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Culture

Why is Japan called ‘Japan’ and not ‘Nihon?’

The reason why Japan isn’t called Nihon involves a gradual change over millennia and the many countries that had an influence on it.

By 4 min read

For sports fans, when the Japanese women’s volleyball team played their Chinese rivals for the bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics, it culminated in an amazing Olympics for volleyball in Asia. However, for language fans like myself, the one thing that was as exciting as the game was the outfit worn by the Japanese athletes: their outfits said ‘Nippon’ instead of ‘Japan’.

The choice to wear Nippon shirts resulted in an influx of queries to the Japanese volleyball association about why Japan had chosen this name. However, for people living in Japan, this may seem strange. After all, Japan is an Anglicized version of Japan’s name: Nihon or Nippon and is rarely used by Japanese speaking their native language. It raises the question: why are the names of the country so different?

The early names for Japan

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The official origin of the name wakoku remains unconfirmed.

While Japanese people usually refer to their country as Nihon or Nippon these days, in early texts, the names Oyashima (mother island) or Yamato (which was written with the Chinese characters for great and wa, see below) were used. However, even in those early days, there is evidence that Japan had other names in other countries such as Wakoku (a name for identifying Japan at the time) by the Chinese.

The origin of the “wa” in Wakoku is hotly debated. The most likely theory is that the Japanese words waga (oneself) and ware (ourself) formed it.

Another theory is that wakoku came from the Chinese character for “dwarf” as the Japanese bowed, thus reducing their stature.

In the West around the 14th century, Japan was likely going by “the noble island of Chipangu,” which was given to it by none other than the famous explorer Marco Polo. Although it seems likely that Chipangu was Japan, it is not confirmed as Marco Polo included some very fanciful tales about these isles including the presence of rhinos, cannibalistic natives and private houses made of gold.

How the name came to be Japan

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Foreign traders in Yokohama.

Around 700-800 AD, these early names became Nihon (ほん) in Japan, which is made up of the Chinese characters for sun () and origin (もと). Again, there are many theories about what prompted this change, including that Japan was named after the sun god Amaterasu, because Japan is located east of its Chinese neighbor and for Chinese trade purposes.

While “Nihon” may sound nothing like “Japan,” the mystery becomes a little clearer if we look at the other languages around the time. As Japan has historically been a closed country and difficult to travel to because of its numerous typhoons, Western sailors would have likely got the name of the country from people that traded with the Japanese rather than directly from Japanese people.

Considering the languages of the people that these early sailors would have likely met, it becomes clear that Nihon was only used by the Japanese.

A lot of the trade at this time was done by the Portuguese and the Italians, especially the maritime Republic of Venice, with these groups. It is likely that these explorers would have used these terms to make the country’s name, as Italian texts around these times show Japan being called Gaipan.

It seems likely that this name came into the English language from the Italians as Gaipan appears in an English travel book published in 1577, “The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies and other Countreys Lying Eyther Way Towardes the Fruitfull and Ryche Moluccaes.” Given that the Italian “Gi” sounds like “J” to non-native ears, it is unsurprising that the English swapped “Gi” for “J” resulting in “Japan.”

Not just Japan

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It’s common for countries to have different names in different languages.

Fascinatingly, the name Japan tells us about the trade being done by the whole of Asia and their connections with the outside world including the links among the Portuguese, Chinese, various Asian nations and the Italians.

Of course, it is quite common for countries to have different names in different languages. For example, Bundesrepublik Deutschland is translated into (the Federal Republic of) Germany. This can also be seen even within countries as my home (the United Kingdom) may be called Y Deyrnas Unedig (Wales) or Rioghachd Aonaichte (Scottish Gaelic) in the different countries that form the union.

Part of the richness of languages is that our histories and worldview are reflected in our language.

On the one hand, Europe’s long trade history with the Chinese and south-east Asians is likely to have made Nihon become known as Japan. On the other hand it also explains how my country’s name became igirisu, showing Japan’s long history with the Portuguese instead of the Brits. So whether you call Japan as Japan, Nihon or Wakoku, all the names contain hundreds of years of history and culture.

Does your country have a different name in different languages? Let us know in the comments!

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