This post contains affiliate links.
In English, the name “Japan” comes from its original name in Chinese characters. The word first referred to a collection of islands that now form Japan’s archipelago and not just the main island Honshu. At the time, other islands like Shikoku and Kyushu were also essential parts of Japan.
When did Japanese people start calling their country Japan?
And why “Japan” instead of “Nippon”?
I’ve been curious about this for a long time, so I decided to find out more by looking at how Nihon became “Japan” and how the country was called before that.
After a lot of research, I learned that there are many theories about this topic.
Among them, here are the three most widely accepted theories:
1. In the first theory,
Sometime in the Heian period (794-1185), Japanese people started to use Nihon in Wa (Chinese people used wa as Japan’s name). During this period, Japan had its first contact with China and Korean countries through the introduction of Buddhism. It was during this time that Japan gradually started to be called Nippon.
Because Shintō and Buddhism were both introduced from China, it’s possible to be known as Nippon by the Chinese.
2. The second theory
Is that Japan was called Wa in China and was translated into Japanese as Nihon. This term first appeared around the 12th century in documents such as “Tale of Genji” (aka “The Tale of Prince Genji”), a work from this period, though it is not clear why Japan started being called Nihon at this time.
3. The third theory
Is a variation of the second, which says that people in China first called Japan Wa, and then Japanese people came to call their country Nihon.
In my opinion, the latter two theories sound more convincing than the first one.
Japan’s name is a mystery.
Some people also believe that there was a fourth theory, in which Wa and Nihon were two different words for Japan at the same time. However, since they are nearly identical in pronunciation, it would not be obvious to use these two terms interchangeably.
In any case, it seems that “Japan” has become the modern-day equivalent of Nihon.
Moreover, I found out that foreigners unfamiliar with Japanese characters started calling Japan Nippon or even Nihon in English as early as the Meiji period (1868-1912). This may be because they thought that Japan’s name was created by combining the Chinese characters “Nippon” (日本) and “ho” (本), which mean sun and origin, respectively.
It could be that in Japan’s case, its name has never changed much over time. But since it is called Nihon or Goken only in Japanese, it’s not surprising that many people do not know the meaning of these names.
Does the country have another, less confusing name in other languages?
In Chinese, Japan’s name is written as 和满/和漢. In modern Chinese characters (simplified Chinese), it is written as 和漢 (Héhàn).
But when Japan was first introduced to China, the Japanese archipelago wasn’t yet called by this name.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when Japan was ruled by the “shogun” Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, for example, Japan’s name in Chinese characters was 葉城/葉埨 (Yèchéng), which means Yedo Castle, and that was the name for Japan.
The simplified Chinese characters were also created during this period of the Ming dynasty in China. So that this may be when these characters first started to be used.
However, since it wasn’t until sometime after 1603 that Japan’s name became firmly established as 葉城 /葉埨, it’s not unreasonable to say that the Chinese characters for Yedo Castle were derived from the Japanese word of “Nihon” or “Wa.” (Wa is another common way of referring to Japan in ancient Chinese texts)
In Korea, Japan is called Hanguk. It’s a translation of Wa and was often used in Chinese texts during the late Chosun period (1392-1910) to refer to Japan. Although translation is written in Chinese characters, it may be one of Korea’s first Japanese translations.
Some linguists believe that Hanguk comes from Nihon by reversing Wa and using Gun (国), which means state or country, instead of using Nihon’s Ho (本) as China.
However, we can’t be sure that this theory is correct since Korea never had a functional relationship with Japan in the Heian Period (794–1185) when Wa became established as Nippon in Japanese texts.
The Korean name of Japan may have been created by someone who didn’t know that Wa was a Japanese pronunciation of Nippon.
In the West, Japan is called Nihon, which is written in Roman letters as Japonia or Dschapanía (アスヤペン・ダチア). This word comes from Nippon (日本) in Japanese.
In the 18th century, when Japan started to trade with other countries, some people used Japonia as an alternative name for Japan. After that, it continued being called by this name until the 19th century.
This was likely because they thought Japan’s name was created by combining the Chinese characters for Nippon (日本) and ho (本).
Why does Japan use English for some of its writing and not katakana or kanji?
I found that Japan’s name is written in katakana (カタカナ) when it means a country, but only in Roman letters and not kanji.
In other words, the Japanese name for Nihon/Nippon is written as ニホン or ニッポン. It seems that when this name is written in English text, it’s also written as Nihon or Nippon using Roman letters. This means that the Japanese use katakana to denote a country’s name much more frequently than kanji.
I wondered why, but I think there’s no need to go into great detail here because I believe the answer is simple.
People who live in a country or countries other than Japan don’t really need to know kanji for Japanese cities and roads, so they write them using Roman letters instead. For example, when a foreigner wants to tell someone that he’s living near the Tokyo Ward Office, he can use katakana to write “Toiu,” which is written in katakana as トウイー.
The Japanese use this kind of writing when they want to tell foreigners that the country’s name is Nihon or Nippon, or Tokyo and Tôkyô (東京). These are written as Japan or Tokyo (in katakana) and not Nihon or Nippon in English texts.
Starting from the Edo period, Japanese people wrote their country’s name in Roman letters rather than kanji. They continue to do so today may have something to do with Japan’s relatively closed country from the mid-18th century until it was defeated in World War II.
Although I can’t explain why they write their city and road names in Roman letters, I think this explains why Japan’s name is written in katakana when it means a country.