A trope unique to the Japanese Language, due to the unique linguistic history of Japan.
While Japan has an indigenous language, it has no indigenous writing system. So when it voluntarily adopted the Chinese language in the seventh century, they were faced with two parallel sets of spoken vocabulary with only one set of writing system, i.e. kanji. And they didn't want any of the three to disappear.
To make things simple for the audience, the result of this is: kanji is taken for the meaning value only, as usual, and two parallel sets of rules were developed for the pronunciation: the on'yomi that plots to the Chinese pronunciation(s) of the kanji, and the kun'yomi that plots to the indigenous Japanese pronunciation(s) for the same idea. Moreover, Japanese for the most part dropped the tonal aspect from the (in)famously homophonous Chinese language.
What Japanese also learned from the Chinese was to have names that are usually written in kanji and tend to have obvious or straightforward meanings, and the meanings can change depending on which kanji are used to write them.
These two things results in numerous Alternate Character Readings, and can easily create things that sound like one thing, but can be read as something completely different. Complicating matters beyond that, Japanese also has two phonetic (syllabic) scripts -- one of which is used mostly for foreign words -- that can be used to spell names in a way that obscures their specific meanings and opens them up to multiple interpretations.
This is why the pronunciation of most Japanese words is not easily gleaned from how they are written. Usually, words are written in kanji (Chinese characters), which often have multiple pronunciations depending on context. Therefore, phonetic glosses called furigana are often provided in smaller characters next to the kanji. This invariably happens for names (whose pronunciations are notoriously idiosyncratic--some kanji have special readings only used in names) and terms with infrequently-used kanji. Publications for younger readers will often gloss common words as well.
Sometimes, the gloss will show a non-standard reading or another kanji, usually to clarify or highlight a particular nuance the author wishes to convey. This technique dates back to the Man'yōshū and Kojiki, and was very common among Edo period writers (mixing and matching Chinese words to Japanese glosses) and Meiji writers (mixing and matching Sino-Japanese words to recently borrowed Western glosses). A few common examples:
- Making puns by giving the kanji for one word and a reading corresponding to a different one. This is known as ateji.
- Glossing semantic compounds made from Chinese characters with a reading borrowed from another language.
- Identifying the person being referred to with a pronoun such as "I" or "he," much like video games with voice acting and custom character names may have "you" in the audio and the assigned name of the character in subtitle text.
- Writing jikan (時間, meaning "a span of time") with the furigana toki (usually just 時, meaning "a specific moment in time").
- Sometimes the furigana will be an English word in katakana, most likely as Rule of Cool. (e.g. スマイル sumairu for 笑顔 egao), both meaning "smile".
The subtle nuances that can be achieved with the use of an alternate reading are almost always Lost in Translation. On the flip side, alternate readings are frequently used when adapting something from English to Japanese in order to retain English names or puns.
A handful of Chinese characters actually possess multiple readings in Chinese itself, but this is rarely drawn on for puns. Interestingly, as Japanese adopted Chinese characters in the 7th century CE, they've preserved the pronounciation of a lot of Chinese as it was spoken back then. For this reason, Japanese is very useful for linguists trying to reconstruct Middle Chinese.
Not to be confused with Alternate Character Interpretation.
Anime and Manga
- Inverted in Air Gear: two characters are both named Sora Takeuchi, but one is written using the kanji for "sky" while the other is written using the kanji for "space".
- Two major characters of the Area 88 TV series, Kazama Shin and Shinjo Makoto, have names written identically in kanji. They comment on this when they first meet.
- In Aria, the title for a professional undine, as opposed to a trainee, is written with kanji meaning "to become an adult" and furigana indicating the pronunciation "purima" or "Prima".
- Azumanga Daioh:
- One strip has a quick joke about Kagura misreading "Iriomote" as "Nishihyou".
- The case of Iriomote is a strange example or a cross-language Alternate Character Reading, as the kanji used to write Iriomote (which would be pronunced as Nishihyou under on-yomi) is the kun-yomi for West Island... through Okinawan.
- During one scene in the anime the class remarks on the beauty of the "sea of clouds" ("kumo'umi") during a plane ride. Yukari tells them that phrase is usually pronounced "unkai" and promises to drill them on kanji reading after the trip.
- One strip has a quick joke about Kagura misreading "Iriomote" as "Nishihyou".
- In Bakuman｡, Mashiro's classmates often call him "Saikou", which is an alternative reading of his name "Moritaka". His new friend and partner Takagi also keeps calling him this way, and when Mashiro gets annoyed of this, he starts calling Takagi "Shuujin", which is an alternative reading of Takagi's name "Akito".
- Some of Takagi's friends call him "Shuuto", which is yet another way of reading "Akito"
- In Bleach, arrancar techniques and zanpakuto are given kanji spellings and Gratuitous Spanish readings (ditto for Quincy terminology, but in Gratuitous German). For a couple examples, we have Nnoitra's zanpakuto; kanji for "sacred crying mantis" are pronounced "Santateresa" (Spanish for Saint Teresa, also a term for mantises). Starrk's release is pronounced Los Lobos ("the wolves") and written with kanji meaning "wolf pack." Japanese names aren't immune, either. Uryuu's name (meaning "rain dragon") is a nonstandard reading; when Ichigo first saw it in writing, he pronounced it "Ametatsu."
- Canaan's episode titles use typical pronunciations, but are written with unusual kanji: one episode with a title pronounced "Friend" is written with the character for "light" in its place, while "Seasonal Train" uses kanji meaning approximately "mourning the murdered" instead of the normal one for "season." This even carries over to its sole English episode title--"Love & Piece" deliberately swaps out "peace" for a double meaning.
- The Crest of the Stars novels and their sequels use this to give the artificial language Baronh. The meaning is given with the kanji and the Baronh pronunciation is given with the furigana. The English translations just had very large glossaries.
- The main character of The Day of Revolution goes from Kei to Megumi by reading his name differently. This is one of the clues his old buddies use to figure it out.
- Death Note: The main character is called Light, in English, but the kanji is Tsuki (月), which means moon. Raito written with "moon" is actually a real name outside of the series, but it's rare, and feminine at that. But why the hell not, you get a Meaningful Name out of the deal, since the kanji for tsuki has four strokes and Light Is Not Good.
- The kanji for moon actually has lots of interesting name readings, such as Aporo ("Apollo"), Arute ("Arte"mis), Runa ("Luna"), and Mūn (not even creative there, that's just "Moon").
- Detective Conan. Heck, where to start? This kind of thing happens all the time, with clues and "dying messages" occasionally being misinterpreted when first encountered, or that these need to be read a different way to be fully understood, which is often intentional on the victims' (or even killers') part to keep others from figuring it out before hand. Not to mention that they usually have 2-3 puns per episode.
- In Moonlight Sonata, Seiji Asai lived as a female doctor on the Tsukukage Island for two years and when Conan pulled the thread, locals were surprised about his actual gender. How could he pull that out? First, the looks, and second, he didn't even need to change the papers but merely changed how the name 成実 is pronounced-- he switched from the masculine on-yomi reading Seiji to the feminine kun-yomi reading Narumi.
- There was a case when a Sonoko and Ran asked the name of a TV producer in person, the answer was the kana for Hozumi-- that was because his actual surname was 八月一日, which is usually understood as "First of August" and would be hard to understand the reading that led to his naming.
- Played with in Dragon Ball when the Tenkaichi Budokai announcer mispronounced Son Goku's name as "Mago Gosora" the first time he reads it. At the next tournament, he misreads Chaozu's name as "Gyoza".
- In Eyeshield 21 the kanji for "kuso" (shit) has "fakkin (fucking)" as its furigana. Also, when Sena sees Taro Raimon's name on the roster for the baseball team (as "Raimon Taro"), he misreads it as "Kaminari Montaro", leading to his being nicknamed "Monta".
- The title kanji for Full Moon wo Sagashite, 満月, are pronounced as their English meaning "furu muun". While referring to Mitsuki's alter-ego, the same kanji are read as her first name and as "mangetsu", the term for a full moon.
- In the Hokuto no Ken manga, the kanji 強敵 (normally read as kyouteki or "fierce adversary") is given the reading tomo (とも), which the Japanese word for "friend", which serves to indicate that not all of Kenshiro's adversaries aren't bitter enemies, but more like equal rivals.
- In GetBackers, The Professor mentions "time," foreshadowing the last arc, "Get Back the Lost Time". It was written with the kanji "engraved," with the "time" reading over it, meaning time that is engraved or fate. Both the English and French translations went with "time".
- In the original Grenadier manga, furigana are used constantly to give foreigh pronunciations to given sets of kanji, despite the fact that this is (supposedly) set during the Japanese sengoku period.
- A central plot element in Haibane Renmei, coinciding with Meaningful Line-of-Sight Name.
- The title of the Harukanaru Toki no Naka de franchise has the word "time" (toki, normally written as 時) rendered with two kanji that mean "time-space" (時空, normally read jikuu). This is because the plot Haruka is based around isn't strictly a Time Travel, but rather a Trapped in Another World scenario, where "another world" happens to resemble Heian-kyou. The same trick with toki is occasionally used in the songs, though naturally you'll only realise it when you read the lyrics.
- Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple: Hermit's name is written as "haamitto" when written with katakana. When written with kanji characters, it's "inja" (which, of course, means "hermit"), but the furigana for these kanji is still "haamitto" in katakana.
- Konjiki no Gash Bell plays with this from time to time. One episode had part of the title translating roughly to "Searching for the Light", but the kanji given for light was actually the word "shouki" which means "way to victory", with "hikari" (light) given in the furigana.
- Living Game has Hiyama Izumi, a young girl (around high school age) whose given name is written with kanji that can be read as Ikkaku, apparently a male-sounding name
- In the Mahou Sensei Negima manga, the spells are written in kanji, with the Latin pronunciation in furigana. The anime replicates this by usually having the characters say the Japanese reading while the foreign pronunciation is said simultaneously in an echoey and quieter back track.
- The title which Negi is after is usually written with the kanji "great magic-user", but given the gloss "Magister Magi". The pronoun variant of the trope has also happened in the manga.
- Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro does this an awful lot; for one, we've got episode names. They're all one kanji long, but have interesting readings--for example, the kanji for "hair" is read as "a long friend." There are also a few character names; for example, "X" being read as "Sai."
- Minami-ke uses Kana's misreading of the kanji for "underworld" as a harmless place name for a quick gag.
- Kinoko Nasu loves this. Almost every single term in his stories is written with kanji and furigana to give a double meaning to every single thing. This even applies to the ending songs for the anime adaptation of Kara no Kyoukai, where non-standard kanji are given for lyrics in the liner notes.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion has the, uh, structure that gives Angels unlimited power, which due to the kanji used can be translated either as "S2 Engine" or "S2 Organ." The ambiguity helps to ramp up the Angels' weirdness levels.
- One Piece makes frequent use of this for the sake of puns. Also, since Oda often uses uses multiple languages in characters' attack names, we'll often see the kanji for the attacks' meaning with katakana giving the foreign pronunciation.
- In Prince Of Tennis, Kintarou calls Echizen "Koshimae" as that is the alternative reading for Echizen
- The Sailor Moon manga was fond of this. Attack names would often be given in kanji but the furigana would be English words written in katakana.
- This is played in the live-action series as well. In an early episode, Usagi finds a card dropped by Mamoru Chiba and reads his name as "Ei Chijo" (she was reading the alternate pronounciation of each kanji). As we know, she only got the "Chi" right.
- A common trait across adaptations is that Usagi is awful when it comes to kanji, whether reading or writing it. Here's an example from the last episode of the third season, written by her future self aka Neo Queen Serenity. Since the puns were obviously hard to translate, dubs tend to say that the letter has grammar/writing mistakes and/or bad handwriting.
- Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei relies on alternate readings for many of its name puns. The title character's family suffers to a great extent of what happens when the characters for their surname are combined into a single character.
- In "The Cat That Was Told a Million Times", one of the people he sympathizes with after his own name is made fun of is named Mitarai, which is written 御手洗, or the same as "toilet".
- Seto no Hanayome uses this a lot, most notably accompanying the recurring quote "Written as Mermaid (Ningyo)... Read as Chivalry (Ninkyo)!"
- Sora no Otoshimono uses this tactic in its episode titles. A good example is episode two, which has the kanji for "rainbow-colored underwear" (it makes more sense in the episode) read as "romance".
- The Spiral manga plays with this and Gratuitous English, but only with characters who actually grew up in England, so it makes sense for them to speak English to each other. Eyes once calls Kanone "brother", using the Japanese kanji with furigana of the English pronunciation; and in the sequel Spiral Alive, Kanone says "Are you ready?" in English print with furigana giving the pronunciation, but not translating the meaning.
- In Spirited Away, Yubaba changes Chihiro's name to "Sen" by taking its first kanji character which means "thousand" and changing it from the archaic pronunciation "chi" to the canonical pronunciation "sen" (which is of Chinese origin), thus emphasizing its numerical meaning.
- Early in Tales of Hearts, "kokoro" (heart) is identified once with furigana for "Spiria". Not to change the pronunciation of the kanji, as it's pronounced normally throughout the game otherwise, but to equate the two concepts. As a better example, the two planets (Serurando/Kuootia) and their races (Serureido/Kuooto) are written with the kanji for "simple world/people" and "crystal world/people".
- Played in the opposite way by Osamu Tezuka's Reused Character Design. When his famous characters appeared in different works, he would often use names that were phoenetically identical to their previous incarnations, but using completely different kanji.
- A Certain Magical Index (とある魔術の禁書目録) and its spinoff series A Certain Scientific Railgun (とある科学の超電磁砲) have alternate readings in their titles themselves--kanji that would normally be read "kinshomokuroku" and "choudenjibou" are given the pronunciations "index" and "railgun," respectively. This applies to many of Index's episode titles as well; for example, one episode has "Witch-Hunting King" in kanji and "Innocentius" in katakana.
- How about "ippotsuko" in kanji and "Accelerator" in katakana?
- All of the Ushiromiya family's given names in Umineko no Naku Koro ni (not counting the spouses) have Western names written in Kanji. There are two variations on this. The first is picking meaningful kanji and then using its direct translation as its spoken form. Exmaple of that would be "戦人" which becomes Battler (Batorā) rather than a Japanese reading such as Sento, which is lampshaded in the airport scene in the sound novel for EP 1. The second variation would be picking a desired Western name, and then finding whatever suitable kanji that fits the pronunciation. Example would be Jessica.
- Urusei Yatsura: The monk 錯乱坊 insists his name be pronounced "Cherry", rather than "Sakuranbou" (the kanji literally read as "deranged monk", but is a homonym for cherry blossoms).
- ×××HOLiC: Watanuki's name is based on an alternate reading of April 1. 
- In Yo-Jin-Bo, Bo's nickname is based on an alternate reading of his proper name, Tainojo. He says in his introduction that the alternate reading annoys him, but never has any trouble with anyone else calling him "Bo", and in fact in a later conversation with him, he even tells you it's okay to continue calling him such.
- In Working!!, Souta's last name is pronounced Takanashi (which can mean "no hawks"), but is written with the kanji for "little birds playing" (小鳥遊).
- The same play on words occurs with Yomi Takanashi's family name in Black★Rock Shooter.
- This seems to be becoming a Running Gag in Gate 7 where Takamoto is concerned. Many names of places, organizations, are pronounced like already-familiar Japanese terms, but are spelled with completely different kanji (this is done by using alternate readings of said kanji). The comedy is that Takamoto keeps assuming that everyone is using the usual kanji for the pronunciation (even when it might imply something crude or dirty)--Hilarity Ensues.
- In Episode 15 of The Idolmaster, Yayoi mispronounces 行楽日和 (ideal weather for an outing), normally pronounced "kouraku biyori", as "gyouraku biwa", and 山間部 (mountainous region), normally pronounced "sankanbu", as "yamamabe". Iori has to correct her - during a live broadcast, no less.
- Something of an important plot point in Maze Megaburst Space regarding how the title character got his/her name. Mei's brother Akira has a name that with an Alternate Character Reading can also be read as 'mei' Thus the two get the nickname Meis which after their Fusion Dance morphs into Maze.
- Furigana are used in the Japanese translation of Harry Potter in order to adapt the English puns, according to this site.
- Kamikishiro from "Boogiepop Doesn't Laugh" likes to do this with people's names and calls Touka "Fuji."
- Dai Majin Kanon used this as part of its Idiosyncratic Episode Naming so that, while every episode title had a different meaning, all were read as "Kanon."
- In Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, Sosuke (Go-On Red) refers to Gai (Gokai Silver) as "Yoroi", which reveals the Stealth Pun behind his name.
- Numbers up to 10 in Japanese all have at least two readings: The native Japanese words (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, ...) and the more well-known Sino-Japanese words (ichi, ni, san, ...). These, sometimes combined with the English words for numbers, are often warped and used as mnemonics to remember long numbers, such as phone numbers or entrance exam IDs, or sometimes the process is done in reverse, as sort of a Japanese form of Leet Speak. Example: 4649 for yoroshiku, 4 (yo) 6 (ro[ku]), 4 (shi), 9 (ku).
- Many gaijin interested in Japanese media use 39 or 3Q to mean "thank you", as "san ku" or "san kyu".
- This was used as a pun for the name of a Vocaloid concert. "39's (mi-ku's) Giving Day (like Thanksgiving)"
- The numbers 4 and 9 are often pronounced "yon" and "kyu" instead of "shi" and "ku" in Japan since the latter examples sound identical to the characters for death and suffering respectively, similar to how the number 13 is considered unlucky in Western culture.
- Many gaijin interested in Japanese media use 39 or 3Q to mean "thank you", as "san ku" or "san kyu".
- Courtesy of a major Japanese life insurer, the top boy's name in 2010, as written, was 大翔. However, they also noted different parents gave the same name different pronunciations, including Hiroto, Haruto, Yamato, Tiga (Tiger), Sora, Taito, Daito, and Masato. See here.
- Also because of this trope, the entire survey results has to be broken into "top names as written" and "top names as pronounced," and further broken down into "top names as written--how are they pronounced" and "top names as pronounced--how are they written"...
- As noted above, there are a few characters that have multiple readings in Chinese itself. One example is 行, which has at least three different Mandarin pronunciations depending on its meaning, at least four in Cantonese.
- Cases 2-1 and 3-5 in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games used this as a plot device, the former because the criminal used the wrong kanji combination for the defendant's surname (defendant has a non-standard combo, criminal incorrectly assumed the standard one) and the latter because an eight-year old misinterpreted Kanji written instructions. These were changed to spelling problems in the English version.
- Keine Kamishirasawa of the Touhou series. Her name can also be read as "Ue-hakutaku", which is a pun of "were-hakutaku", which she is one of.
- A common joke for Hong Meiling is to read her name in Japanese as Kurenai Misuzu. That's when she's lucky. Usually, she's just China.
- Reisen Udongein Inaba has spell cards which enforce this. Her spell cards have both a Kanji spelling, and a Katakana pronunciation given after the Kanji. These result in entirely different phrases. For example, her first spell can be read as either "Mind Shaker" or "Lunatic Red Eyes". Strangely, when you go to Hard and Lunatic mode, only the former changes its name. So in Lunatic mode, the same spell is called "Mind Blowing" or "Lunatic Red Eyes".
- The title of Salamander is written with a contrived set of kanji that can be interpreted as "sand gauze wide (or beautiful) snake."
- This the reason protagonist Syouko of Aoi Shiro calls Kaya "Natsu" (or "Natchan"). The first character for Kaya's name is the kanji for 'summer,' which when used on its own is pronounced Natsu. It's mentioned in passing that Syouko's grandmother did something similar with the kanji for spring in her name.
- Invoked in Syukusho Gakuen. The Big Bad is named Miku, which is an alternate reading for mirai (future). She's a time traveller.
- In Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side 2, Mizushima Hisoka's given name is written with the character for "secret" (himitsu). Having the player character call her "Himitsu-chan" gets a displeased reaction.
- The Japanese title of the game Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is "manken" (漫研), which is short for "manzai kenkyuubu" (漫才研究部, rough translation: "comedy research club"). From the shortened title alone, some Japanese readers may see the kanji and think that it's short for "manga kenkyuubu" (漫画研究部, "manga research club"). One of the jokes has one of the characters do just that - when the protagonist Mairu (Miley in the English version of the game) mentions that she's trying to start a club for comics, one of her friends assumes she's talking about "sit-down" comics and not "stand-up" comics.
- Translation: "Um, Mr. Mago Gosora..." "Isn't it 'Son Goku'?" "Huh?"
- Hozumi is literally "picking ears of grain"-- and the said date, commonly considered as the beginning of the harvesting season, is sometime remembered as the day when ears of grain are picked.
- to keep from ticking him off, Hiruma covers it up by claiming it comes from Joe Montana
- roughly meaning "Within the expance of distant time"
- It isn't clear whether there's actually any time shift or not, since the world appears to have an independant timeline, and explicit mention are made about "crossing time and space"
- The term "April 1" in Japanese referred to the first day of the fourth Chinese month, which would be in May in the Georgian calendar--perfect time to change to thinner clothing. Watanuki is literally 綿抜き--"pulling out cotton (filling from the coats)." Hence the reading.
- His first name means armor, and his surname "Ikari" means anchor; Gai's Super Mode is a suit of armor formed from an anchor-shaped Transformation Trinket
- This is a World Cup 2010 reference.
- "Sky." The kanji means "great flight"--note the creativity Japanese apply in this.