Etymology of the names of Japan



The ancient area of Japan is marked blue in the map. Hokkaidou, Kuril Islands and Okinawa weren't a part of Japan at the time. Yamato Province is marked red.

1. 倭 Wō: The term used of Japan by the Chinese around the beginning of the Common Era. The character's original meaning was ‘submissive’ or ‘dwarf’. The Koreans adopted the word as 왜 Wae. Even the Japanese started to call their land Wa.

2. 山戸 Yamato: Originally the name of a small province, but eventually came to mean the whole Japan. The original meaning of the name is not clear, but it might have meant 山戸 ‘Mountain Gate’.

3. 倭 Yamato: During the Kofun period (ca. 250–538 CE), the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system. At this time, the Japanese started to write Yamato with the same character as Wa (ateji).

4. 大倭 Yamato: In the Asuka period (538–710), the Japanese place names were standardized into two-character compounds. The name Yamato got prefixed with the character 大 ‘great’, but the pronunciation of the name stayed the same.

5. 大和 Yamato / 和 Wa: During the Nara period (710–794), the Japanese finally understood the fact that the name they had been given by the Chinese was pejorative. Thus they replaced the character meaning dwarf or submissive with the more flattering 和 which was pronounced the same way (wa) but meant ‘harmony’. The change was made in the name Yamato as well as Wa. Even today the character 和 is used in compounds with the meaning ‘Japanese’.



1. 日本 Nyit-pwon: In the 7th century, Japan got a new, Middle Chinese name which means ‘origin of the sun’: from the viewpoint of the Chinese, the sun rises in the direction of Japan. According to the chronicle Tangshu, the name was adopted because a Japanese envoy was dissatisfied with the Chinese name for Japan. The True Meaning of Shiji, a commentary on the chronicle Shiji, however states the name change was an order from Wu Zetian, the only true female Emperor of China (690–705).

Nowadays Japan is known as Rìběn in Mandarin Chinese, Zeppen in Wu Chinese (including Shanghainese), Jit-pun in Min Nan, and Jatbun in Cantonese. In Korean the name of Japan is 일본 Ilbon. All of these are descendants of the original Middle Chinese word. Wu Chinese and Min Nan didn't develop from Middle Chinese but separated already from Old Chinese, so these languages probably used their own pronunciation rules and only borrowed the written form.

2. 日本 Nippon: In Old Japanese the name was pronounced Nippon.

3. 日本 Jippon, Nifon: Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan at the end of the 16th century. The Middle Japanese dictionary they published in 1603 has the name of Japan in the form of Jippon and Nifon. In Middle Japanese, the original [p] sound had softened to a [ɸ] sound, similar to [f]. Because the character for sun often doubles the following consonant, the [pp] sound was still in use as well. The difference in the beginning of the word is because the character 日 can be pronounced both nichi and jitsu. The former reading is based on 5th to 6th century Chinese, the latter on 7th to 9th century Chinese.

4. 日本 Nippon, Nihon: In Modern Japanese, there are two ways to pronounce the name: Nippon and Nihon. Of these, the former is thought to be more official and it is used in money, stamps, and other official contexts. The latter is more used in spoken language. In Modern Japanese, the [ɸ] sound has softened more and changed into [h].

5. Cipangu: Marco Polo travelled around Asia with his father and uncle in 1271–1295. During that time, he wrote down an early Mandarin or Wu Chinese word for Japan as Cipangu. The name also contains the word 國 guó ‘country’. This was the first time Japan was mentioned in a European source. In a European map it was probably first seen when the monk Fra Mauro published his world map in the 1450's.

6. Jepang: The name for Japan travelled from Chinese to Malay language as Jepang. In Modern Malay it has developed into Jepun.

7. Iapam: Portuguese traders borrowed the word from Malay in the 16th century. According to the orthography of that time, it was written as Iapam.

8. Giapan: The traders brought the word again to Europe. The first English language source (a letter dated 19 February 1565 and published in 1577) writes it as Giapan.

9. Japan: As the orthography of English developed, the word got its modern form: Japan.

Published 3/3/2010


Baxter, W. 2001. An Etymological Dictionary of Common Chinese Characters. Fetched 2/3/2010.

Japan. Wiktionary. Fetched 3/3/2010.

Names of Japan. Wikipedia. Fetched 2/3/2010.

Starostin, S. 2006. Database Query to Chinese Characters. StarLing database server. Fetched 2/3/2010.

Wa (Japan). Wikipedia. Fetched 2/3/2010.

Yamataikoku. Wikipedia. Fetched 2/3/2010.


CarolSpears, Tintazul. 2007. Asia countries-gray. Wikimedia Commons. Fetched 2/3/2010.

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