Japanese Wa (倭, "Japan, Japanese", from Chinese 倭 Wō) is the
oldest recorded name of Japan. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes
regularly wrote Wa or Yamato "Japan" with the
Damyeom-ripbon-wang-heedo (唐閻立本王會圖). 6th century, China.
Envoys visiting the Tang Emperor. From left to right: Wa, Silla,
1 Historical references
1.1 Shan Hai Jing 1.2 Lunheng 1.3 Han Shu 1.4 Wei Zhi 1.5 Hou Han Shu 1.6 Song Shu 1.7 Liang Shu 1.8 Sui Shu 1.9 Tang Shu 1.10 Gwanggaeto Stele
2 The word Wa
2.1 倭 and 和 characters 2.2 Pronunciations 2.3 Etymology 2.4 Lexicography
3 References 4 External links
The earliest textual references to Japan are in Chinese classic texts.
Within the official Chinese dynastic Twenty-Four Histories, Japan is
mentioned among the so-called
When chieftains of various Wo tribes contacted authorities at Lelang,
a Chinese commandery established in northern Korea in 108 B.C. by the
Western Han court, they sought to benefit themselves by initiating
contact. In A.D. 57, the first Wo ambassador arrived at the capital of
the Eastern Han court (25-220); the second came in 107.
Wo diplomats, however, never called on China on a regular basis. A
chronology of Japan-China relations from the first to the ninth
centuries reveals this irregularity in the visits of Japanese
ambassadors to China. There were periods of frequent contacts as well
as of lengthy intervals between contacts. This irregularity clearly
indicated that, in its diplomacy with China, Japan set its own agenda
and acted on self-interest to satisfy its own needs.
No Wo ambassador, for example, came to China during the second
century. This interval continued well past the third century. Then
within merely nine years, the female Wo ruler
The golden seal said to have been granted to the "King of Wa" by
Emperor Guangwu of Han
Transcription of the seal. The seal reads "漢委奴國王".
Possibly the earliest record of Wō 倭 "Japan" occurs in the Shan Hai Jing 山海經 "Classic of Mountains and Seas". The textual dating of this collection of geographic and mythological legends is uncertain, but estimates range from 300 BCE to 250 CE. The Haineibei jing 海內北經 "Classic of Regions within the North Seas" chapter includes Wō 倭 "Japan" among foreign places both real, such as Korea, and legendary (e.g. Penglai Mountain).
Kai [cover] Land is south of Chü Yen and north of Wo. Wo belongs to Yen. [蓋國在鉅燕南倭北倭屬燕 朝鮮在列陽東海北山南列陽屬燕] Ch’ao-hsien [Chosŏn, Korea] is east of Lieh Yang, south of Hai Pei [sea north] Mountain. Lieh Yang belongs to Yen. (12, tr. Nakagawa 2003:49)
Nakagawa notes that Zhuyan 鉅燕 refers to the (ca. 1000-222 BCE) kingdom of Yan (state), and that Wo ("Japan was first known by this name.") maintained a "possible tributary relationship" with Yan. Lunheng Wang Chong's ca. 70-80 CE Lunheng 論衡 "Discourses weighed in the balance" is a compendium of essays on subjects including philosophy, religion, and natural sciences. The Rŭzēng 儒増 "Exaggerations of the Literati" chapter mentions ''Wōrén 倭人 "Japanese people" and Yuèshāng 越裳 "an old name for Champa" presenting tributes during the Zhou Dynasty. In disputing legends that ancient Zhou bronze ding tripods had magic powers to ward off evil spirits, Wang says.
During the Chou time there was universal peace. The Yuèshāng offered white pheasants to the court, the Japanese odoriferous plants. [獻白雉倭人貢鬯草] Since by eating these white pheasants or odoriferous plants one cannot keep free from evil influences, why should vessels like bronze tripods have such a power? (26, tr. Forke 1907:505)
Lunheng chapter Huiguo 恢國 "Restoring the nation" (58)
similarly records that
Emperor Cheng of Han
Beyond Lo-lang in the sea, there are the people of Wo. They comprise more than one hundred communities. [樂浪海中有倭人分爲百餘國] It is reported that they have maintained intercourse with China through tributaries and envoys. (28B, tr. Otake Takeo 小竹武夫, cited by Nakagawa 2003:50)
Emperor Wu of Han
Text of the Wei Zhi (ca. 297)
The ca. 297 CE Wei Zhi 魏志 "Records of Wei", comprising the first
San Guo Zhi
The people of Wa dwell in the middle of the ocean on the mountainous islands southeast of [the prefecture] of Tai-fang. They formerly comprised more than one hundred communities. During the Han dynasty, [Wa envoys] appeared at the Court; today, thirty of their communities maintain intercourse [with us] through envoys and scribes. [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國漢時有朝見者今使早譯所通三十國] (tr. Tsunoda 1951:8)
This Wei Zhi context describes sailing from Korea to Wa and around the Japanese archipelago. For instance,
A hundred li to the south, one reaches the country of Nu [奴國], the official of which is called shimako, his assistant being termed hinumori. Here there are more than twenty thousand households. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:0)
Tsunoda (1951:5) suggests this ancient Núguó 奴國 (lit. "slave
Over one thousand li to the east of the Queen's land, there are more countries of the same race as the people of Wa. To the south, also there is the island of the dwarfs [侏儒國] where the people are three or four feet tall. This is over four thousand li distant from the Queen's land. Then there is the land of the naked men, as well of the black-teethed people. [裸國黒齒國] These places can be reached by boat if one travels southeast for a year. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)
One Wei Zhi passage (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14) records that in 238 CE the Queen of Wa sent officials with tribute to the Wei emperor Cao Rui, who reciprocated with lavish gifts including a gold seal with the official title "Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei". Another passage relates Wa tattooing with legendary King Shao Kang of the Xia Dynasty.
Men great and small, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs. From olden times envoys who visited the Chinese Court called themselves "grandees" [大夫]. A son of the ruler Shao-k'ang of Hsia, when he was enfeoffed as lord of K'uai-chi, cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa, who are fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however, the designs became merely ornamental. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:10)
"Grandees" translates Chinese dàfū 大夫 (lit. "great man") "senior
official; statesman" (cf. modern dàifu 大夫 "physician; doctor"),
which mistranslates Japanese imperial taifu 大夫 "5th-rank courtier;
head of administrative department; grand tutor" (the
A second Wei history, the ca. 239-265 CE
Weilüe 魏略 "Brief account
of the Wei dynasty" is no longer extant, but some sections (including
descriptions of the Roman Empire) are quoted in the 429 CE San Guo Zhi
commentary by Pei Songzhi 裴松之. He quotes the
Weilüe that "Wō
people call themselves posterity of Tàibó"
(倭人自謂太伯之後). Taibo was the uncle of King Wen of Zhou,
who ceded the throne to his nephew and founded the ancient state of Wu
(585-473 BCE). The
Records of the Grand Historian
The Wa dwell on mountainous islands southeast of Tai-fang in the middle of the ocean, forming more than one hundred communities [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國]. From the time of the overthrow of Chao-hsien [northern Korea] by Emperor Wu (B.C. 140-87), nearly thirty of these communities have held intercourse with the Han [dynasty] court by envoys or scribes. Each community has its king, whose office is hereditary. The King of Great Wa resides in the country of Yamadai [邪馬台国]. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:1)
Comparing the opening descriptions of Wa in the Wei Zhi and Hou Han Shu clearly reveals that the latter is derivative. Their respective accounts of the dwarf, naked, and black-teethed peoples provide another example of copying.
Leaving the queen's land and crossing the sea to the east, after a voyage of one thousand li, the country of Kunu [狗奴國] is reached, the people of which are of the same race as that of the Wa. They are not the queen's subjects, however. Four thousand li away to the south of the queen's land, the dwarf's country [侏儒國] is reached; its inhabitants are three to four feet in height. After a year's voyage by ship to the southeast of the dwarf's country, one comes to the land of naked men and also to the country of black-teethed people [裸國黑齒國]; here our communication service ends. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:3)
In … [57 CE], the Wa country Nu [倭奴國] sent an envoy with tribute who called himself ta-fu [大夫]. This country is located in the southern extremity of the Wa country. Kuang-wu bestowed on him a seal. In … [107 CE], during the reign of An-ti (107-125), the King of Wa presented one hundred sixty slaves, making at the same time a request for an imperial audience. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:2)
Tsunoda (1951:5) notes support for the Hakata location of Nu/Na
country in the 1784 discovery at
The country of Wa is in the midst of the great ocean, southeast of
Koguryŏ. From generation to generation, [the Wa people] carry out
their duty of bringing tribute.
[倭國在高驪東南大海中世修貢職] In … , the first
Emperor said in a rescript: "Ts'an [讚,
Song Shu gives detailed accounts of relations with Japan,
indicating that the Wa kings valued their political legitimization
from the Chinese emperors.
The 635 CE
Liang Shu 梁書 "Book of Liang", which covers history of
The Wa say of themselves that they are posterity of Tàibó. According to custom, the people are all tattooed. Their territory is over 12,000 li from Daifang. It is located approximately east of Kuaiji [on Hangzhou Bay], though at an extremely great distance. [倭者自云太伯之後俗皆文身去帶方萬二千餘里大抵在會稽之東相去絶遠]
Later texts repeat this myth of Japanese descent from Taibo. The 648
Jin Shu 晉書 "Book of Jin" about the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE)
uses a different "call" verb, wèi 謂 "say; call; name" instead of
yún 云 "say; speak; call", "They call themselves the posterity of
Tàibó [自謂太伯之後]". The 1084 CE Chinese universal history
Wa-kuo is situated in the middle of the great ocean southeast of Paekche and Silla, three thousand li away by water and land. The people dwell on mountainous islands. [倭國在百濟新羅東南水陸三千里於大海之中依山島而居] During the Wei dynasty, over thirty countries [of Wa-kuo], each of which boasted a king, held intercourse with China. These barbarians do not know how to measure distance by li and estimate it by days. Their domain is five months' journey from east to west, and three months' from north to south; and the sea lies on all sides. The land is high in the east and low in the west. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:28)
In 607 CE, the Sui Shu records that "King Tarishihoko" (a mistake for Empress Suiko) sent an envoy, Buddhist monks, and tribute to Emperor Yang. Her official message is quoted using the word Tiānzǐ 天子 "Son of Heaven; Chinese Emperor".
Son of Heaven
In 608, the Emperor dispatched Pei Ching as envoy to Wa, and he
returned with a Japanese delegation.
The Emperor [天皇] of the East respectfully addresses the Emperor [皇帝] of the West. Your Envoy, P'ei Shih-ch'ing, Official Entertainer of the Department of foreign receptions, and his suite, having arrived here, my long-harbored cares were dissolved. This last month of autumn is somewhat chilly. How is Your Majesty? We trust well. We are in our usual health. (tr. Aston 1972 2:139)
Aston quotes the 797 CE Shoku
"Wono no Imoko, the Envoy who visited China, (proposed to) alter this term into Nippon, but the Sui Emperor ignored his reasons and would not allow it. The term Nippon was first used in the period … 618-626." Another Chinese authority gives 670 as the date when Nippon began to be officially used in China. (1972 2:137-8)
The island of "Wa" (倭, probably modern Kyūshū) is depicted below the island of "Country/State of Japan" (日本國, probably modern Honshū) and above the island of Greater Ryūkyū (大琉球) on the right-hand side of this 16th-century Chinese world map, the Sihai Huayi Zongtu.
Tang Shu The custom of writing "Japan" as Wa 倭 ended during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Japanese scribes coined the name Nihon or Nippon 日本 circa 608–645 and replaced Wa 倭 with a more flattering Wa 和 "harmony; peace" around 756–757 CE (Carr 1992:6-7). The linguistic change is recorded in two official Tang histories. The 945 CE Tang shu "Book of Tang" 唐書 (199A) has the oldest Chinese reference to Rìběn 日本. The "Eastern Barbarian" section lists both Wakoku 倭国 and Nipponkoku 日本国, giving three explanations: Nippon is an alternate name for Wa, or the Japanese disliked Wakoku because it was "inelegant; coarse" 不雅, or Nippon was once a small part of the old Wakoku. The 1050 CE Xin Tang Shu 新唐書 "New Book of Tang", which has a Riben 日本 heading for Japan under the "Eastern Barbarians", gives more details.
Japan in former times was called Wa-nu. It is 14,000 li distant from
our capital, situated to the southeast of
Regarding the change in autonyms, the Xin Tang Shu says.
In … 670, an embassy came to the Court [from Japan] to offer congratulations on the conquest of Koguryŏ. Around this time, the Japanese who had studied Chinese came to dislike the name Wa and changed it to Nippon. According to the words of the (Japanese) envoy himself, that name was chosen because the country was so close to where the sun rises. [後稍習夏音惡倭名更號日本使者自言國近日所出以為名] Some say, (on the other hand), that Japan was a small country which had been subjugated by the Wa, and that the latter took over its name. As this envoy was not truthful, doubt still remains. [或雲日本乃小國為倭所並故冒其號使者不以情故疑焉] [The envoy] was, besides, boastful, and he said that the domains of his country were many thousands of square li and extended to the ocean on the south and on the west. In the northeast, he said, the country was bordered by mountain ranges beyond which lay the land of the hairy men. (145, tr. Tsunoda 1951:40)
Subsequent Chinese histories refer to Japan as Rìběn 日本 and only
mention Wō 倭 as an old name.
The earliest Korean reference to Japanese Wa (Wae in Korean) is the
If Kokuryo could not destroy Paekche itself, it wished for someone else to do so. Thus, in another sense, the inscription may have been wishful thinking. At any rate, Wae denoted both the southern Koreans and people who lived on the southwest Japanese islands, the same Kaya people who had ruled both regions in ancient times. Wae did not denote Japan alone, as was the case later. (1997:34)
"It is generally thought that these Wae were from the archipelago," write Lewis and Sesay (2002:104), "but we as yet have no conclusive evidence concerning their origins." The word Wa
This section's factual accuracy is disputed. Relevant discussion may be found on Talk:Wa (Japan). Please help to ensure that disputed statements are reliably sourced. (November 2013) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The Japanese endonym Wa 倭 "Japan" derives from the Chinese exonym
Wō 倭 "Japan, Japanese", a graphic pejorative
wèi 魏 ("ghost" radical) "the state of Wei" wēi 逶 ("motion" radical) "serpentine; winding, curving" [in wēiyí 逶迤 "winding (road, river)"] wěi 萎 ("plant" radical) "wilt; wither; atrophy; tire, grow weary; (metaphorically) decline, fade" wěi 痿 ("sickness" radical) "paralysis; impotence" wěi 諉 ("speech" radical) "shirk; shift blame (onto others)" wèi 餧 ("food" radical) "feed (animals)"
The unusual Wō 倭 "Japan" pronunciation of this wěi 委 phonetic element compares with:
wō 踒 ("foot" radical) "strain; sprain (sinew or muscle)" wǒ 婑 ("woman" radical) "beautiful" [in wǒtuǒ 婑媠 "beautiful; pretty"]
A third pronunciation is found in the reading of the following character:
ǎi 矮 ("arrow" radical) "dwarf, short of stature; low; inferior"
Graphic replacement of the 倭 "dwarf Japanese" Chinese logograph became inevitable. Not long after the Japanese began using 倭 to write Wa ∼ Yamato 'Japan', they realized its 'dwarf; bent back' connotation. In a sense, they had been tricked by Chinese logography; the only written name for 'Japan' was deprecating. The chosen replacement wa 和 'harmony; peace' had the same Japanese wa pronunciation as 倭 'dwarf', and - most importantly - it was semantically flattering. The notion that Japanese culture is based upon wa 和 'harmony' has become an article of faith among Japanese and Japanologists. (1992:6)
In current Japanese usage, Wa 倭 "old name for Japan" is a variant
Hanyu Pinyin wō
Middle Chinese /ʔˠiuᴇ/, /ʔuɑ/, /ʔuɑX/
Zhengzhang /*qoːl/, /*qoːlʔ/, /*qrol/
Revised Romanization wae
Kana ワ (On) やまと (Kun)
Romanization wa (On) yamato (Kun)
In Chinese, the character 倭 can be pronounced wēi "winding", wǒ
"an ancient hairstyle", or Wō "Japan". The first two pronunciations
are restricted to
wōqī 倭漆 "Japanese lacquerware" wōdāo 倭刀 "Japanese sword" wōguā 倭瓜 (lit. "Japanese melon") "pumpkin; squash" wōhémǎ 倭河馬 "pygmy hippopotamus" wōzhū 倭豬 "pygmy hog" wōhúhóu 倭狐猴 "dwarf lemur" wōheixingxing 倭黑猩猩 (lit. "pigmy chimpanzee") "bonobo"
Reconstructed pronunciations of wō 倭 in
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An article by Michael Carr (1992:1) "compares how Oriental and
Occidental lexicographers have treated the fact that Japan's first
written name was a Chinese Wō < *ʼWâ 倭 'short/submissive
people' insult." It evaluates 92 dictionary definitions of Chinese Wō
倭 to illustrate lexicographical problems with defining ethnically
offensive words. This corpus of monolingual and bilingual Chinese
dictionaries includes 29 Chinese-Chinese, 17 Chinese-English, 13
Chinese to other Western Languages, and 33 Chinese-Japanese
dictionaries. To analyze how Chinese dictionaries deal with the
belittling origins of Wō, Carr divides definitions into four types,
Α = "dwarf; Japanese" Β = "compliant; Japanese" Γ = "derogatory Japanese" Δ = "Japanese"
For example, Alpha (A) type includes both overt definitions like "The land of dwarfs; Japan" (Liushi Han-Ying cidian 劉氏漢英辭典 [Liu's Chinese-English Dictionary] 1978) and more sophisticated semantic distinctions like "(1) A dwarf. (2) Formerly, used to refer to Japan" (Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage 1972). Beta (B) "compliant; Japanese" is illustrated by "demütig [humble; submissive; meek], gehorchen [obey; respond]" (Praktisches zeichenlexikon chinesisch-deutsch-japanisch [A Practical Chinese-German-Japanese Character Dictionary] 1983). Gamma (Γ) "type definitions such as "depreciatingly Japanese" (e.g., A Beginner's Chinese-English Dictionary of the National Language (Gwoyeu) 1964) include usage labels such as "derogatory," "disparaging," "offensive," or "contemptuous". Some Γ notations are restricted to subentries like "Wōnú 倭奴 (in modern usage, derogatively) the Japs" (Zuixin shiyong Han-Ying cidian 最新實用和英辭典 [A New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary] 1971). Delta (Δ) "Japanese" is the least informative type of gloss; for instance, "an old name for Japan" (Xin Han-Ying cidian 新漢英詞典 [A New Chinese-English Dictionary] 1979). Carr evaluates these four typologies for defining the Chinese 倭 "bent people" graphic pejoration.
From a theoretical standpoint, A "dwarf" or B "submissive" type definitions are preferable for providing accurate etymological information, even though it may be deemed offensive. It is no transgression for an abridged Chinese dictionary to give a short Δ "Japan" definition, but adding "an old name for" or "archaic" takes no more space than adding a Γ "derogatory" note. A Δ definition avoids offending the Japanese, but misleads the dictionary user in the same way as the OED2 defining wetback and white trash without usage labels. (1992:12).
The table below (Carr 1992:31, "Table 8. Overall Comparison of Definitions") summarizes how Chinese dictionaries define Wō 倭.
Definition Type Chinese–Chinese Chinese–English Chinese–Other Chinese–Japanese
Α "dwarf; Japanese" 3 (10%) 10 (59%) 5 (38%) 4 (12%)
Β "compliant; Japanese" 0 0 1 (8%) 4 (12%)
Γ derogatory Japanese 0 1 (6%) 3 (23%) 11 (33%)
Δ "Japanese" 26 (90%) 6 (35%) 4 (31%) 14 (42%)
Total Dictionaries 29 17 13 33
Half of the Western language dictionaries note that Chinese Wō 倭
"Japanese" means "little person; dwarf", while most Chinese-Chinese
definitions overlook the graphic slur with Δ type "ancient name for
Japan" definitions. This demeaning A "dwarf" description is found more
often in Occidental language dictionaries than in Oriental ones. The
historically more accurate, and ethnically less insulting,
"subservient; compliant" B type is limited to Chinese-Japanese and
Chinese-German dictionaries. The Γ type "derogatory" notation occurs
most often among Japanese and European language dictionaries. The
least edifying Δ "(old name for) Japan" type definitions are found
twice more often in Chinese-Chinese than in Chinese-Japanese
dictionaries, and three times more than in Western ones.
Even the modern-day
Ancient Japan portal
Aston, William G. 1924. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. Charles E. Tuttle reprint 1972. Carr, Michael. 1992. "Wa 倭 Wa 和 Lexicography," International Journal of Lexicography 5.1:1-30. Forke, Alfred, tr. 1907. Lun-hêng, Part 1, Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch'ung. Otto Harrassowitz. Karlgren, Bernhard. 1923. Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese. Dover Reprint 1974. Lee, Kenneth B. 1997. Korea and East Asia: The Story of a Phoenix. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-95823-X OCLC 35637112. Lewis, James B. and Amadu Sesay. 2002. Korea and Globalization: Politics, Economics and Culture. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1512-6 OCLC 46908525 50074837. Nakagawa Masako. 2003. The Shan-hai ching and Wo: A Japanese Connection, Sino-Japanese Studies 15:45-55. Tsunoda Ryusaku, tr. 1951. Japan in the Chinese dynastic histories: Later Han through Ming dynasties. Goodrich, Carrington C., ed. South Pasadena: P. D. and Ione Perkins. Wang Zhenping. 2005. Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period. University of Hawai'i Press. Wilkinson, Endymion. 2000. Chinese History: a manual, revised and enlarged ed. Harvard University Asia Center.
Look up 倭 in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Unihan data for U+502D, Unihan Database entry for 倭
English translation of the Wei Zhi, Koji Nakayama
Hong, Wontack (1994). "Queen