In Japanese, most countries' names are written using katakana. This is convenient because for the most part, all you have to do is imagine how you would say a country's name in a thick Japanese accent, and you've got it. Case in point:
Fool's World Map by Chakuriki
But there is another system of naming countries that's more complex and uses kanji instead. This is the old system and today it's usually not used for naming most countries, but makes its appearance in country-related vocabulary words.
Asian country names
For Asian countries that use Chinese characters, Japanese uses kanji. For example, China is Chuugoku (中国), and not Chaina (チャイナ). The same goes for other places like Taiwan (台湾 - Taiwan), Kankoku (韓国 – South Korea) and Honkon (香港 – Hong Kong).
For North Korea, Japanese uses Kitachousen (北朝鮮). There is some controversy here because this actually means something like 'the northern part of the Korean peninsula.' The controversy arises from the fact that the North Koreans feel this name doesn't recognize their country as a real nation.
It's all phonetic
Other kanji country names are also taken from the Chinese. Although the characters have meanings, these meanings are not connected to the particular country. They're used for phonetic reasons.
Today, both the United Kingdom and England are referred to as Igirisu (イギリス). The old name was Eikoku (英国). The ei (英) means something like 'outstanding' or 'excellent.' This isn't because it was the country of knights and kings, but simply because of phonetics. The old name is still used to refer to the language of the country, eigo (英語 – English).
To further illustrate that these kanji are used for phonetic reasons only, consider that France is futsu (仏 – Buddha), the abbreviation for India is in (印 – seal or stamp) and Germany gets the sad name doitsu (独逸 – alone).
The Rice Country
The United States was originally called Beikoku (米国), which is somewhat odd considering that bei (米) means rice. Is the United States the rice country? Shouldn't the United States be the steak country or the Cheetos country?
The reason is that Beikoku is a shortening of the Chinese phonetic transliteration of 'America' -亜米利加. The second character is pronounced mei in the original Chinese but bei in Japanese (this kanji can be read as bei or mei in Japanese).
How old kanji names are used
Although today countries are written using katakana transliterations like Mekishiko (メキシコ – Mexico) and Burajiru (ブラジル – Brazil), the old kanji names still make appearances sometimes. They're used as abbreviations for the countries to which they refer.
Bei is still used to refer to some American things, such as beigun (米軍 - US armed forces), koubei (向米 – pro-American) and beinyuusu (米ニュース – American news media). Nichifutsu (日仏 – Japanese-French), ei-doku (英独 – Britain and Germany), nichi-in (日印 – Japanese-Indian) and similar words are used to refer to international relations.
You'll also see them in other vocabulary that refers to other countries like chuudoku (駐独 – stationed in Germany), futsu-bungaku (仏文学 – French literature), and ei-ton (英トン – an English ton).
Where are the promised country names?!
Last but not least, if you came here for a simple list of country names in Japanese and are getting bored by all the kanji, listen to the video below to learn how to read and write the country you’re from!