A discussion about the origin of Japan’s name (日本, nihon / nippon)

By | February 24, 2017

It’s amazing how you can study a foreign language for so long, yet somehow overlook what seem like basic things.

The other day I was reading a book about Japan written for elementary school children which talked about Japan’s history and culture. On one of the first few pages, it said that the Japanese call their country Nihon, which means “the source of the sun”.

At the time, something just felt wrong about that, but when I checked the facts it seems it was partially right. And yet, it wasn’t the whole story.

The name for country of Japan is written in Japanese as 日本, which can be pronounced as both nihon and nippon. Apparently the government recognizes both ways as valid, though the former is more common, especially among the younger generation.

The first character 日 means “sun” or “day”, and is generally read as “hi” or “nichi“.

The second character 本 has many meanings including “book”, “main”, and “origin”, and can be read as “hon” or “moto“. (ref)

So, putting these together, “日本” can be said to *literally* mean “the source of the sun”. In fact, another way to say this country’s name is “日の本” (hi no moto) which makes this meaning more explicit.

But my problem with saying “source of the sun” is that it is over-literal and doesn’t really convey the implied meaning. Looking at a dictionary for 日の本, we see this explanation:

  1. 日が昇る本の意》日本の異称。日の本の国。「日の本一の山」

The part in bold says (roughly) “the meaning of ‘the origin from where the sun rises’ You could translate this a little more naturally (but less literally) as “The place where the sun rises from”.

I like these definition much more than simply saying “the source from the sun”, since the latter sounds to me like we are talking about the big bang or some other lofty cosmological topic.

In all fairness, the same book did say “Japan is also called ‘The land of the rising sun’ “. However, while I had heard this expression before, until now I didn’t know it actually came from the meaning of the country’s name itself. It sounded to me like it was just some arbitrary artistic name somebody made up. Now I understand it’s actually a pretty good translation (with a little artistic flair) of 日本.

Some of you may still be confused what “the origin from where the sun rises” actually means, and to be honest, so was I. I did some research using both Japanese and English Wikipedia, and it turns out that this name was apparently given because the sun rose over Japan from the point of view of China, which lies to the west of Japan. At least that is what the running theory is.

There is much more history here if you are interested in that kind of stuff, and though I don’t intend to cover all this in detail, here are a few quick facts:

  1. Japan was once called 大和 (yamato)
  2. 倭国 (wakoku) was one of the names for Japan called by the Chinese.
  3. 日本国 (nihonkoku, literally “The country of Japan”) is another name for Japan that is used in some official places, like the Japanese Industrial Standard.
  4. The origin of the English word “Japan” (which sounds almost nothing like nihon) apparently came from the word Cipangu, which is how Marco Polo recorded an Early Mandarin (or Wu) Chinese word for Japan.



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