For sports fans, when the Japanese women’s volleyball team played their Chinese rivals for the bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics, it culminated in an amazing Olympics for volleyball in Asia. However, for language fans like myself, the one thing that was as exciting as the game was the outfit worn by the Japanese athletes: their outfits said ‘Nippon’ instead of ‘Japan’.
The choice to wear Nippon shirts resulted in an influx of queries to the Japanese volleyball association about why Japan had chosen this name. However, for people living in Japan, this may seem strange. After all, Japan is an Anglicized version of Japan’s name: Nihon or Nippon and is rarely used by Japanese speaking their native language. It raises the question: why are the names of the country so different?
The early names for Japan
While Japanese people usually refer to their country as Nihon or Nippon these days, in early texts, the names Oyashima (mother island) or Yamato (which was written with the Chinese characters for great and wa, see below) were used. However, even in those early days, there is evidence that Japan had other names in other countries such as Wakoku (a name for identifying Japan at the time) by the Chinese.
The origin of the “wa” in Wakoku is hotly debated. The most likely theory is that the Japanese words waga (oneself) and ware (ourself) formed it.
In the West around the 14th century, Japan was likely going by “the noble island of Chipangu,” which was given to it by none other than the famous explorer Marco Polo. Although it seems likely that Chipangu was Japan, it is not confirmed as Marco Polo included some very fanciful tales about these isles including the presence of rhinos, cannibalistic natives and private houses made of gold.
How the name came to be Japan
Around 700-800 AD, these early names became Nihon (日に本ほん) in Japan, which is made up of the Chinese characters for sun (日ひ) and origin (本もと). Again, there are many theories about what prompted this change, including that Japan was named after the sun god Amaterasu, because Japan is located east of its Chinese neighbor and for Chinese trade purposes.
While “Nihon” may sound nothing like “Japan,” the mystery becomes a little clearer if we look at the other languages around the time. As Japan has historically been a closed country and difficult to travel to because of its numerous typhoons, Western sailors would have likely got the name of the country from people that traded with the Japanese rather than directly from Japanese people.
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