo-chī 'horned-owl'  
kawa-semi Alcenid kingfishers 'river kingfisher' Japanese has no single character for semi.
fěi-cuì fei = type of red-winged bird
kingfisher = type of blue-winged bird
For more on kawa-semi, see below
yú-gǒu 'fish-dog'
oshi-dori Mandarin Duck 'mandarinduck bird' Japanese has no character for oshi.
yuān-yang yuan = male duck, yang = female duck  


(e) Where a mixture of a simple character and a Chinese compound word is used to write a Japanese compound word

In (d) above, the meaning of the Japanese compound is totally overshadowed by the Chinese compound. Sometimes, however, the Japanese preferred to spell out the meaning of part of the compound. This involved combining a normal Japanese reading for one word and a Chinese compound for the rest. For instance, in the word mimi-zuku, is used in a normal way to write mimi 'ear' and the Chinese compound 木菟 'tree-rabbit' is used to write zuku. In (d) above, 木菟 as a whole was read mimi-zuku.

Japanese word Type of bird Literal Japanese meaning Written Japanese element Japanese pronunc. and meaning Chinese compound Modern Chinese pronunc. Chinese meaning Comment
mimi-zuku Eared owls 'eared owl'
mù-tù 'tree + kind of plant' 木菟 by itself is also read mimi-zuku.
yama-semi Cerylid kingfishers 'mountain kingfisher'
yama 'mountain'
fěi-cuì fei = type of red-winged bird
kingfisher = type of blue-winged bird
翡翠 and 魚狗 by themselves are read kawa-semi (Alcenid kingfisher). 翡翠 also has other readings (see below)
yama 'mountain'
yú-gǒu 'fish-dog'

The confusion results from a clash between two tendencies: (1) the principle of taking over a Chinese compound word as an unanalysable unit to write a Japanese word, as in the case of (d) above, and (2) the desire to represent each unique Japanese word with a single Chinese character ( for mimi 'ear', for yama 'mountain'). Mixing the two methods results in the confusion seen above.

3. Japanese borrowings from Chinese

In some cases, the Japanese borrowed the names of birds directly from Chinese. The Japanese may have lacked a name for these birds or the Japanese name was superseded by the Chinese for some reason.

Characters Japanese pronunciation Modern Chinese pronunciation Meaning
鶺鴒 sekirei jílíng 'wagtail'
鷓鴣 shako zhègū 'francolin'
綬鶏 jukei shòu-jī 'tragopan'
雷鳥 raichō léi-niǎo 'ptarmigan'
孔雀 kujaku kǒng-què 'peafowl'
鵞鳥 ga-chō é (Chinese omits the ) 'goose'
gan yàn 'wild goose'
翡翠 hisui fěicuì 'kingfisher' (rare, mostly used for the word 'jadeite' in Japanese)
ban fán 'coot' (but originally referred to a different kind of bird in Chinese)
伽藍鳥 garan-chō qié-lán-niǎo 'pelican'
画眉鳥 gabi-chō huà-méi (Chinese omits the ) 'hwa mei'


Complexity of the system

The application of Chinese characters often led to confusion and complexity. In some cases two, three, or even more different ways existed for writing the same bird name.

The word mozu 'shrike' could be written:

(1) with a single character:
(2) with a disyllabic Chinese word (two characters): 伯労
(3) with a compound Chinese word: either 百舌 'hundred tongue' or 百舌鳥 'hundred tongue bird'.

The word toki 'crested ibis' could be written:

(1) with the Chinese character for 'bustard':
(2) with the Chinese character for a kind of quail:
(3) with a Japanese-created character:
(4) with a Chinese compound word: either 朱鷺 or 桃花鳥.

A rather mixed-up example is that of the kingfishers. Note the different ways of writing the four words kawa-semi, yama-semi, yama-shoobin, and hisui.

1. Kawa-semi:

(1) Kawa-semi as a whole written with a Chinese compound: either 翡翠 or 魚狗.
(2) Kawa written with the character for 'river', semi written with the character for 'cicada', pronounced semi: 川蝉

2. Yama-semi:

Yama written with the character for 'mountain' , semi written with a Chinese compound, either 翡翠 or 魚狗 (these are also used to write kawa-semi as a whole): thus either (1) 山翡翠 or (2) 山魚狗.

3. Yama-shōbin:

Yama written with the character for 'mountain', shōbin written with a Chinese compound (the same as that used for kawa-semi): 山翡翠.

3. Hisui:

Uses the on reading of the characters: 翡翠.

Note how the characters 翡翠 could be read kawa-semi, semi, shōbin, or hisui, depending on the context!


With this kind of complexity, it's not surprising that Japanese scientistis decided to bypass the problems of writing in Chinese characters (kanji) altogether and use katakana to indicate plant and animal species.

Despite all the time and effort that the Japanese devoted to representing Japanese bird names in Chinese characters, it's surprising how little mark Chinese has left on Japanese bird names as a whole. Only a handful of words have been directly borrowed.

For the most part, the Japanese simply continued to use their own names. The Chinese characters just made them look more 'respectable' when written down. The Japanese presumably called the 'buzzard' a nosuri before anyone ever gave a thought to writing it in characters. It continued to be called a nosuri after they decided to use the character , originally meaning 'owl' or 'nightjar', to write it. And when they decided to abandon characters and use katakana for the names of animals and plants, there was no change: the buzzard is still a ノスリ nosuri.

The language that has possibly been most changed by Japanese attempts to use Chinese characters is Chinese itself. In the modern era, the Chinese at times followed the Japanese lead when creating names of bird species. This included taking Japanese names as written in Chinese characters and using them as the Chinese names. As a result, a character like was applied to a kind of bird that it had never originally referred to in Chinese, in this case the buzzard.

Native Japanese bird names like 海燕 umi-tsubame 'sea swallow' = 'petrel' also appear to have been borrowed into Chinese. In some cases, as in the word kashi-dori ('oak bird' = 'jay'), written 樫鳥 or 橿鳥, this meant borrowing Japanese-created characters like that did not even exist in Chinese!