Where Does Japan’s Name Come From?

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Most of us know Japan this present day simply as what it is: Japan. However, for the local Japanese people, their home country is known as “Nihon”. That led us pondering on the relation between the two, and how these names even came about.

Because “Japan” and “Nihon” are the furthest away from each other to even compare the verbal pronunciation of it, it raises the question of the evolution of this modern-day name for the country. There’s bound to be a long backstory to it, as does every other thing related to Japan — and there is. To get into the real reason why it is called what it is today, a little dig into ancient history is inevitable.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Japan wasn’t recognized as Japan or Nihon the whole time in history. There have been many names to refer to this wondrous island country, and all of them play important roles in the build-up to the proud name “Nihon” and “Japan”. Follow the advancement and changes of the various names of this island nation to grasp the concept of its respectful name today.

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?

The Different Names of Japan in History

Let’s take a quick stroll through the historical times of Japan, all the way to before the country even had any written records about themselves. The country was more of a verbal one than it was a written one for an extremely long time — in truth, we’ll never know exactly when and what the earliest people of Japan referred to themselves as.

The only other known civilization with a collection of written records during this time were the Chinese, and through those as well as the existing records of ancient Japan — with the earliest being the 500AD — can we piece together the evolution of Japan names to what it is now.

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
A page from the Kokiji (n.d.)

Oyashima, The Eight Islands

The oldest Japanese text to ever exist in history in 500AD is the Kokiji, which translates to the “Records of Ancient Matters” or an “Account of Ancient Matters”. It consists of ancient accounts including Japanese myths and legends written in the classical Japanese writing system, which is the Chinese “kanji” characters read and pronounced with Japanese sounds.  

One of the text tells the story of how Japan was birthed. The first Gods (in Japanese mythology anyway) Kunitokotachi and Amenominakanushi created two beings and were ordered to create the first lands. A heavenly spear was given to them and these two beings used it to stick into the sea below. When the spear was pulled out, eight drops of saltwater created self-forming islands which were modern-day Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Collectively, they were called “Oyashima” (大八洲) to mean the “Great Eight Islands”. 

During this time, modern-day Okinawa and Hokkaido weren’t considered part of ancient Japan, hence they weren’t included in the tale of the country’s mythical creation story. It’s unclear if the people of Japan at that time ever referred to their country as Oyashima.

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Golden seal inscribed with King of Na, Vassal of Han [Dynasty] in mirrored Chinese characters (n.d.)

The Nakoku Kingdom

Modern-day Fukuoka is the first ever written record of the names of Japan. There were various groups of people in Japan in ancient times, but one clearly appeared in ancient Chinese historical records. There were writings on the “Nakoku” (奴国) during the Yayoi Period where the Guangwu Chinese Emperor gifted the first-ever Japanese envoy to visit China in 57AD with their own imperial seal. This seal — now a national treasure — roughly translates to “King of the Japanese Country of Na, vassal to the Han”.

Other Chinese records showed that the Nakoku returned the goodwill in the form of New Years’ tribute — pretty much like a real, legitimate country. There weren’t any other records of the Nakoku kingdom or any other groups of people in the country during this time apart from these.

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Ukie wakoku no keiseki shin-yoshiwara nakanochō no zu (Utagawa Toyoharu, 1735-1814)

Wakoku, The Land of Wa

During the Three Kingdoms period which takes place from 220AD to 280AD, there were the very first written records of Japan as a whole country instead of separate island countries grouped into one. Ancient Chinese texts referred to Japan as Wakoku (倭国). It wasn’t clear exactly why the Chinese decided to call the country that. 

The combination of Chinese “kanji” characters for Wakoku is intriguing. While “koku” (国) refers to “country” and it’s as straightforward as it gets, “wa” (倭) refers to Japan as a country but has two different meanings behind the kanji. It could mean “submissive people” due to the strokes of the kanji looking like the people bending down and carrying grain on their back, but it could also mean dwarfism due to the physical structure based on the kanji. The former is more often regarded than the latter as the latter is a more derogatory term and meaning (which the Japanese didn’t realize until much, much later).

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Yamato jimbutsu gafu — “An Album of People of Yamato” (Yamaguchi Soken, 1759-1818)

The People of Yamato

On top of the group of people in modern-day Fukuoka that were known as the Nakoku Kingdom in ancient Japan, there was another group of native Japanese that was the largest one of them all. They were known as the Yamato and resided in modern-day Honshu during the 6th century. They adopted the same kanji character used in Wakoku to write their name Yamato (大倭).

During the 8th century, the people of Yamato, which somehow became the representative group of ancient Japan, decided that the “wa” kanji shouldn’t be used to represent the country due to its negative impact on the meaning. They changed the kanji to another “wa” (和) which holds the meaning of “harmony, balance, peace” even though it wasn’t even pronounced “wa” in the first place. Wakoku went from 倭国 to 和国 and Yamato went from 大倭 to 大和 — both pronounced the same as before, just with different meanings.

The kanji for peace is even still used to this day to represent various things related to Japan — for example, Japanese food is “washoku” (和食) and Japanese clothing is “wafuku” (和服).

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Japanese Sun goddess, Amaterasu, emerging from a cave (Utagawa Kunisada, 1856)

Nihon, The Land of the Rising Sun

Not long after the ruckus of Wakoku and Yamato did the name of Japan that we now know and love appeared. Similarly, around the 8th century, the idea of “The Land of the Rising Sun” or “Sun Origin” was being played around. 

There are different records of how this name came about. In “The Old Book of Tang”, it’s said that the Japanese envoy who visited China disliked the previous name Wakoku and requested a change of the country name. Another one is a Japanese text called “The True Meaning of Shiji” which said that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered the change of name. 

Regardless of how it came about, the country name then switched to Nihon (日本) with kanjis that literally translates to the “origin of the sun”. It was probably in reference to the country being located on the east of China and it appeared to the Chinese that it was where the sun rose from.

What gave “Nihon” an extra impact is that the name ties perfectly well with the Japanese mythology about the sun goddess Amaterasu, which plays a huge role in Japanese culture to this day. 

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Nihon Bashi in Tokyo featuring Mt Fuji (Nankoku Ōzawa, 1894)

Nihon vs Nippon: Which is it?

If history mentions the country’s name as Nihon, why have there been countless occurrences where it’s being pronounced as “Nippon” instead? The simplest answer is that they’re both the same — everything from writing to meaning is no different. Either way you say it, the Japanese will understand what you’re referring to, and that is their country.

The only difference, which is not as significant as one may think, is how they’re being used in situations. “Nihon” is more generally used as it’s the regular name of Japan, whereas “Nippon” is often used when referring to the country during official situations and things like stamps, banks, and money. For some reason, “Nippon” sounds more official and formal than “Nihon” to the local people. 

What matters is, regardless if it’s Nihon or Nippon, they both hold the meaning of “The Land of the Rising Sun”.

Where Does Japan's Name Come From?
Portuguese traders in Japan (1500-1600)

The Evolution to Jipangu

While the Japanese refer to their country as Nihon (or Nippon), the rest of the world calls it Japan. There are literally dozens of story variations of how this came about, but it ultimately leads back to the pronunciations and identification of the kanji of Nihon, which we all know is 日本. 

The kanji “日” can be pronounced as “jitsu” and “本” can be read as “hon” or “pon”. If it’s combined, readings like “jitsu-pon” are also possible — that can sound like “zipang” or “japon”. The Chinese (and even the Japanese normally) have more than a few ways of reading the kanji characters depending on their dialects — during those times, the Mandarin Chinese pronounced it as “Rib-ben”; the Cantonese pronounced it as “Jat-bun”; the Fujianese pronounced it as “Jit-pun”; the Shanghainese pronounced it as “Zep-pen”. 

In those days, there had been quite a bit of Portuguese-Japan trade, and there were stories of the Portuguese pronouncing the country’s name as “Cipan”. Some believed that “Japan” came from the Malay word to refer to the country which is “Jepun” as it sounds extremely similar to the Chinese readings of the kanji characters. 

The most popular story of the origin of “Japan” is the extremely well-known Italian explorer Marco Polo. He was the first person to introduce Japan to the rest of the world by writing about it in his travel diaries. Whether or not he went to Japan (or even China) is still up for debate, but in his writings, he referred to Japan as “Zipangu” — where he heard this from can be anywhere from his supposed adventures, the traders’ pronunciations or even the Chinese pronunciation. Regardless, numerous people got to reading Marco Polo’s adventure stories, shedding light on the country Zipangu, which over the years became what we now regard as Japan.

The Wrap-Up

And there you have it — from the Great Eight Islands to The Land of the Submissive People, and now proudly the Land of the Rising Sun with both “Japan” and “Nihon” to refer to it, there’s not another adventure that went through what Japan had with its various interesting names. Despite the ups and downs, the outcome is as satisfying as it can get. You’ll never know what Japan is going to be regarded next — if it ever changes — no one will.

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