Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Names of Japan

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Names of Japan

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  listen ) and Nihon (にほん  listen ). They are both written in Japanese using the kanji 日本.



Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean "the sun's origin", that is, where the sun originates, and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with the Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan's eastern position relative to China. Before Nihon came into official use, Japan was known as Wa () or Wakoku (倭国). 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; oneself; thou") 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 亻 with a wěi 委 "bent" phonetic, and quotes the above Shijing 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 Bowing is noted in early historical references to Japan."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 倭 as "separated from the continent." The second etymology of 倭 meaning "dwarf, pygmy" has possible cognates in ǎi 矮 "low, short (of stature)", 踒 "strain; sprain; bent legs", and 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 due to its offensive connotation, 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", so as to write the preexisting name Yamato (大和) (in a manner similar to e.g. 大清帝國 Great Qing Empire, 大英帝國 Greater 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). Such words which use certain kanji to name a certain Japanese word solely for the purpose of representing the word's meaning regardless of the given kanji's on'yomi or kun'yomi, a.k.a. jukujikun, is not uncommon in Japanese. 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 Sino-Japanese readings, first Nippon and later Nihon, although the two names are interchangeable to this day.

Nippon appeared in history only at the end of the 7th century. The 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. The sun plays an important role in Japanese mythology and religion as the emperor is said to be the direct descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the legitimacy of the ruling house rested on this divine appointment and descent from the chief deity of the predominant Shinto religion. The name of the country reflects this central importance of the sun.

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 (a dialect of the Wu Chinese language (呉語) or topolect) formal pronunciation of characters 日本 (Japan) is still Zeppen [zəʔpən]. The colloquial pronunciation of the character 日 is [ɲəʔ], which is closer to Nippon. The Malay and Indonesian words Jepang, Jipang, and Jepun were borrowed from Chinese dialects, 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 "State of Japan". From the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, the full title of Japan was the "Empire of Greater 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. As an adjective, the term "Dai-Nippon" remains popular with Japanese governmental, commercial, or social organizations whose reach extend beyond Japan's geographic borders (e.g., Dai Nippon Printing, Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, etc.).

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 and iippon. 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.


Before 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 character 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 "origin". 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.

History and evolution

Japanese 日 and 本 were historically pronounced niti (or jitu, reflecting a Late Middle Chinese pronunciation) and pon, respectively. In compounds, however, the final vowel of the first word was lost, and the pronunciation of 日本 was thus Nippon or Jippon (with the adjacent consonants assimilating).

Historical sound change in Japanese has led to the modern pronunciations of the individual characters as nichi and hon. The pronunciation Nihon originated, possibly in the Kanto region, as a reintroduction of this independent pronunciation of 本 into the compound. This must have taken place during the Edo period, after another sound change occurred which would have resulted in this form becoming Niwon and later Nion.

A Japanese survey showed that 61 percent of Japanese people reads the characters as Nihon while 37 percent reads it as Nippon. Nihon is also much more prevalent among younger Japanese people.

Several attempts to decidedly determine an official reading were rejected by the Japanese government, who declared both as being correct.

Modern conventions

While both pronunciations are correct, Nippon is frequently preferred for official purposes, 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 speakers generally call their language Nihongo; Nippongo, while possible, 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.

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

  • Nippon Yūbin, Nippon Yūsei (Japan Post Group)
  • Ganbare Nippon! (A sporting cheer used at international sporting events, roughly, 'do your best, Japan!')
  • Zen Nippon Kūyu Kabushiki-gaisha (All Nippon Airways)
  • Nipponbashi (日本橋) (a shopping district in Osaka)
  • Nippon Kōgaku Kōgyō Kabushikigaisha (Japan Optical Industries Co. Ltd., (also called Nippon Kōgaku) which is known since 1988 as the Nikon Corporation since the Nikon brand name was used on its camera product line)
  • Nihon is used always or most often in the following constructions:

  • JR Higashi-Nihon (East Japan Railway, JR Group)
  • Nihonbashi (日本橋) (a bridge in Tokyo)
  • Nihon Daigaku (Nihon University)
  • Nihon-go (Japanese language)
  • Nihon-jin (Japanese people)
  • Nihon-kai (Sea of Japan)
  • Nihon Kōkū (Japan Airlines)
  • Nihon-shoki (an old history book, never Nippon shoki)
  • On June 8, 2016, the IUPAC announced their proposal that Element 113 be named nihonium, so named to honor its discovery in 2004 by Japanese scientists at RIKEN. It is the first element to have been discovered in an Asian country.


    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(IPA: ʐʅ˥˩ pən˨˩˦), and literally translates to "sun origin". Guó (IPA: kuo˨˦) is Chinese for "realm" or "kingdom", so it could alternatively be rendered as Cipan-guo. The word was likely introduced to Portuguese through the Malay Jipang.

    Cipangu was first mentioned in Europe in the accounts 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 Dutch name, Japan, may be derived from the southern Chinese pronunciation of 日本, Yatbun or Yatpun. The Dutch J is generally pronounced Y, hence Ja-Pan.

    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 (Zipangu)) as an obfuscated name for Japan has recently come into vogue for Japanese films, anime, video games, etc.

    Classical names

    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, 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), "Eight (or Many) Islands"
  • Fusō (扶桑)
  • Mizuho (瑞穂) refers to ears of grain, e.g. 瑞穂国 Mizuho-no-kuni "Country of Lush Ears (of Rice)." From Old Japanese midu > Japanese mizu ("water; lushness, freshness, juiciness") + Old Japanese fo > Japanese ho ("ear (of grain, especially rice)").
  • Shikishima (敷島) is written with Chinese characters that suggest a meaning "islands that one has spread/laid out," but this name of Japan supposedly originates in the name of an area in Shiki District of Yamato Province in which some emperors of ancient Japan resided. The name of Shikishima (i.e. Shiki District) came to be used in Japanese poetry as an epithet for the province of Yamato (i.e. the ancient predecessor of Nara Prefecture), and was metonymically extended to refer to the entire island of Yamato (i.e. Honshū) and, eventually, to the entire territory of Japan. Note that the word shima, though generally meaning only "island" in Japanese, also means "area, zone, territory" in many languages of the Ryūkyū Islands.
  • Akitsukuni (秋津国), Akitsushima (秋津島), Toyo-akitsushima (豊秋津島). According to the literal meanings of the Chinese characters used to transcribe these names of Japan, toyo means "abundant," aki means "autumn," tsu means "harbor," shima means "island," and kuni means "country, land." In this context, -tsu may be interpreted to be a fossilized genitive case suffix, as in matsuge "eyelash" (< Japanese me "eye" + -tsu + Japanese ke "hair") or tokitsukaze "a timely wind, a favorable wind" (< Japanese toki "time" + -tsu + Japanese kaze "wind"). However, akitu or akidu are also archaic or dialectal Japanese words for "dragonfly," so "Akitsushima" may be interpreted to mean "Dragonfly Island." Another possible interpretation would take akitsu- to be identical with the akitsu- of akitsukami or akitsumikami ("god incarnate, a manifest deity," often used as an honorific epithet for the Emperor of Japan), perhaps with the sense of "the present land, the island(s) where we are at present."
  • Toyoashihara no mizuho no kuni (豊葦原の瑞穂の国). "Country of Lush Ears of Bountiful Reed Plain(s)," Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, "Central Land of Reed Plains," "Country Amidst Reed Plain(s)" (葦原中国).
  • Hinomoto (日の本). Simple kun reading of 日本.
  • The katakana transcription ジャパン (Japan) of the English word Japan is sometimes encountered in Japanese, for example in the names of organizations seeking to project an international image. Examples include ジャパンネット銀行 (Japan Netto Ginkō) (Japan Net Bank), ジャパンカップ (Japan Kappu) (Japan Cup), ワイヤレスジャパン (Waiyaresu Japan) (Wireless Japan), etc.

    Other Southeast and East Asian nations' languages

    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". The first term, Dōngyáng, has been considered to be a pejorative term when used to mean "Japan", while the second, Dōngyíng, has remained a positive poetic name. 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 Far East (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 kanji 日本. The Cantonese pronunciation is [jɐt˨ pun˧˥], the Shanghainese (a dialect of Wu Chinese) pronunciation is Zeppen [zəʔpən], and the Min Nan (Hokkien) pronunciation is Ji̍tpún. This has influenced the Malay name for Japan, Jepun, and the Thai word Yipun (ญี่ปุ่น). The terms Jepang and Jipang, ultimately derived from Chinese, were previously used in both Malay and Indonesian, but are today confined primarily to the Indonesian language. The Japanese introduced Nippon and Dai Nippon into Indonesia during the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945) but the native Jepang remains more common. 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 Mongolian, Japan is called Yapon (Япон).

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


    Names of Japan Wikipedia