Where does the name Japan come from?

Marco Polo's caravan

The name of the country in Japanese is Nihon or Nippon, written 日本 in Chinese characters. The characters mean "the origin of the sun". This comes from the position of Japan to the east of China. However, neither "Nihon" nor "Nippon" sounds much like "Japan", so the origin of the word Japan is mysterious. Marco Polo never visited Japan, only China, but in a book he mentions the island of Chipangu. Some people say that this is the origin of "Japan". Others claim that "Japan" came from Malaysian 'Jih-pun' or something similar, which came from a southern Chinese dialect reading of Nippon.

Others say that when Marco Polo visited China, Chinese pronunciation was close enough to modern Mandarin that the character for "day/sun" (日) was a retroflex fricative, something like the "Z" in "Zsa Zsa Gabor", or "j" and "r" pronounced simultaneously and held for a syllable. The character for "origin/root/book/scroll" (本) was read something like "pun" (as in modern Mandarin, though it sounds more like the English word "bun" to English speakers), so Marco Polo did the best he could in Italian with what sounded to him like "jrjrrrpun". The weakest part of this account is the attribution to Marco Polo; perhaps it was somebody who came along later?

See also What are the names of Japan?

Acknowledgements

Edited from a post by Bart Mathias.


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