Names of Japan

Names of Japan

There are many names of Japan in the English, Japanese, and other languages. The word "Japan" (or "Japon") is an exonym, and is used (in one form or another) by a large number of languages. The Japanese names for Japan are Nippon (にっぽん About this sound listen ) and Nihon (にほん About this sound listen ). They are both written in Japanese using the kanji 日本. The Japanese name Nippon is used for most official purposes, including on Japanese money, postage stamps, and for many international sporting events. Nihon is a more casual term and the most frequently used in contemporary speech.



Cipangu on the 1453 Fra Mauro map, the first known Western depiction of the island.

Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean "the sun's origin", that is, where the sun originates,[1] and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan's eastward position relative to China. Before Nihon came into official use, Japan was known as Wa (?) or Wakoku (倭国?).[2] Wa was a name early China used to refer to an ethnic group living in Japan around the time of the Three Kingdoms Period.

Although the etymological origins of Wa remain uncertain, Chinese historical texts recorded an ancient people residing in the Japanese archipelago (perhaps Kyūshū), named something like *ʼWâ or *ʼWər 倭. Carr (1992:9–10) surveys prevalent proposals for Wa's etymology ranging from feasible (transcribing Japanese first-person pronouns waga 我が "my; our" and ware 我 "I; we; oneself") to shameful (writing Japanese Wa as 倭 implying "dwarf"), and summarizes interpretations for *ʼWâ "Japanese" into variations on two etymologies: "behaviorally 'submissive' or physically 'short'." The first "submissive; obedient" explanation began with the (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi dictionary. It defines 倭 as shùnmào 順皃 "obedient/submissive/docile appearance", graphically explains the "person; human' radical with a wěi 委 "bent" phonetic, and quotes the above Shi Jing poem. "Conceivably, when Chinese first met Japanese," Carr (1992:9) suggests "they transcribed Wa as *ʼWâ 'bent back' signifying 'compliant' bowing/obeisance. Bowing is noted in early historical references to Japan." Examples include "Respect is shown by squatting" (Hou Han Shu, tr. Tsunoda 1951:2), and "they either squat or kneel, with both hands on the ground. This is the way they show respect." (Wei Zhi, tr. Tsunoda 1951:13). Koji Nakayama interprets wēi 逶 "winding" as "very far away" and euphemistically translates Wō 倭 as "separated from the continent."The second etymology of wō 倭 meaning "dwarf; short person" has possible cognates in ǎi 矮 "short person; midget, dwarf; low", wō 踒 "strain; sprain; bent legs", and wò 臥 "lie down; crouch; sit (animals and birds)". Early Chinese dynastic histories refer to a Zhūrúguó 侏儒國 "pygmy/dwarf country" located south of Japan, associated with possibly Okinawa Island or the Ryukyu Islands. Carr cites the historical precedence of construing Wa as "submissive people" and the "Country of Dwarfs" legend as evidence that the "little people" etymology was a secondary development.

Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes regularly wrote Wa or Yamato "Japan" with the Chinese character 倭 until the 8th century, when the Japanese found fault with it, replacing it with 和 "harmony, peace, balance". Retroactively, this character was adopted in Japan to refer to the country itself, often combined with the character 大, literally meaning "Great", much like the names used for many nations, to write the preexisting name Yamato (大和) (e.g., such as 大清帝國 Great Qing Empire, 大英帝國 Great British Empire). However, the pronunciation Yamato cannot be formed from the sounds of its constituent characters; it refers to a place in Japan and is speculated to originally mean "Mountain Gate" (山戸).[3] Other original names in Chinese texts include Yamatai country (邪馬台国), where a Queen Himiko lived. When hi no moto, the indigenous Japanese way of saying "sun's origin", was written in kanji, it was given the characters 日本. In time, these characters began to be read using pseudo-Chinese readings, first Nippon and later Nihon.

Nippon appeared in history only at the end of the 7th century. Old Book of Tang (舊唐書), one of the Twenty-Four Histories, stated that the Japanese envoy disliked his country's name Woguo (倭國), and changed it to Nippon (日本), or "Origin of the Sun". Another 8th-century chronicle, True Meaning of Shiji (史記正義), however, states that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered a Japanese envoy to change the country's name to Nippon.

Cipangu described on the 1492 Martin Behaim globe.

The English word for Japan came to the West from early trade routes. The early Mandarin Chinese or possibly Wu Chinese word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. The modern Shanghainese (呉語) (the Wu Chinese language or topolect) pronunciation of characters 日本 (Japan) is still Zeppen [zəʔpən]. The old Malay word for Japan, Jepang (modern spelling Jepun, although Indonesian has retained the older spelling), was borrowed from a Chinese language, and this Malay word was encountered by Portuguese traders in Malacca in the 16th century. It is thought the Portuguese traders were the first to bring the word to Europe. It was first recorded in English in 1577 spelled Giapan.

In English, the modern official title of the country is simply "Japan", one of the few nation-states to have no "long form" name. The official Japanese-language name is Nippon koku or Nihon koku (日本国), literally "Country of Japan".[4] From the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, the full title of Japan was the "Great Empire of Japan" (大日本帝國 Dai Nippon Teikoku). (A more poetic rendering of the name of Japan during this period was "Empire of the Sun.") The official name of the nation was changed after the adoption of the post-war constitution; the title "State of Japan" is sometimes used as a colloquial modern-day equivalent.

Though Nippon or Nihon are still by far the most popular names for Japan from within the country, recently the foreign words Japan and even Jipangu (from Cipangu, see below) have been used in Japanese mostly for the purpose of foreign branding.


Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan at the end of the 16th century. In the course of learning Japanese, they created several grammars and dictionaries of Middle Japanese. The 1603–1604 dictionary Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam contains two entries for Japan: nifon[5] and iippon.[6] The title of the dictionary (Vocabulary of the Language of Japan) illustrates that the Portuguese word for Japan was by that time Iapam.


Historically, Japanese /h/ has undergone a number of phonological changes. Originally *[p], this weakened into [ɸ] and eventually became the modern [h]. Note that modern /h/ is still pronounced [ɸ] when followed by /u/.

Middle Japanese nifon becomes Modern Japanese nihon via regular phonological changes.


Prior to modern styles of romanization, the Portuguese devised their own. In it, /zi/ is written as either ii or ji. In modern Hepburn style, iippon would be rendered as jippon. There are no historical phonological changes to take into account here.

Etymologically, jippon is similar to nippon in that it is an alternative reading of 日本. The initial kanji 日 may also be read as /ziti/ or /zitu/. Compounded with -fon (本), this regularly becomes jippon.

Unlike the nihon/nippon doublet, there is no evidence for a *jihon.

Nihon and Nippon

The Japanese name for Japan, 日本, can be pronounced either Nihon or Nippon. Both readings come from the on'yomi.

日 (nichi) means "sun" or "day"; 本 (hon) means "base" or "root". The compound means "base of the sun" or "sunrise" (from a Chinese point of view, the sun rises from Japan); it is of course a source for the popular Western description of Japan as the "Land of the Rising Sun".

Nichi, in compounds, often loses the final chi and creates a slight pause between the first and second syllables of the compound. When romanised, this pause is represented by a doubling of the first consonant of the second syllable; thus nichi 日 plus 光 (light) is written and pronounced nikkō, meaning sunlight. The initial consonant of non-initial syllables in compounds often becomes voiced in Japanese, in a process called rendaku. Non-initial hon in compounds thus often changes to bon or pon. There are therefore two possible pronunciations for 日本: Nihon or Nippon. While both pronunciations are correct, Nippon is frequently preferred for official purposes,[7] including money, stamps, and international sporting events, as well as the Nippon koku, literally the "State of Japan" (日本国).

Other than this, there seem to be no fixed rules for choosing one pronunciation over the other; in some cases one form is simply more common. For example, Japanese people generally call their language Nihongo; Nippongo, while possible,[8] is rare. In other cases, uses are variable. The name for the Bank of Japan (日本銀行), for example, is given as NIPPON GINKO on banknotes, but often referred to (in the media, for example) as Nihon Ginkō.[9]

Nippon is used always or most often in the following constructions:[10]

  • Nippon-koku kenpō (Constitution of Japan)[11]
  • Ganbare Nippon! (A sporting cheer used at international sporting events, roughly, 'do your best, Japan!')
  • Zen Nippon Kūyu (All Nippon Airways)
  • Nippon-bashi (日本橋) (a shopping district in Osaka)

Nihon is used always or most often in the following constructions:[12]


As mentioned above, the English word "Japan" has a circuitous derivation; but linguists believe it derives in part from the Portuguese recording of the early Mandarin Chinese or Wu Chinese word for Japan: Cipan (日本), which is rendered in pinyin as Rìběn, and literally translates to "country of sun origin". Guó is Chinese for "realm" or "kingdom", so it could alternatively be rendered as "Japan-guó".

Cipangu was first mentioned in Europe in the accounts of the travels of Marco Polo. It appears for the first time on a European map with the Fra Mauro map in 1457, although it appears much earlier on Chinese and Korean maps such as the Kangnido. Following the accounts of Marco Polo, Cipangu was thought to be fabulously rich in silver and gold, which in Medieval times was largely correct, owing to the volcanism of the islands and the possibility to access precious ores without resorting to (unavailable) deep-mining technologies.

The modern Shanghainese pronunciation of Japan is Zeppen [zəʔpən]. In modern Japanese, Cipangu is transliterated as ジパング which in turn can be transliterated into English as Jipangu, Zipangu, Jipang, or Zipang. Jipangu (ジパング) as an obfuscated name for Japan has recently come into vogue for Japanese films, anime, video games, etc.

Other names

Classical flowery names

Japan yashima.png

These names were invented after the introduction of Chinese into the language, and they show up in historical texts for prehistoric legendary dates and also in names of gods and Japanese emperors:

  • Ōyashima (大八洲) meaning the Great country of eight (or many) islands,[16] Awaji, Iyo (later Shikoku), Oki, Tsukushi (later Kyūshū), Iki, Tsushima, Sado, and Yamato (later Honshū); note that Hokkaidō, Chishima, and Okinawa were not part of Japan in ancient times. The eight islands refers to the creation of the main eight islands of Japan by the gods Izanami and Izanagi in Japanese mythology as well as the fact that eight was a synonym for "many".
  • Yashima (八島)
  • Fusō (扶桑)
  • Mizuho (瑞穂) refers to strand of rice.
  • Shikishima (敷島)
  • Akitsushima (秋津島) or Toyo-akitsushima (豊秋津島), Toyo means "abundant;" akitsu means "dragonfly;" "Akitsushima" means "The Island of Dragonflies".[17]
  • Toyoashihara no mizuho no kuni (豊葦原の瑞穂の国)、Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, Central Land of Reed Plains (葦原中国).

The katakana transcription ジャパン of the English word Japan is sometimes encountered in Japanese, for example in the names of organizations seeking to project an international image.

Other East Asian nations

Dōngyáng (東洋) and Dōngyíng (東瀛) – both literally, "Eastern Ocean" – are Chinese terms sometimes used to refer to Japan exotically when contrasting it with other countries or regions in eastern Eurasia; however, these same terms may also be used to refer to all of East Asia when contrasting "the East" with "the West". They have been considered to be pejorative terms when used to mean "Japan". They can be contrasted with Nányáng (Southern Ocean), which refers to Southeast Asia, and Xīyáng (Western Ocean), which refers to the Western world. In Japanese and Korean, the Chinese word for "Eastern Ocean" (pronounced as tōyō in Japanese and as dongyang (동양) in Korean) is used only to refer to the Orient (including both East Asia and Southeast Asia) in general, and it is not used in the more specific Chinese sense of "Japan".

In China, Japan is called Rìběn, which is the Mandarin pronunciation for the hanzi 日本. The Cantonese pronunciation is [jɐt˨ pun˧˥], the Shanghainese (Wu Chinese) pronunciation is Zeppen [zəʔpən], and the Min Nan (Hokkien) pronunciation is Ji̍t-pún. This has influenced the Thai name for Japan, Yipun (ญี่ปุ่น). In Korean, Japan is called Ilbon (일본/日本), which is the Korean pronunciation of the Sino-Korean name, and in Sino-Vietnamese, Japan is called Nhật Bản (also rendered as Nhựt Bổn). In Malay it is called Jepun, and in Indonesian Jepang, during Japanese occupation in Indonesia (1942—1945) the Japanese introduced Nippon or Dai Nippon into Indonesian language, however Jepang is more common.

Ue-kok (倭國) is recorded for older Hokkien speakers.[18] In the past, Korea also used 倭國, pronounced Waeguk (왜국).


  1. ^ Nussbaum, Louis Frédéric et al. (2005). "Nihon" in Japan encyclopedia, p. 707. at Google Books; n.b., Louis-Frédéric is pseudonym of Louis-Frédéric Nussbaum, see Deutsche Nationalbibliothek Authority File.
  2. ^ Joan, R. Piggott (1997). The emergence of Japanese kingship. Stanford University Press. pp. 143–144. ISBN 0-804-72832-1. 
  3. ^ "Ž×”n‘ä?‘‹ã?B?à". Retrieved 2011-09-26. 
  4. ^ In Japanese, countries whose "long form" does not contain a designation such as republic or kingdom are generally given a name appended by the character 国 ("country" or "nation"): for example, ドミニカ国 (Dominica), バハマ国 (Bahamas), and クウェート国 (Kuwait).
  5. ^ Doi (1980:463)
  6. ^ Doi (1980:363)
  7. ^ Nussbaum, "Nippon" at p. 709. at Google Books
  8. ^ Nihon Kokugo Daijiten Henshū Iin Kai, Shōgakukan Kokugo Daijiten Henshūbu (2000/12-2002/12). Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (2nd edition). Shōgakukan. 
  9. ^ a b Nussbaum, "Nihon Ginkō" at p. 708. at Google Books
  10. ^ Nussbaum, "Nippon" passim at pp. 717. at Google Books
  11. ^ Nussbaum, "Nihon Koku Kenpō" at p. 710. at Google Books
  12. ^ Nussbaum, "Nihon" passim at pp. 707–711. at Google Books
  13. ^ Nussbaum, "Nihon University (Nihon Daigaku)" at pp. 710–711. at Google Books
  14. ^ Nussbaum, "Nihonjin" at pp. 708–709. at Google Books
  15. ^ Nussbaum, "Nihon shoki" at p. 710. at Google Books
  16. ^ Nussbaum, "Ō-ya-shima no Kuni" at p. 768. at Google Books
  17. ^ Nussbaum, "Akitsushima" at p. 20. at Google Books
  18. ^ " message board". Retrieved 2011-09-26. 

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