Why is Japan called Japan? ‘Nippon’ vs. ‘Nihon’ and more on why Japan is called what it is.

The many things Japan is and was called.

From Wakoku to both Nippon and Nihon, “The Land of the Rising Sun”, Japan, and more, Japan has been referred to by many different names throughout the course of history. But…why? How can the name “Japan” be related to something as different as “Wakoku” or “Nippon?” You may be asking yourself this question. You may be asking yourself many things. This is a complicated world, after all.

Why is the world so complicated?! Why would so many different names exist for the exact same thing?!

The origin of the name ‘Japan’.

Did you know that Portugal had a very strong historical influence on Japan? In fact, tempura is originally based on a Portuguese dish. The same may be true for the origin of the word ‘Japan” as an international name to refer to, well, Japan.

Historically, linguists believe that “Japan” (originally Jipangu) derives from a Portugese interpretation of the early Mandarin Chinese or Wu Chinese word for Japan: Cipan (日本). The first records of “Jipangu” across Europe were thanks to a cheeky explorer you just may have heard of: Marco Polo. It is unknown how we got from “Jipangu” to “Japan , however, it is widely accepted that the origin comes from early Mandarin, and was spread to the world through European expansionism.

I remember asking my girlfriend at the time when I first began studying Japanese, “Why do people say Japan in English, if that isn’t what Japanese people call Japan?” (The grammar here is getting more and more confusing. Curse you, linguistic gods!). She told me that Japanese people consider the word “Japan” to be for foreign people. “That’s for people overseas. We use Nihon, or sometimes Nippon. It depends on when we use it.” This is an interesting dynamic to observe linguistically, because this relationship between the ‘inland’ and ‘outside’ world is very important in Japanese culture. Known as ‘uchi’ and ‘soto’ (Literally inner and outer world), it does make sense that the way the Japanese refer to themselves and their name to the rest of the world could be so different. 

“So what’s the difference between Nihon and Nippon? Why are there two different ways to say it?” 

What is the difference between Nippon and Nihon? 

Nippon and Nihon are the spoken form of the same written characters. These characters are 日(Ni or “sun”) and 本 (hon / ppon or “origin”), meaning “Nihon” and “Nippon” literally translate to “Sun Origin.” Why does more than one way to pronounce it exist? Well my girlfriend had this to say: “They both mean the same thing, but somehow “Nippon” sounds more official. Like it’s what you would say when referring to the emperor, or Japan as an olympic team. Nippon just sounds a bit more important somehow.” 

Based on my experience living in Japan since 2015, I can say that Japanese people use “Nihon” much, much more often in everyday conversations. I suppose the way I have internalized it is that when referring to Japan in an isolated way, the country of Japan would be known as “Nippon” more often than not. However, when used as an idea, or in a more casual conversation, Nihon tends to be a much more common way to refer to something as “Japanese”. For example, a Japanese person in Japanese would be called a “Nihonjin” (Jin meaning person). I think I have heard “Nipponjin”, but it’s much more rare. This may just be me, but whenever I hear somebody say “Nippon”, I hear it in a deep movie trailer narrator’s voice. It just has that general ‘official’ energy attached to it.  

Why is Japan called ‘Nippon’ and ‘Nihon’ in Japanese instead of ‘Japan?’

As I had stated earlier, “Japan” is a name derived of a Portugese interpretation of ancient Mandarin Chinese, however, as Mandarin Chinese (and Japanese) would evolve over the centuries, the original pronunciation of Cipan fell out of use in China. Eventually Japan would be known as riben as it still is today. 

So, how did this end up as “Nihon” or “Nippon?” Well, when Japan imported the Chinese alphabet in the 5th century, compromises had to be made to made the pronunciation of the original characters to the verbal Japanese language. At the time, Japan had a very advanced spoken language, but had no official writing system. This is one of the reasons why counting in Japanese depends entirely on the context, as some situations still use the original Japanese verbal system, while some systems are the transcribed pronunciation of the original Chinese words. It…get’s very complicated. 

The important takeaway however, is that the Japanese interpretation of the original Chinese characters were how we ended up with the pronunciation of both “Nippon” and “Nihon”. Both ways of pronunciation are different ways you can interpret to interpret the pronunciation of the characters 日本 (meaning sun origin.) The origin of this set of characters has an interesting historical background behind it that you may not be expecting. 

Why is Japan referred to as ‘the land of the rising sun?’

You may be surprised to learn that this name wasn’t something that was created by the Japanese people. It was actually created by China…again! It makes sense if you think about it. The sun rises in the East and sets in the the West. Seeing as Japan was located to the East of China, they began to refer to the island of Japan as the “Land of the rising sun.” 

Are you interested in learning more about the Japanese lifestyle?

On this site I enjoy writing about Japanese culture and language, but more than anything, I enjoy writing about my own personal experiences having lived in Japan for the last 7 years. If you are interested in reading about my experience meeting people and making friends in Japan, I think you’ll enjoy this article! Please check it out, and consider looking around at some of the other articles I have posted on this site. 

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