Japan 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 (help·info)) and Nihon (にほん
listen (help·info)). They are both written in Japanese
using the kanji 日本.
3 Nihon and Nippon
3.2 History and evolution
3.3 Modern conventions
5 Other Names
5.2 Non-CJK Names:
6 See also
Further information: Wa (Japan)
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, 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,
known as Wa (倭) or Wakoku (倭国). Wa was a name early China
used to refer to an ethnic group living in
Japan around the time of
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 *ˀWâ or *ˀWər
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 *ˀWâ "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 *ˀWâ '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early historical references to Japan."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, pygmy" has possible cognates in
ǎi 矮 "low, short (of stature)", 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
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
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
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.
Cipangu described on the 1492 Martin Behaim globe.
The English word for
Japan came to the West from early trade routes.
Mandarin Chinese or possibly
Wu Chinese word for
Marco Polo as Cipangu. In modern
Shanghainese (a language
Wu Chinese subgroup), the formal pronunciation of the
characters 日本 (Japan) is still Zeppen [zəʔpən]. The colloquial
pronunciation of the character 日 is [ɲəʔ], which is closer to
Nippon. The Malaysian and Indonesian words Jepang, Jipang, and Jepun
were borrowed from Non-
Mandarin Chinese languages, 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
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]. Modern /h/ is still pronounced [ɸ] when
followed by /ɯ/.
Middle Japanese nifon becomes Modern Japanese nihon via regular
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 /hoɴ/ (本), this regularly
Unlike the Nihon/Nippon doublet, there is no evidence for a *Jihon.
Nihon and Nippon
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 "origin of the sun" or "where the sun rises" (from
a Chinese point of view, the sun rises from Japan); it is a source for
the popular Western description of
Japan as the "Land of the Rising
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 kō 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, final voiceless stops (i.e. p, t, k) of the
first word were unreleased in Middle Chinese, and the pronunciation of
日本 was thus Nippon or Jippon (with the adjacent consonants
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 Kantō 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.
Several attempts to decidedly determine an official reading were
rejected by the Japanese government, who declared both as being
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
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
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
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 (
Nihon-shoki (an old history book, never Nippon shoki)
In 2016, element 113 on the periodic table was named nihonium to honor
its discovery in 2004 by Japanese scientists at RIKEN.
Another spelling, "Zipangni" (upper left), was used on a 1561 map by
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 Gangnido. 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.[unreliable source?]
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
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, as they were not yet discovered or known by the ancient
Japanese. The eight islands refers to the creation of the main eight
Japan by the gods
Izanagi in Japanese mythology
as well as the fact that eight was a synonym for "many".
Yashima (八島), "Eight (or Many) Islands"
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)"
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) (
Bank), ジャパンカップ (
Japan Kappu) (
ワイヤレスジャパン (Waiyaresu Japan) (Wireless Japan), etc.
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
Far East (including both
East Asia and Southeast Asia) in general,
and it is not used in the more specific Chinese sense of "Japan".
Japan is called Rìběn, which is the Mandarin pronunciation
for the kanji 日本. The
Cantonese pronunciation is Yahtbún [jɐt˨
Shanghainese pronunciation is Zeppen [zəʔpən], and
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 (Hangeul:
일본, Hanja: 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
Ue-kok (倭國) is recorded for older
Hokkien speakers. In the
past, Korea also used 倭國, pronounced Waeguk (왜국).
Contemporary name for
Japanese name (names of Japanese people)
Japanese place names
List of country-name etymologies
^ Nussbaum, Louis Frédéric et al. (2005). "Nihon" in Japan
encyclopedia, p. 707., p. 707, at Google Books; n.b., Louis-Frédéric
is pseudonym of Louis-Frédéric Nussbaum, see Deutsche
File Archived 2012-05-24 at Archive.is.
^ Joan, R. Piggott (1997). The emergence of Japanese kingship.
Stanford University Press. pp. 143–144.
^ . Inoues.net http://inoues.net/wal.html. Retrieved 2011-09-26.
Missing or empty title= (help)
^ 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
^ Doi (1980:463)
^ Doi (1980:363)
^ Nippon or Nihon? No consensus on Japanese pronunciation of Japan,
^ Nussbaum, "Nippon" at p. 709., p. 709, at Google Books
Nihon Kokugo Daijiten Henshū Iin Kai, Shōgakukan Kokugo Daijiten
Henshūbu (2002) .
Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (2nd edition).
^ a b Nussbaum, "Nihon Ginkō" at p. 708., p. 708, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "Nippon" passim at pp. 717., p. 717, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "Nihon" passim at pp. 707–711., p. 707, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "
Nihon University (Nihon Daigaku)" at pp. 710–711., p.
710, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "Nihonjin" at pp. 708–709., p. 708, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "Nihon shoki" at p. 710., p. 710, at Google Books
^ Richard Gonzales (2016-06-10). "Hello, Nihonium. Scientists Name 4
New Elements on the Periodic Table". Ww2.kqed.org. Retrieved
^ Forbes JD (2007). The American Discovery of Europe. University of
Illinois Press. p. 21. ISBN 9780252091254.
Japan Omnibus - General - Facts and Figures". Japan-zone.com.
^ Nussbaum, "Ō-ya-shima no Kuni" at p. 768., p. 768, at Google Books
^ Nussbaum, "Akitsushima" at p. 20., p. 20, at Google Books
^ "www.chineselanguage.org message board". Chinalanguage.com.
Doi, Tadao (1980) . Hōyaku
Nippo Jisho (in Japanese). Tōkyō:
Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 4-00-080021-3.
Nussbaum, Louis Frédéric; Käthe Roth (2005).
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
ISBN 978-0-674-01753-5; OCLC 48943301
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