What lies behind the names of Asian countries: Japan

What lies behind the names of Asian countries – Japan

The land of the rising sun, Japan is home to a population of 126.3 million people. The country is known for its anime, fast technological advancements, rich culture and history, as well as beautiful natural delights. So, what’s in a name? A 26-year old Kazuo Sato sparked debate when he wrote a letter to the editor of a Japanese newspaper that the country should not be called Japan but Nippon. This sparked floods of further letters from other readers at a time that was controversial in the country as the then emperor was ill. While some argued that Japan should be maintained as the official name especially at events such as international sporting events, others claimed that Nippon should be the text written on the backs of the athletes’ T-shirts, amongst others. But where does the name Japan come from and despite this debate over the names, what is the actual name of this country? Let’s take a closer look.

Its first name – Wakoku

Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years and since Japanese was a spoken language before it was a written one, it is unclear what the early people of Japan called themselves. However, in 711-712 CE, the Record of Ancient Matters was written, which is the oldest Japanese text in existence. It talks about the mythical creation story of Japan. This Record is also known as the Kojiki and it talks about the birth of the Eight Great Islands or the land of “Oyashima”. It is unclear whether the name Oyashima was used by Japan’s earliest people but when the Kojiki was written, the country was already going by the name of Wakoku.

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The Land of Wa

When ancient Chinese encountered people living in the southern area of Japan, they called them the “Wa”. Historical Chinese court documents mention the Han Dynasty Emperor Guangwu, who gave a golden seal to the first Japanese envoy to visit China in 57 CE. This seal is inscribed with text that roughly translates to ‘King of Na, Land of Wa, vassal to Han Dynasty’. It is now considered a national treasure.

Nihon or Nippon

During the period around the 7th or 8th century, Japan’s name changed from Wakoku to Nihon. There is some debate around the requested name change as it is believed that the Japanese envoy to China requested a change in names because he disliked it, while others indicate that Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered this name change. The name Nihon literally translated means “origin of the sun”. It is possible that this name was given because Japan lies to the east of China and is where the sun rose from for the Chinese. Therefore, the title “origin of the sun”, which also has some connections to Japanese mythology, is a longstanding name for the country.

Modern-day Japan

JapanVenetian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. One book that was a result of his travels is titled Book of the Marvels of the World and in it he mentions “Cipangu”. Even though it is not clear whether he actually visited Japan during his travels to Asia, it is suspected that the name came from Portuguese who adapted the name to Japan. It is also possible that Dutch explorers during that period may have heard the name ‘Yatbun’ or ‘Yatpun’ in southern China and interpreted it as ‘Ja-pan’.

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Although there is no conclusive evidence that the above-mentioned explanations are the real reason for calling Japan “Japan” today, they are certainly very likely explanations. Today, the debate around the name of Japan or Nippon is not as controversial as it was in the 1980s and while people hold various personal opinions, it appears that the name Japan is here to stay. Much like the name Deutschland for Germany, Japan and Nippon tend to be interchangeable. Therefore, whether you call it Japon, Iapan, Giappone, Япония (Yaponiya), 일본 (Il-bon), Rìběn, Yahtbún, Zeppen, Nhật Bản, the name will continue to be associated with glorious mountains, a vastly developed economy, manga and anime, and deeply rich and engrossing culture and history.