Japanese phonetically rendered in Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters

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As used by the Chinese air force, according to a post on Twitter that Joel Martinsen sent to Brendan O'Kane, and Brendan relayed to me:

Before proceeding to an explanation of method and contents of the notification, I should mention that the context of this sort of warning is the recent Chinese government announcement of its claim to the entire South / East Sea, which brings it into direct conflict with over half a dozen other governments, and its even more recent unilateral establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) whereby it asserts the right to control whoever enters said ADIZ by whatever means it deems necessary (hint: we might shoot you down, or — for starters — we just might "bump" you, i.e., collide with you).

The Twitter thread cited at the beginning of this post has some back and forth between people about whether or not it’s real. One wonders why the People's Liberation Air Force would require pilots to make these announcements themselves instead of using recordings, but stranger things have happened. Still, it seems doubtful that the hated Japanese have ever, once, been able to understand any of these messages — if this is genuine, that is. Indeed, it may be a joke along the lines of giving pūláigènánde 扑来个男的 ("a man comes a-pouncing") as a “pronunciation guide” for “pregnant.”

Returning to the transcribed warning (the image alone is here), the top line in each pair is Chinese; the bottom line is an unbelievably clunky transcription of the Japanese words using Chinese characters, resorting to Romanization for pesky sounds like “ki,” “kyo,” “he,” and “de.” Kudasai ください ("please") is gǔdàsài 股大赛 ("crotch / thigh / shares of stock [great] competition"), which seems oddly appropriate here. I will not trouble to "translate" all of the Chinese transcriptions, but they are generally of this sort, or worse. If anyone wishes to "translate" the complete Mandarin transcription of the Japanese, they are welcome to it. I have one request, however: if you use any characters or kana, please include their romanization for the benefit of the vast majority of Language Log readers who do not read Chinese and Japanese.

Jīwěi hào XXX zhī bùmíng jī, qǐng zhùyì, wǒ shì Zhōngguó kōngjūn,
机尾号XXX之不明机,请注意, 我是中国空军,

Bānggāo xxxx náo fúmíngki, qiūyī qǐ(te) gǔdàsài, wadáxi wa qiūkuòkù náo kūkōng dàisī.
帮高xxxx挠福名ki, 秋一起(te)股大赛, 哇达西哇秋扩库挠哭空戴斯.

Nǐ yǐ jìnrù Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó fángkōng shìbié qū,

Ānàtā wa qiúkǎ jīnmǐn kyowa kǒukǔ náo bókù xīqì biécǐ liáoyīkū nǐ hǎiyīdài (yi)lǚ.
阿娜他哇球卡金敏kyo哇口苦挠博库西气别此僚一哭 你 海 一袋(yi)吕.

Qǐng biǎomíng nǐ de guójí, shēnfèn hé fēixíng mùdì.

Ānàtā náo guókùsàiki, ID tuō mókūtáiki ó heyàome (shi)de gǔdàsài
阿娜他挠国库赛ki, ID 托 魔窟台ki 哦 he 要 么 (shi)de 股大赛

A Chinese citizen who knows Japanese fairly well comments thus on the quality of the transcription:

But actually there are many mistakes in the Japanese script, as well as some inappropriate use of words.
…It's so bad…
I'm shocked that the Chinese air force would be so careless with their words.

Given that the Chinese transcription is so execrable, it is not easy to render into proper Japanese, but here is a go at it:

Bangō XXXX no fumei-ki, chūi shi(te) kudasai. Watashi wa Chūgoku no kūgun desu.

Anata wa Chūka Jinmin Kyōwa Koku no bōkū shikibetsu ryōiki ni haitte iru.

Anata no kokuseki, ID to mokuteki o hyōmei shite kudasai.

Both the Chinese and the Japanese may be roughly rendered into English as:

Unidentified aircraft with the number XXX on its tail, please note: I am [a member of] the Chinese air force.

You have entered the Air Defense Identification Zone of the People's Republic of China.

Please indicate your nationality, identity, and purpose of your flight.

When I was in Leningrad during the bad old days of the Soviet Union, I was shown handbooks for policemen and KGB agents that were full of English written out in Cyrillic that sounded laughable, until I realized that it said things like "Put your hands behind your back so that I can handcuff you" and "Now step up into the paddy wagon."

[Thanks to Brendan O'Kane, Miki Morita, Karen Yang, and Nathan Hopson]


  1. Carl said,

    December 10, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

    Wouldn’t pilots all be trained in English? Seems like a joke to me.

  2. KeithB said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    Air Force pilots may not be required to learn English, since they generally do not need to interact with international air controllers.

  3. Richard said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    If the Chinese pilots need to rely on these horrible phonetic transcriptions just to ask a question, how are they supposed to deal with the Japanese pilot's response?

  4. KeithB said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    Response? We don't need no stinking response! The whole thing is a giant "No Trespassing" sign.

  5. Paul said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    I know enough about Chinese to make sense of it, but I'm not good enough at spoken to pronounce it properly, so I decided to use my Mac's Chinese text-to-speech to have it read to me. While I realize it's not quite as natural as a native speaker, it's enough to show that it's a spotty representation at best. Even having prepped by reading the Japanese transcriptions below, I still had to strain to make sense of it at times. I can only imagine what a Japanese pilot would be thinking to hear it over his radio…

  6. Matt said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    One notable (if predictable) thing about the translation is that it seems to default to using the Chinese vocabulary where it also exists in Japanese, even if the meaning has diverged.

    For example, I'm not sure that you can say "不明機" (fumeiki, "unknown [air]craft") in Japanese; at any rate it's far more common to use a more specific term like 国籍不明機 (kokuseki fumeiki, "nationality-unknown aircraft").

    Or to take another example, 注意してください (chui shite kudasai) is really closer to "be careful" than "please take note" in Japanese, although admittedly there might be a specialized usage in military communication that I don't know about.

    Interestingly, 身份 (identity) has become "ID". Could this be because the closest Japanese equivalent would be 身分, written with a different second character and therefore not an exact match?

  7. Cordell said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 2:22 am

    I'd be delighted to see the Soviet English phrasebooks, if they exist somewhere online.

  8. Gordon said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

    I agree with the view that this is all some sort of a hoax. Why would the Beijing authorities bother with a clumsy transcription of Japanese into sinograms, when they already have available a simple phonetic system they all learned in school and have continued to encounter in active life ever since, namely the Latin alphabet? Remember, we're not talking about Slavic slobs here, or even newly minted ROTC second johns; pilots assigned to the oversea area claimed by Beijing will be picked carefully. They may not speak foreign languages, but they'll be able to pronounce romaji, at least approximately.

    The Hepburn romanization of Japanese is not phonetically so far from pinyin as to cause trouble; it doesn't use X or Q, and as for the Japanese R, the Chinese woud probably just replace it with L anyway. The time saved from making up pseudo-Chinese phonetics could be put into recording the Japanese-language announcements for aural practice.

    Whoever faked this up had enough time and background to make it look good at first sight but not enough to think through the implications–a common theme with hoaxers.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 8:55 pm


    Your ethnic / racist slur against Slavs is crudely gratuitous and does nothing to help you make your point. In fact, even your main point about using Pinyin (romanization) to represent non-Sinitic, non-English languages itself is not well taken. Using sinograms to transcribe foreign languages is still widespread in China. My father-in-law, who was an instructor in the Chinese air force, had notebooks full of it, you can buy published language handbooks with English written out this way (I have one in my office), and so forth.

    Cf. "Spelling" English in Cantonese"


    Also "English tips from Li Yang, noted wife-beater and pedagogue"


  10. Gordon said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    Thank you, Victor. I apologize for calling the KGB Slavic slobs. Please replace the term with "Socialist brothers."

    Your information on the use of sinograms is both interesting and surprising. More than a hundred years after the revolution, with alphabets impinging on China on all sides, with pinyin taught in the schools, with only 26 characters to add to thousands, it's still easier for many educated people there to represent other languages syllabically! Even English with its notorious consonant clusters!

    Other than familiarity, is there anything sinograms add that romaji woudl lack–tones, perhaps? And do you think, then, that the supposed warning sentences are the real thing?

  11. Gordon said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    Another note on the transcriptions above: the Chinese pilot uses the first-person pronoun "watashi." When I was in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, that would be a woman talking, or a GI who had learned from a woman. Surely idiomatic Japanese would require something more general, e.g. "Kochira wa . . ." meaning "This person / these people here" (are from the Chinese air force).

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

    And thank you, Gordon, for taking my criticism in good spirit.

    I think you're right that familiarity is the one thing the sinograms have going for them in the matter of representing foreign languages by non-linguists. Would that Pinyin (Romanization) were more widely used in China for such things. This is a goal that I personally, together with many of my Chinese and Western colleagues and friends, have been struggling toward for decades. But there is an innate conservatism and a strong sense that Romanization is foreign, and thus not to be popularized too extensively, which inhibit its spread beyond pedagogy for beginners. The big changes that are making familiarity with the alphabet more compelling now, though, are the rush to learn English on the part of practically the whole country and the overwhelming preference for using Pinyin to input characters into electronic information processing and transmission devices (computers, cell phones, etc.).

    As for whether the Japanese warning sentences rendered in Chinese characters are genuine or not, I really can't say for sure one way or the other. However, if they are a hoax, then it is an elaborate one that required a considerable amount of effort. Also, I don't see anything about the sheet reproduced above that unmistakably lòumǎjiǎo 露馬腳 ("reveals the hand [of the hoaxer]; lets the cat out of the bag").

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