For many mountaineers, summiting Mt. Fuji to view the sunrise is at the top of their bucket list. Seeing the sunrise over Asia after making its long trek across the Pacific Ocean is nothing less than a spiritual experience.
Regularly used in Western songs and literature for a poetic reference to Japan, “Land of the Rising Sun,” is one of the more beautiful national nicknames. It’s far more than just a pretty title, though. The rising sun is a central part of Japanese culture, and the role it’s played in the country’s history and national identity is not just fascinating but important to understanding many parts of modern Japanese society.
To understand why Japan is called the land of the rising sun, you have to get a glimpse into its history. Here’s how this nickname came about and what it means today.
Japan’s Historical Relationship With the Sun
The Japanese have identified with the sun since ancient times. A few different factors have combined to make it a prominent symbol of Japanese culture and unity.
Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess
A big part of the sun’s importance has to do with the Japanese Imperial family, the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy. They trace their origins to legendary Emperor Jimmu, the first ruler of Japan. Therefore, the emperors are known as “Sons of the Sun.”
The Legend of Emperor Jimmu also claims he was a direct descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who was a prominent figure in the ancient Ko-Shinto religion, the direct precursor of Japan’s modern Shinto religion. Historically, the Imperial House of Japan draws its legitimacy from their relationship with the sun goddess, so the sun quickly became a symbol of loyalty to the emperor. For example, ancient daimyō, feudal lords who controlled large swaths of territory, tried to show they were on the side of the emperor by using suns on their ensigns.
Perhaps even more important than Japan’s ancient worship of the sun is its geographic position. If you look at Japan on a map, you’ll see that it’s basically east of everything. The only thing to its west, aside from small islands, is the expanse of the specific ocean until you get to California.
This was even more relevant historically when Japan’s trade and diplomacy were mostly limited to East Asia. During those times, China was the major power in the region. In this context, Japan was the eastern limit, the land from which the sun rose.
Of course, China didn’t necessarily come up with such an elegant name for their neighbors. In fact, they originally referred to Japan as Wa, which likely comes from the Chinese word for small and submissive. Obviously, the Japanese were more than a little offended by this and sought to create their own identity that didn’t involve being under China’s thumb.
The Japanese thought their place in its origin, along with their historical worship of the sun, made for a better identity. This can be seen in artifacts like a diplomatic letter sent to China by Prince Shōtoku, the Regent of Japan, that said, “The Son of Heaven, in the land of the rising sun, sends this letter to the Son of Heaven of the land where the sun sets…”
Japan’s Many Names
Nihon and Nippon
Nihon and Nippon are two pronunciations of 日本, Japan’s name for itself. Nippon is the older and more formal pronunciation while Nihon is what you’re more likely to hear in modern, everyday conversation. 日 is Kanji for nichi, which means sun or day, and 本 is Kanji for hon, which means base or origin. The –chi syllable in nichi almost disappears when combined, resulting in Nihon. As you can see, “sun origin” quickly becomes the more elegant “Land of the Rising Sun” in English.
Strangely, the English word “Japan” also reflects the country’s identification with the sun even though it’s not related to the Japanese word Nihon at all. Rather, “Japan” probably comes from the word the Portuguese first used for the nation. They were the first Western power to interact extensively with the region. Many old Western maps from Portuguese and Italian explorers label Japan as “Cipangu” or similar spellings.
The Portuguese probably got the name from the Malay word Jipang, but it doesn’t end there. The Malays called Japan “Jipang” because the Chinese called it Cipan or Rìběn, which is just the Chinese pronunciation of the very same Kanji 日本 that Japan used—and still uses—for itself.
Other Historical Names
Of course, Japan has had many different names throughout its history, and it’s been called many things by other countries, especially China. We’ve already discussed China’s name Wa for Japan, which could have come from the Japanese word for “I,” watashi, or it could have been derogatorily calling them small and submissive. Let’s take a look at some more:
- Yamato: The early Japanese preferred to call themselves this name over the Chinese Wa, not that the Chinese cared much. Scholars believe “Yamato” originally referred to the main Honshū island of the Japanese archipelago.
- Ōyashima (大八洲): This means “Great Country of Eight Islands” and refers to the original islands that formed the Japanese empire.
- Dōngyáng (東洋): In Chinese, this name literally means Eastern Ocean. The Chinese used it, in general, to refer to any island people east of them, but as a result, it quickly came to imply Japan.
How The Japanese Use The Sun In Symbols
Since Japan has such a close relationship with the sun, they naturally use it in many of their national symbols. One of the best examples is their flag, referred to colloquially as Hinomaru (日の丸), which means “circle of the sun.”
The Rising Sun Flag
A more impressive example might be the Rising Sun Flag, called Kyokujitsu-ki (旭日旗). Instead of just a red dot centered on a white background, there are also expanding rays.
The Rising Sun Flag traces its history back to ancient Japan and the emperor’s legendary relationship with the sun. Feudal warlords used many different sun flag designs, and this particular one became very prominent during the Edo period.
After the Meiji Restoration, the Rising Sun Flag gained important status as the flag of the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces. At the time, Japan had one of the most powerful militaries in the world and was rapidly expanding and conquering territory, from Korea to the Philippines. By World War II, Japan was in a state of all-out war, and the military Rising Sun Flag was the most important symbol of the era.
After World War II, Japan was disarmed, and the Rising Sun Flag was essentially banned as a symbol of Japanese imperialism. However, the United States eventually granted Japan use of self-defense force in the 50s, and Kyokujitsu-ki came back. Now it’s used in various forms as an emblem for the Japanese armed forces.
The Rising Sun In Art
Since the sun is such an important part of Japanese culture and identity, it naturally finds its way into the nation’s art. Woodcuts and paintings from the Edo Period especially tend to feature a red sun in the background. After the Meiji Restoration, it was used extensively in propaganda to promote nationalism.
In fact, the Japanese government awards notable artists and other people responsible for promoting Japanese culture with the Order of the Rising Sun. For example, Yokoyama Taikan, one of the creators of the Nihonga technique of Japanese painting, received the honor posthumously in 1958.
Look For The Sun!
Now that you know all about the sun’s place in Japanese symbolism, you’ll start to see it everywhere. “The Land of the Rising Sun” is just the beginning. Soon you’ll recognize the influence of the sun in everything from clothing to music. It’s just one more thread in the beautiful tapestry that is Japanese culture.