Okay, cool is okay, in abstract terms–fashion, attitude–but PLEASE not the weather! After a freezing winter and an extended cool spring, I relish the summer heat, humidity and all–okay, I hated the hay fever… But now, a storm has come through to send the mercury plummeting to levels unheard of in the summer–especially for this SoCal boy. Gimme the heat! We even had a black out for about an hour… Anyway, I thought I’d play a BGM that reminds me of the dog days of summers in early 90s Japan. I’ve got others, but they’d be even older…
Why is Nihon called Japan?
A Continuing Series of Useless–Yet Inexplicably Interesting–Information
This is the question I posted before I went to sleep last night. While the West refers to France as France, and America as America, it calls a country, known to its citizens as Nihon, Japan. This morning, Takunishi, that man steeped in all things Japanese, responded to the above query by telling me that the name Japan came from the word Zipang, likely Portuguese, meaning perhaps the “Land of Gold.” And indeed, according to the Wikipedia, “Zipang, Zipangu or Jipangu (where the ending 国 means “country”) is the archaic name for Japan, from Portuguese. That was first introduced by Marco Polo’s book, with spelling Cipangu.“
EN”>But the question is, where did this Portuguese word come from? Why did they call it Zipang, instead of Nihon or Nippon? I don’t really know why, but I’ve created my own story after studying Chinese.
In Modern Chinese–Mandarin, to be precise–the characters for Japan 日本 are pronounced, ri-ben. Now, this doesn’t look anything like the word Nihon or Japan, except for the fact that it has two syllables. But the interesting thing is its pronunciation: ‘r’ as represented in pinyin (modern Chinese represented phonetically in roman letters) is similar to the sound ‘j’ or ‘zh’ as represented in English. Further, ‘i’ in pinyin–and only after certain consonants–is pronounced in a way that would sound similar to ‘er’ (as in ‘her’) to the American ear. One more thing: ‘e’ in certain combinations is pronounced ‘u’ as in ‘up’. (Amazingly, some scholars actually believe pinyin is the perfect romanization for Chinese.) Consequently, the Chinese pronunciation of 日本–transliterated for the average English speaker–might look more like “jer-bun.” (Chinese scholar, Cult of Dizzo, may have a different opinion, of course.)
Okay, so my story goes like this: To establish its sovereignty and legitimacy to its neighbors, the land of Yamato 大和 produced the Taiho Codes (701), a legal system “borrowed” from the great Chinese civilization. In it, they established the emperor as ruler, government structure, laws, and an official name. Perhaps taking a Chinese perspective–it was, after all, the powerful Middle Kingdom 中国–they saw themselves as a land to its east, an area where the sun rises, the sun’s 日 source 本, as it were.
China accepted Japan as a sovereign land and subsequently referred to it by its official name, albeit using their pronunciation. When some visiting Europeans asked what lies to the east, the Chinese responded with the word that became the basis for the West’s name for 日本. “jer-bun.” (Get it? Get it?)
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yeah, right.” And I’d be the first to admit that modern Chinese cannot be pronounced exactly as it was during the Tang or Ming dynasty, although I’d bet that they would be similar. And certainly, this is my “fairly tale”, not an exercise in critical methodology. But interestingly enough, there was a man from Venice named Marco Polo who published his experiences in China in a book entitled Le Merveilles du Monde (that’s “Marvels of the World” to you and me) at the end of the 13th century. In it, he also mentions a “land of gold” that the Chinese spoke of, a group of islands to the east of China that he introduced to the West as… (drum roll, please)… Jipang, the alternate spelling for English speakers representing the Portuguese pronunciation of Cipangu.
Note: the ‘g’ or ‘gu’ is from the Chinese pronuciation of 国 ‘guo’.
For more, see: Marco Polo’s Asia; an introduction to his “Description of the world” called “Il milione.”