Why Is Japan Called Japan?

Mar 13, 2024Shopify API

Ever wondered why is Japan called Japan? Here’s everything you should know about how Japan got its name!

The name "Japan" conjures images of a land steeped in tradition and modernity. But why is it called Japan?

This intriguing question takes us on a historical journey, exploring the etymology and international influences that shaped the name recognized around the globe for the island nation we know today.

Why Is Japan Called Japan?

What Do The Japanese Call Japan?

The English language and the Japanese language are completely contrasting as we know but what several people do not know is that Japan is not called “Japan” by the Japanese as we call it. 

Japan is in fact called “Nippon” or “Nihon” in the Japanese language and by the Japanese people as well. 

It is not just the English language that calls Japan “Japan” but also other languages like Italian and French that refer to Japan using similar pronunciations such as “Giappone” and “Japon” respectively. 

If the Japanese address their nation as “Nippon” why do most of the people across the globe refer to it as Japan? Why can’t we refer to Japan as Nippon as the Japanese do?

It’s all due to linguistics and how history and the evolution of languages have fixed a certain name for a certain person, object, or even a country. 

Since we’re used to calling the country “Japan” it’s unlikely for us to instantly switch to a new name and start addressing the country as Nippon or Nihon like the Japanese do.

Similarly, the Japanese are used to addressing their home country as Nippon or Nihon and it’s impossible for them to use the English word “Japan’ to refer to their country.

What Is The Meaning of “Nippon”?

As we mentioned above, there’s a valid reason why the Japanese call their country Nippon. Although Japan and Nippon sound completely different when pronouncing there’s a correlation between the words, especially when we take a look at the kanji characters. 

The letters used in the Japanese language consist of kanji, katakana, and hiragana characters and kanji characters in specific are of Chinese origin. Kanji characters have specific meanings, unlike English alphabets which only represent sounds and impressions. 

In Kanji letters, the word Nippon is written as 日本, and the first kanji letter “日” means sun while the second kanji letter “本” means origin. 

When put together the word 日本 “Nippon” means the land of the rising sun. Now we all know why Japan is referred to as the land of the rising sun.

Presently in Chinese Mandarin, the word 日本 is pronounced as “Riben” which partly rhymes with the word “Nippon”. 

Furthermore, the kanji characters are ideograms, and ideograms by definition mean letters with meanings. Hence, the meaning of the kanji letters “日本” can differ depending on the context.

For example, the first kanji character “日” can also be pronounced as “Jitsu” and the meaning of the kanji letter can change to “today” while the second kanji letter “本” can be pronounced as Pon and when put together the word is pronounced as “Jitsupon”.

How Did Japan Get Its Name?

If the origin of Japan’s name was Nippon or Nihon why do we call it “Japan”? And how was Japan named “Japan”?

Initially, Japan was called several different names before it was called Nippon. In the 3rd Century, Japan was called “Wakoku” by the Yayoi people who resided in Japan, and the term Wakoku is translated as “dwarf”. 

Since the word had an offensive meaning, the Japanese envoys requested to change the country’s name, and during the Heian period, Japan got its name “Nippon” which is written in kanji as 日本. Eventually, the pronunciation of the word Nippon evolved to Nifon and Nihon. 

Japan came into the limelight when the famous merchant Marco Polo from Italy traveled to the Eastern World and discovered the great empires like the Mongol Empire. When Marco Polo was exploring the southern parts of China he learned about Japan and he then called Japan “Cipangu” or “Zipangu”. 

This was mainly due to how the locals living in South China at that period pronounced the word and Marco Polo introduced “Zipangu” to the entire world through his books. 

It’s only natural for the pronunciation of certain words to change over time as we’ve seen the cases with most words. From Nippon to Zipangu, the land of the rising sun later got its name “Japan”.

Regardless of how the name was pronounced, the meaning of the word remained the same throughout as “the land of the rising sun”.

What Do The Japanese Prefer Their Country To Be Called?

Now we know that Japan is called Nippon by the Japanese and Japan by most people across the globe. But what we aren’t completely aware of is what the Japanese like their nation to be called. 

Generally, most citizens of a particular country would prefer their country to be addressed as to how the locals call it. Although several countries have different names in several languages, the natives prefer to use their particular language to refer to their country’s name. 

In Japan’s case, it’s a matter of debate because the views and opinions of the Japanese people differ variedly. 

For instance, according to AP News, a letter written by a student from Tokyo was published by Asahi Shimbun and the letter addressed the issue of how the official name of Japan is Nippon and that’s how it should be addressed internationally as well.

The student also requested that every Japanese citizen should unanimously use Nippon to represent their country in international sports events and such. 

Similarly, there are several people who’re nationalists and who don’t want the origin and culture of their country to be altered by external factors. And there are some people who’re just used to calling their nation by their language irrespective of any nationalistic values.

Meanwhile, most Japanese people aren’t against the idea of Japan having two different names and believe it’s common for most people across the world to address their country as Japan since English is the commonly spoken language worldwide.  

Since most countries across the globe are addressed differently in multiple languages it’s acceptable for countries to have more than one name and it all depends on the preferences of what names people like to use. 

Can We Expect The Name of Japan To Change In The Future?

We’ve witnessed several countries across the globe change their national flag, country name, and sometimes even the national anthem to ensure the traditions and cultures of their country aren’t influenced by outside forces or to declare that their country is an independent nation. 

Very recently the news of Turkey changing its official name to “Turkiye” has hit the global population and most people were caught off guard. 

The reasons for the name change of the country are to represent the cultural values of the nation and also to avoid confusion with the bird turkey. Turkiye also requests the UN to address the nation by its new name and by the correct pronunciation.

Likewise, there are countless examples of how countries have altered their names and prefer to be called by the new name. Similarly, we can expect a new name change for Japan as well. 

Although it’s acceptable for Japan to change its name to Nippon or Nihon, it’s pretty certain that most of us would be surprised and it’s going to take a lot of time for us to adapt to the new name as well.

Only time and the future generations would know if there’s ever going to be a name change for Japan and what that name would be. 

Why Is Japan Called Japan: FAQs

Why is Japan called Japan and not Nihon?

When Marco Polo traveled to China he learned from the people of South China that Japan was called “Zipangu”. And some early translations of the kanji characters also indicate that it’s pronounced as Nippon or Nihon. After Marco Polo introduced Japan to the Western world, the name of the country was eventually altered to “Japan” as it rhymes with “Zipangu”. Despite how certain languages call Japan, the Japanese people address their country as Nippon or Nihon.

Why Japan is named Japan in English?

There are several theories of how the word “Japan” came up in the English Language but the word was definitely derived from the pronunciation of kanji characters. Since the 7th Century, Japan was written in kanji characters as “日本” which was pronounced as “Nippon” in Japanese, and the word meant “the land of the rising sun”. Through the use of Chinese kanji characters, the name was pronounced differently in China and the closest word to the word “Japan” is “Zipang” which was what people in South China used to call Japan.

What do Japanese people call Japan?

The Japanese people call their country “Nippon” and it’s also sometimes pronounced as “Nihon”. The kanji characters used to write both Nippon and Nihon are 日本 and the translation of the word in English means land of the rising sun.

What was Japan originally called?

Originally, Japan had several names, and one of the first names of Japan during the 3rd Century was “Wakoku” which means dwarf in English. The name was later changed to Yamato as the connotation of Wakoku sounded offensive. Between the 7th Century, the name was changed to Nippon and since then the Japanese people have been calling their country either Nippon or Nihon.

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