As any student of Japanese will tell you, its use of Chinese characters known as kanji can be a nightmare at times. And although they can be really useful at deducing the meaning of complex words, they give little in the way of clues as to how one should pronounce them.
Take the kanji for Japan (日本) for example. Even a first grader can tell you what it means, but ask a group of adults how to pronounce it and you might get a mixture of “Nihon” or “Nippon” and maybe even an occasional “Yamato” if one of those people happens to be a smart-ass.
■ Why Japan?
Before getting into the Nihon/Nippon issue, let’s figure out why English speakers completely ignore the original name and call the country “Japan,” a name that would mean “Well, bread!” in its native language.
It would seem the culprit behind this variation of the name is Marco Polo during his reported visits to Northern China during the Yuan Dynasty. Although he never actually made it to Japan he heard of the place from those he met in China. At that time the name for Japan was established as the kanji (日本), which in Chinese reads as Rìběn.
However, due to the dialect of that area and time it came out sounding like “Jipen” which was transcribed as “Zipangu” in The Travels of Marco Polo. From there it spread through the linguistic stew of Europe and became the modern “Japan” in English today.
■ “Nippon” came first
A long time ago Japan used to be known as “Wa” or “Yamato” and used the kanji 倭. Time passed and the official kanji was changed to 日本 in 640. However, the name Yamato was still used for some time. Around the latter half of the 7th century the official reading of 日本 changed to either “Nippon” or “Jippon.”
It’s believed that the pronunciation of “Nihon” came as a nickname in the Kanto region during the Edo period. People associate that story with the differences between 日本橋 (Nipponbashi) in Osaka and 日本橋 (Nihonbashi) in Tokyo.
■ “Nihon” came out on top
Knowing that, it would seem the obvious answer is that “Nippon” is the correct way to pronounce 日本 simply because it was here first. However, a recent survey showed that 61 percent of Japanese people read it as “Nihon” while only 37 percent said “Nippon.“ The results also showed that “Nihon” was much more prevalent among younger people too. So while it would seem “Nippon” has seniority, “Nihon” has the popular vote.
Naming the country would certainly seem like an appropriate job for the government, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately there is no official document defining the pronunciation of 日本 or 日本国. However, an attempt was made by the Ministry of Education in 1934. They were conducting a major investigation into the national language, a part of which recommended that the country officially be pronounced “Nippon” once and for all. However, the government simply ignored their request.
In 2009, a Member of the Lower House made a slightly more liberal move and submitted a request asking that the national government decide on a unified pronunciation, whether it be “Nippon” or “Nihon.” The government replied that both terms were in wide usage and it saw no reason to take an official side on the matter.
■ 日本 = ?
You could either applaud the government’s indecision as a way of saying that they had bigger issues to deal with, or you could criticize their “Don’t worry man, it’s cool” attitude. Either way, one thing is certain. The name of this country is simply two or three pictograms that legally could be verbally interpreted any way you want, be it Nihon, Nippon, Jippon, Japan, Hinomoto, Yamato, Wa, or Zipangu.
Sources: NHK, Kotoba Zatsuki, Gigazine via Naver Matome
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