Most of us know Japan this present day simply as what it is: Japan. For the local Japanese people, their home country is known to be “Nihon”. How can one country have various names? This one does.
That’s not all there is to it. 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 a few different names that contributed to the build-up to the current proud names. We’ll stroll through the historical times of Japan, even far before the country had any written records about themselves; the country was a verbal one than it was a written one for an extremely long time, so in truth, we’ll never truly know exactly what the earliest people of Japan call themselves.
Regardless, let’s follow the advancement and changes of the various names of this island nation to grasp the concept of its respectful names today.
Oyashima, The Eight Islands
Kokiji (古記事), which translates to “Records of Ancient Matters” or “Account of Ancient Matters”, is the oldest Japanese text in history to ever exist, dating back to 500AD. This ancient text consists of accounts like Japanese myths and legends, all written in classical Japanese writing system which is the Chinese kanji (漢字) characters but read and pronounced with Japanese sounds.
One of the texts in the kokiji tells the story of the birth of Japan. It is said that the first Gods (in Japanese mythology anyway), named Kunitokotachi and Amenominakanushi, created two beings. They were then ordered to create the first lands by using a heavenly spear that was given to them to stick into the sea. When they pulled out the spear, eight drops of saltwater were created which then made self-forming islands. These islands are known as modern-day Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. At the start, these islands were collectively known as Oyashima (大八洲) which means “The Great Eight Islands”.
Even though there are written accounts of the birth of Japan, it is unclear and unknown whether or not the people of Japan at the time referred to themselves as people of Oyashima.
Moving on from Oyashima, let’s introduce the next name of Japan in history. In the past, before the country became one whole, there were various groups of people that make up Japan. One of them was from modern-day Fukuoka and they were the first-ever ones with written records of the names of Japan.
In the ancient Chinese historical records during the Yayoi Period, there were writings about the “Nakoku” (奴国). It was said that the Guangwu Chinese Emperor gifted the first Japanese envoy who visited China in 57AD with their own imperial seal. Now, this imperial seal, which translates to “King of the Japanese Country of Na, vassal to the Han”, is a national treasure.
There was another Chinese record that showed that the Nakoku returned the goodwill in the form of New Years’ tribute, much like what a real, legitimate country would do. Other than these records, there aren’t any others about the Nakoku Kingdom or any other groups of people during this time.
Wakoku, The Land of Wa
While the Nakoku Kingdom sounded very mysterious, they were just a representation of a part of Japan rather than a whole. The first written record of Japan as a whole country instead of separate islands is during the Three Kingdoms period in 220AD to 280AD. The ancient Chinese texts referred to Japan as Wakoku (倭国) — there weren’t any explanations as to why they were called that by the Chinese.
Let’s take a look at the kanji characters for Wakoku. “Koku” (国) refers to “country” and it’s as straightforward as it gets. What’s quite interesting is the “wa” (倭) kanji. This kanji is to refer to Japan as a country but the kanji itself has two different meanings behind it. It could mean “submissive people” because of the strokes of kanji looking like people bending down and carrying grain on their back; it could also mean “dwarfism” due to the physical structure based on the kanji strokes.
For the longest time, the former meaning is more often regarded. But after a long while, the Japanese people realized that the latter term is a more derogatory term and wasn’t too happy about it.
The People of Yamato
There’s a group of native Japanese people that resided in modern-day Honshu during the 6th century and they were the largest group of them all. They were known as the Yamato and they also used the same kanji character used in Wakoku to write their name Yamato (大倭). In the 8th century, the Yamato became the representative group of ancient Japan somehow.
At one point, the Yamato decided that they didn’t want to use the 倭 kanji due to its negative meaning; they then changed it to a different kanji, 和. This kanji has the meaning of harmony, balance, and peace, but it wasn’t originally pronounced as “wa”. Despite that, 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 due to the change in kanji characters.
If you notice to this day, the 和 kanji is used for various things related to Japan like Japanese food (washoku, 和食) and Japanese clothing (wafuku, 和服).
Nihon, The Land of the Rising Sun
After the ruckus of Wakoku and Yamato, we will finally see how the name we now know and love came about. Around the same time in the 8th century, the idea of “The Land of the Rising Sun” and “Sun Origin” popped in peoples’ heads.
There are actually quite a few renditions of how the name originated. There’s this book called “The Old Book of Tang” where it tells the story of the Japanese envoy, who visited China in the beginning, going back there and requesting a change of the country name because he disliked the previous name.
Another one is from a Japanese text called “The True Meaning of Shiji” where it mentioned that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian was the one who ordered the change of name.
Regardless of how the change came about, what matters is it did. The country name then switched to Nihon (日本). The kanji of this name had the literal meaning of “origin of the sun”, probably referring to the location of the country being on the east of China, and to the Chinese, that was where the sun rises from.
What makes Nihon the perfect name for this country is that it perfectly coincides with the Japanese mythology about the sun goddess, Amaterasu. She plays a huge role in Japanese culture, even to this very day!
Nihon vs Nippon
Now, I know we’re all thinking: “Is it Nihon or Nippon?” The simplest answer to it is that they’re both the same! Everything from how it is written to the meaning has no difference. You can say Nihon or Nippon to a Japanese person and they will know exactly what they’re referring to: their home country.
If you’re still not satisfied with the explanation, there’s actually a very slight difference; it’s how the words are being used in situations. “Nihon” is generally used as the regular name of Japan, while “Nippon” is used when referring to the country in official situations like stamps, banks, and money. I guess, to the Japanese, “Nippon” sounds more official and formal than “Nihon”.
Now, if the Japanese call their country Nihon (or Nippon), then why do the rest of the world call it Japan? Here’s where it gets a bit lost in translation — quite literally, actually — and there are quite a few story variations of how the name came about. But all of them have one thing in common: it all balls down to the pronunciations and identification of the kanji of Nihon.
Let’s take a look at the two kanjis. 日 can be pronounced as “jitsu” on top of “ni”. 本 can be read as “hon” or “pon”. If you combine these two, readings like “jitsu-pon” are also possible — and they can sound similar to “zipang” or “japon”.
Just like how the Japanese have a few ways of pronouncing one kanji, so do the Chinese. They have more than a few ways of reading depending on their dialects — Cantonese pronounced it as “Jat-bun”; the Mandarin Chinese pronounced it as “Rib-ben”; the Shanghainese pronounced it as “Zep-pen”; the Fujianese pronounced it as “Jit-pun”.
There had been quite a bit of Portuguese-Japan trade in those days as well. Stories about how the Portuguese pronounce the country’s name “Cipan” came up. There were others who believed that it came from the Malay word of the country’s name which is “Jepun”; that sounds extremely similar to the Chinese pronunciations.
Among all the speculations, there’s one story that’s the most popular. Who hasn’t heard of the extremely well-known Italian explorer Marco Polo? He was the first-ever person to introduce Japan to the rest of the world by writing about the country in his travel diaries. It’s debatable on whether or not he actually traveled to Japan, but in his writings, he referred to Japan as “Zipangu”. It’s not even certain where he heard that from — maybe on his adventures, or maybe from traders’ pronunciations. Because tons of people read Marco Polo’s adventure stories, it sheds light on the country Zipangu, which over time evolved into what we now know as Japan.
What a long history roller coaster Japan’s country name went on — from the Great Eight Islands to The Land of the Submissive People, and now proudly the Land of the Rising Sun. Whether you pronounce it as Nihon or Japan, they both hold the same meaning of the sun origin. With all these changes, you’ll never know what Japan is going to be called next — if it ever changes. We’ll have to wait and see, and let the magic of time do the work!