Nihon, Nippon, Japan

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Students of Japanese often get confused about when to use "Nihon" and when to use "Nippon" as the name of the country.  In truth, there are many names for the "Land of the Rising Sun (a translation of Nihon / Nippon にほん / にっぽん / 日本), and sometimes the English name "Japan" gets thrown into the mix.  All of these variants came together in an incident that is recounted for us by Jim Breen.

Ben Bullock (a Brit resident in Japan) remarked on the sci.lang.japan group recently that his local university library used "Nippon" instead of "Japan" for shelf labels, so it has "History of Nippon" and "Nipponese" for the language itself. All quite bizarre.

The discussion thread is here, and photos Ben took are here and here.  I speculated it might have been a particular staff member at that library with a bee in his / her bonnet about the word "Japan" (which of course is not derived from any Japanese word), but Ben unearthed a 2012 bulletin from the "Japan Library Association" which says they are changing "Nippon" to "Japan". The bulletin is here and the passage is:

Nihon no yomi Ōbun hyōki tsuite

NDC 10-ban kara,`Nihon' no yomi wa `Nippon' kara `Nihon' ni henkō shi,
Ōbun hyōki ni tsuite `Nippon'`Nipponese' wa `Japan'`japanese' ni henkō suru.


Regarding the Latin letter notation of 日本:

Starting from the NDC10 version, the notation for the Latin letter reading of 「日本」will change from "Nippon" to "Nihon".
For European notation, "Nippon" and "Nipponese" will change to "Japan" and "Japanese".

So perhaps that "Nippon" usage is a bit more widespread. It certainly had some currency in library circles as they use / used it for their cataloguing standards, e.g.,

Nihon jisshin bunruihō「日本十進分類法」(Nippon Decimal Classification: NDC)
Nihon mokuroku kisoku「日本目録規則」(Nippon Cataloging Rules: NCR)

It appears in company names: NHK, NEC, etc. NHK is understandable – it's a contraction of the Japanese name (Nippon Housou Kyoukai). NEC as the public label of Nihon denki 日本電気 is a remnant – they changed the English version of their name to "NEC Corporation" 30 years ago, and even before then they avoided using "Nippon" in favour of just "NEC".

Nathan Hopson notes:

Nippon remains the preferred designation on the news, and is often somewhat self-consciously used on TV and radio to express a certain nationalist pride. As demonstrated by the use of "Nadeshiko Japan" (なでしこジャパン) and "Samurai Japan" (侍ジャパン) for the women's and men's national soccer team names, "Japan" is occasionally used in katakana transcription to mean "Japan as viewed from the outside world."

We may also observe that "Nippon~" is often used in Linnaean Latin names.  People started to give scientific names to plants and animals in Latin in the 18th century, but in ancient Latin there was no word for Japan.  Consequently, since Nippon is the original name for Japan, taxonomists felt free to use Nipponicus / Nipponia / Nipponicum when they named newly discovered plants and animals, and these names have been accepted by the scientific community.

[Thanks to Jim Unger and Hiroko Sherry]


  1. ===Dan said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

    As I recall, the characters in McHale's Navy (1962-66) would refer to the Japanese as "Nips."

  2. Christopher said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

    IIRC, the country is called Nippon (and the language Nipponese) in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which I found odd and unhistorical.

  3. Gavin said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    Personally, having studied Japanese in college and lived in Japan for a couple years, my intuition was that Nippon was simply an older variant of the much more commonly used Nihon, but which was used by certain people (usually of older generations) to index a certain nostalgic or nationalistic ideology of 'Japan-ness,' (similar to the idea of 'Nihonjinron') I may be totally wrong here…but seeing that photo of 'Nipponese' on the library sign however might seem to support this idea.

  4. Joe Fineman said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    To my (aging) recollection, tho "Japs" was the dominant derogatory slang word for the Japanese in the US during W.W. 2, "Nips" was also used. It saved a little space in headlines.

  5. Carl said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

    A couple of points.

    1. "In ancient Latin there was no word for Japan."

    Not in ancient Latin, no, but Latin's not entirely dead. Wikipedia lists Japan as . On the other hand, one of the greatest journals of Japanese studies is "Monumenta Nipponica."

    Does anyone know what names the early modern Jesuits used? What about Vatican encyclicals?

    2. "'Japan' (which of course is not derived from any Japanese word)"

    Yes and no. It's ultimately derived from the same Chinese source as "Nippon" was (日本 is a Chinese loan word, not a native word), but it came to English via an unknown combination of languages, possibly Wu Chinese, Malay, and Portuguese. See

  6. Anthony said,

    May 31, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    There are plenty of Linnean names containing "Japonica", too, so Latin seems to accept both "Japan" and "Nippon" for the islands of the Rising Sun.

  7. Michael W said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 12:16 am

    Something about that note almost makes me think that 'Nippon' was used for the catalog as a compromise. 'Nippon' is probably more recognizable to English speakers as the name for the country than 'Nihon' would be, while still being close enough that a Japanese person might look under there before 'Japan'. Although the change is sensible since I think most scholars would have little problem with either form.

    As for racist terms used in the past, Merrie Melodies used 'Nips' in 1944, probably so they could have the pun in the title ("Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips").

  8. maidhc said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    An early variant of "Japan" was "Cipangu". This seems to go back perhaps as far as Marco Polo (hence pronounced as in Italian). There's a big article with an index to this name:

  9. leoboiko said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 6:52 am

    @Carl: The Jesuit's Latin–Portuguese–Japanese dictionary (1595) was called Dictionarium Latino Lusitanicum, ac Iaponicum. The Japanese refer to it as Raponichi Jiten 羅葡日辞典 "The La-Po-Nichi dictionary", using the practice of assigning one kanji for each language or country.

    I find it curious that Nihon / Nippon are Sino-Japanese words. Though 日 is in Mandarin, it's thought to have been /nit/ in Old Chinese (Schuessler). 本 was something like /pənʔ/—notice modern /h/ was /p/ in Old Japanese, so that gemination of /h/ even today results in /pp/. Sinitic loans with a syllable-final /-t/ eventually changed to /-ti/ (chi) or /-tu/ (-tsu) in J., hence 日 = nichi; but they're also related to gemination, from which Nippon.

    According to the Portuguese Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam (1603), 日本 could also be pronounced Nifon (= /niɸoN/ → modern Nihon); Nippon; or Jippon (= Iippon, in old romanization; the initial ‹i› was equivalent to ‹j› and represented a /ʒ/ in Old Portuguese, and was used for Japanese /z/, which at the time was a non-affricated [ʑ] still distinct from /di/ = [dʑi]).

    Jitsu, ji(p)- is the kan'on reading of 日, thought to derive from Late Middle Chinese as spoken in Chang’an (recall that Mandarin is [ʐi] which sounds quite close to [ʑ, ʒ]). Surely this must be related to the Cipangu / Zeppen / Jepang / Japan family? But I don't know if this Jippon was historically important inside Japan, or just an attempt by the Jesuits to reconcile it with the Portuguese/Latin forms…

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    Just looking at and taking it at face value, it looks like the current names in some of the southern Sinitic languages are more transparently connected to "Japan," e.g. Cantonese Jatbun and Min Nan Jit-pun. What is the best way to conceptualize the relationship between e.g. Jit-pun and Nippon/Nihon? Is it fair to call them cognates? A calque that looks like a cognate because the component morphemes are cognates if considered individually? Perhaps it's approximately the same as the relationship between English "Netherlands" and Dutch "Nederlanden," if slightly less transparent.

  11. leoboiko said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    Aren't such calque-cognates examples of what writing systems linguists call "graphic borrowing"? You import the written words, then read them according to your own orthographic rules (like e.g. "déjà vu" in English as /ˌdeɪ.ʒɑː ˈvuː/ ).

  12. 葦原中国 said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

    I have always preferred Cipanguo 豊葦原(toyoasihara[field rich with reeds]) as it doesn't have as many possible readings as 日出処(hiidurutokoro[land of the rising sun]).

    Of course, 瑞穂之邦(mizuhonokuni[land of abundant rice]) or simply 大和(yamato[great peace]) are also alternatives for those who wish to avoid the nihon/nippon confusion.

  13. Lazar said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

    @leoboiko: I don't quite get what you mean with "déja vu". /deɪʒɑː/ is the closest approximation that English can give to French /deʒɑ/ (it's not as though we use /diːdʒǝ/); /viː/ and /vuː/ are both equally bad renderings of /vy/, so in that case the spelling likely does cast the tie-breaking vote.

  14. Lazar said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    Sorry, should be "French /deʒa/" above.

  15. leoboiko said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

    Lazar: I was trying to think of a loan acquired via the written word, but I confess that the finer points of English orthography/pronounciation escape me (or even the grosser points…), so if this is an unorthographic spoken-language borrowing I'm in the wrong. Perhaps a more famous example would be "Mexico".

  16. mollymooly said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    @leoboiko: or "Paris" or "ski"; though if "ski" were totally anglicised it might be a homophone of "sky".

  17. Matt said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

    In that second photo they appear to have misspelled "Mathematics of Nippon and Zhongguo."

    This is in Wikipedia so it isn't really news, but I understand that for a while there in the medieval period "nippon" and "nihon" were sometimes used as markers of foreignness (specifically Chineseness) and Japaneseness, respectively, in fiction, notably the Noh/Kyogen tradition (for which we naturally have a lot of really specific information about pronunciation).

    The classic example is the play "Haku Rakuten" 白楽天, a Noh play about Bai Juyi being defeated in a freestyle battle by some Japanese fishermen, which includes exchanges like this (in Waley's translation, emphasis added):

    HAKU RAKUTEN: I have borne with the billows of a thousand miles of sea and come at last to the land of Nippon. Here is a little ship anchored near me. An old fisherman is in it. Can this be indeed an inhabitant of Nippon?

    OLD FISHERMAN: Aye, so it is. I am an old fisher of Nihon. And your Honour, I think, is Haku Rakuten of China [!].

    Of course from an English-speaking perspective the fact that the Old Fisherman calls him "Haku Rakuten" is itself an extremely strong indicator of Japaneseness.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    “Sun, day” Mandarin ri, is nie? In Shanghai. “Sun, day” has MC initial nj-, and this-j- caused the n- to become, palatalized which eventually yields ri in Mandarin. If –j- is dropped , the result is nit, i.e., the source for nie? In Shanghai. Sino-Japanese reading of the numbers in Chinese is: ichi "1", ni “2”, san “3”, si “4” etc. “2” in Chinese is er, which has the same nj- initial in Middle Chinese. Dropping the –j- results in ni “2” in Shanghainese as well as Sino-Japanese.

    I find the discussion of japon interesting, but it should not detract from Nippon, which has a firm etymology.

  19. Keith said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    J.M.Brewer wrote A calque that looks like a cognate because the component morphemes are cognates if considered individually? Perhaps it's approximately the same as the relationship between English "Netherlands" and Dutch "Nederlanden," if slightly less transparent.

    I'm not sure I quite understood… The English "Netherlands" is a perfectly transparent cognate for the Dutch "Nederlanden", especially if you understand that another English name for it is "the Low Countries".


  20. Andre B said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 8:33 am

    Interesting. In Japanese classes both in high school at in university in Australia, we almost exclusively used "nihon".

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