The Land of the Rising Sun 日本
"The Land of the Rising Sun" is a phrase synonymous with Japan in most countries. But what does it mean? And is it a term used by the Japanese?
The expression "Land of the Rising Sun" is actually a translation of the name the Japanese use to refer to their country, Nihon. It's written using the kanji characters 日 (ni) which means "day", and 本 (hon), meaning "origin".
Nihon, then, would be the country of origin of the sun. It's a term that could refer to the geographical location of the country on the edge of Asia, but the name could also have a religious meaning associated with the sun goddess Amaterasu, believed to be an ancestor of the imperial lineage.
A name as old as Japan
The Chinese used the name Wa for Japan. The name Nihon (日本) was used for the first time by Shotoku Taishi in a letter to the Emperor of China in the seventh century.
Since then, this name has been used by all other countries to discuss Japan. By extension, the Japanese people became the Nihon-jin (日本人). Our own word in English for Japan is itself a distortion: through the Chinese pronunciation Riben, Nihon became "Japan".
Thus, we find many place names in Japan referring to Nihon: Nihonbashi (the bridge of Japan), Nihondaira (Japan Hill), Nihonkai (Sea of Japan) to list just a few.
In the nineteenth century it was usual to speak about Dai-Nihon Teikoku (大日本帝国), the Great Empire of Japan, a name now associated with the imperialist and aggressive era of Japan. The official name of Japan today reflects the defeat of 1945, talking about the Nihon-Koku (日本国), the State of Japan, without reference to the emperor.
A matter of pronunciation
But there remains one last question: should we say Nihon or Nippon? Both are valid, the difference is simply down to pronunciation, Nippon may be the older term but both are accepted.
Today, the Japanese also commonly use the English name, Japan, or even Jipangu, taken from the accounts of Marco Polo, as way to stand out or seem trendy.
Anyway: Ganbatte Nippon! Long live Japan!