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Why is Japan called ‘Japan’ and not ‘Nihon?’

13 Comments
By Matthew Coslett

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

YokohamaForeignTradersSadahide1861.jpg
Foreign traders in Yokohama Photo: Utagawa Sadahide, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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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According to the ~1977 American Heritage Dictionary, "Japan" comes from the Chinese "Jih-pen", which translate to "(Land of the) Rising Sun". According to the website, Dictionary.com, this word was first record ~1605-1615 A.D., https://www.dictionary.com/browse/japan

Also from American Heritage Dictionary, "Nihon" is also from Ancient Chinese, "ni" the sun, and "hon" source.

Perhaps during the Heian period, 794-1185, AD. See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Japan

8 ( +9 / -1 )

The Nihon/Nippon thing was always a little weird. 'Nippon' on the stamps but 'Nihon' in speech.

But when you have tried to explain the 'United Kingdom', 'Great Britain', 'England', 'British', 'English' thing to someone who is absolutely certain that you are American and who doesn't speak a whole lot of your language, several dozen times, 'Nippon'/'Nihon' issues seem tame.

11 ( +13 / -2 )

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.

I've always loved the name Yamato. I remember as a young lad watching the anime Be Forever Yamato

and falling in love with Japan.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

'It seems likely that this name came into the English language from the Italians as Gaipan appears in an English travel book published in 1577, “The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies and other Countreys Lying Eyther Way Towardes the Fruitfull and Ryche Moluccaes.” Given that the Italian “Gi” sounds like “J” to non-native ears, it is unsurprising that the English swapped “Gi” for “J” resulting in “Japan.”'

Very interesting. I always wondered about that.

As a side note, I have the impression that there is a difference between the use of "Nippon" and "Nihon" in Japan, where the first carries denotations and connotations of old imperialist Japan and the latter is used for post-war Japan... If the impression is accurate, then the use of "Nippon" on Japanese sports shirts while competing with Chinese athletes would be understandably alarming.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Nihon-jin. Nihonjin.

Around the 7th or 8th century Japan’s name changed from ‘Wakoku’ (倭国) to ‘Nihon’ (日本). Some records say that the Japanese envoy to China requested to change the name because he disliked it other records say that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered Japan to change its name.

Why Is Nihon Called Japan In English?

https://youtu.be/QXLwJqZ7b9M

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Some things are interesting to question, but easier just to accept. Why do English speakers say Italy, but Italians "Italia"? I say Lisbon, but Portuguese say Lisboa. I say Moscow, but Russians might say Moskva. Before the normalization of diplomatic relations, we said Peking, but now we say Beijing.

And so on.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

What a 'merry-go-round-and-round' to explain why Japan is not called Nihon! It's so simple to just say 1+2=3 !

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

According to the ~1977 American Heritage Dictionary, "Japan" comes from the Chinese "Jih-pen"

I believe it is this. Beijing used to be called Peking because of the Wade Giles system of romanizing the Mandarin. The Wade Giles has Peking: Beijing and Jihpen: Riben...Jihpen then became Japan.

In other words, when call it "Japan", it's like saying Peking for Beijing....very outdated.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I'm surprised the King of Na gold seal (漢委奴国王印) was not included in the discussion. It is the earliest record and physical evidence of Japanese and Chinese relations from the Chinese Han Dynasty in the 1st Century CE. Na likely does only refer to an area of Kyushu and not all of Japan as there was no centralized state in Japan at that time as far as we know. . Of course the character Na doesn't have a nice meaning either but this is part of history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_of_Na_gold_seal

0 ( +0 / -0 )

大日本帝国 was the designation of the Empire of Japan under the Meiji government and the Meiji constitution. Dainippon (大日本)was in use until the end of the Second World War, when a new constitituon was ensconced upon Japan during the Allied Occupation of Japan, and the new constitution was entitled the 日本国憲法 and replaced the 大日本帝国憲法 from the Meiji era. It was at this time that the world started referring to Japan as Nihon rather than Dainippon. With the 大 at the beginning, dai meaning large or great, we can see similarities with the Great in Great Britian, and be reminded of the imperial nature of both Japan and Britian.

This may be irrelevant to today's generations, but for those of us who remember the death of Showa Tenno, there are similarities to the "to hell with Hirohito, he finally died" sentiment that some older people who remembered the second world war and POW atrocities with the anti-empire and anti-colonial sentiment of some of those who feel that Elizabeth Rex represented the continuation of the colonizations of Britian from before the second world war over the British Empire, upon which the sun never set. I hold Showa Tenno and Queen Elizabeth in high regard, and found their personal lives as great examples of courage and individuality as I was growing up. I am curious to find out how the future generations of the imperial families add to the prestige of these historical families and how long before either Japan or Great Britian do away with their respective imperial families.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

According to the ~1977 American Heritage Dictionary, "Japan" comes from the Chinese "Jih-pen", which translate to "(Land of the) Rising Sun". According to the website, Dictionary.com, this word was first record ~1605-1615 A.D., https://www.dictionary.com/browse/japan

Perhaps we could have just had this rather than an article that told us nothing about the etymology of "Japan".

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.

I was led to believe it came from 和 as in peace / harmony / Japanese. Did this come about later?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

we can see similarities with the Great in Great Britian, and be reminded of the imperial nature of both Japan and Britian.

The 'Great' in Great Britain is because it is the largest (greatest) island of the British isles (hence the country being called Great Britain & Northern Ireland) and I would be pretty sure that is what Japan was referring to as well with Dainippon, rather than "we're great!" which is the common misconception. It has nothing to do with imperialism itself.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Japanese officials seem to prefer Nippon to Nihon while both Nihon and Nippon are commonly used on the street. They have never decided which one should be official.

A bit more complicated or inconsistent are Japanese references to the name of foreign countries. It looks like Japan respects the way they call themselves in their languages, but there are many exceptions. Germany is called ドイツin Japanese though Austria is オーストリア, not エスターライヒ (and it gets confused with Australia オーストラリア :))

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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