Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean “the sun’s origin”, that is, where the sun originates, and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with the Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to China. Before Nihon came into official use, Japan was known as Wa (倭?) or Wakoku (倭国?). Wa was a name early China used to refer to an ethnic group living in Japan around the time of the Three Kingdoms Period.
Although the etymological origins of Wa remain uncertain, Chinese historical texts recorded an ancient people residing in the Japanese archipelago (perhaps Kyūshū), named something like *ʼWâ or *ʼWər 倭. Carr (1992:9–10) surveys prevalent proposals for Wa’s etymology ranging from feasible (transcribing Japanese first-person pronouns waga 我が “my; our” and ware 我 “I; oneself; thou”) to shameful (writing Japanese Wa as 倭 implying “dwarf”), and summarizes interpretations for *ʼWâ “Japanese” into variations on two etymologies: “behaviorally ‘submissive’ or physically ‘short’.” The first “submissive; obedient” explanation began with the (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi dictionary. It defines 倭 as shùnmào 順皃 “obedient/submissive/docile appearance”, graphically explains the “person; human” radical with a wěi 委 “bent” phonetic, and quotes the above Shi Jing poem. “Conceivably, when Chinese first met Japanese,” Carr (1992:9) suggests “they transcribed Wa as *ʼWâ ‘bent back’ signifying ‘compliant’ bowing/obeisance. Bowing is noted in early historical references to Japan.” Examples include “Respect is shown by squatting” (Hou Han Shu, tr. Tsunoda 1951:2), and “they either squat or kneel, with both hands on the ground. This is the way they show respect.” (Wei Zhi, tr. Tsunoda 1951:13). Koji Nakayama interprets wēi 逶 “winding” as “very far away” and euphemistically translates Wō 倭 as “separated from the continent.” The second etymology of wō 倭 meaning “dwarf, pygmy” has possible cognates in ǎi 矮 “low, short (of stature)”, wō 踒 “strain; sprain; bent legs”, and wò 臥 “lie down; crouch; sit (animals and birds)”. Early Chinese dynastic histories refer to a Zhūrúguó 侏儒國 “pygmy/dwarf country” located south of Japan, associated with possibly Okinawa Island or the Ryukyu Islands. Carr cites the historical precedence of construing Wa as “submissive people” and the “Country of Dwarfs” legend as evidence that the “little people” etymology was a secondary development.
Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes regularly wrote Wa or Yamato “Japan” with the Chinese character 倭 until the 8th century, when the Japanese found fault with it, replacing it with 和 “harmony, peace, balance”. Retroactively, this character was adopted in Japan to refer to the country itself, often combined with the character 大, literally meaning “Great”, similar to Great Britain, so as to write the preexisting name Yamato (大和) (in a manner similar to e.g. 大清帝國 Great Qing Empire, 大英帝國 Greater British Empire). However, the pronunciation Yamato cannot be formed from the sounds of its constituent characters; it refers to a place in Japan and is speculated to originally mean “Mountain Gate” (山戸) Other original names in Chinese texts include Yamatai country (邪馬台国), where a Queen Himiko lived. When hi no moto, the indigenous Japanese way of saying “sun’s origin”, was written in kanji, it was given the characters 日本. In time, these characters began to be read using pseudo-Chinese readings, first Nippon and later Nihon.
Nippon appeared in history only at the end of the 7th century. Old Book of Tang (舊唐書), one of the Twenty-Four Histories, stated that the Japanese envoy disliked his country’s name Woguo (倭國), and changed it to Nippon (日本), or “Origin of the Sun”. Another 8th-century chronicle, True Meaning of Shiji (史記正義), however, states that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered a Japanese envoy to change the country’s name to Nippon.
Cipangu described on the 1492 Martin Behaim globe.
The English word for Japan came to the West from early trade routes. The early Mandarin Chinese or possibly Wu Chinese word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. The modern Shanghainese (a dialect of the Wu Chinese language (呉語) or topolect) pronunciation of characters 日本 (Japan) is still Zeppen [zəʔpən]. The old Malay word for Japan, Jepang (modern spelling Jepun, although Indonesian has retained the older spelling), was borrowed from a Chinese language, and this Malay word was encountered by Portuguese traders in Malacca in the 16th century. It is thought the Portuguese traders were the first to bring the word to Europe. It was first recorded in English in 1577 spelled Giapan.
In English, the modern official title of the country is simply “Japan”, one of the few nation-states to have no “long form” name. The official Japanese-language name is Nippon koku or Nihon koku (日本国), literally “Country of Japan”. From the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, the full title of Japan was the “Empire of Greater Japan” (大日本帝國 Dai Nippon Teikoku). (A more poetic rendering of the name of Japan during this period was “Empire of the Sun.”) The official name of the nation was changed after the adoption of the post-war constitution; the title “State of Japan” is sometimes used as a colloquial modern-day equivalent. As an adjective, the term “Dai-Nippon” remains popular with Japanese governmental, commercial, or social organizations whose reach extend beyond Japan’s geographic borders (e.g., Dai Nippon Printing, Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, etc.).
Though Nippon or Nihon are still by far the most popular names for Japan from within the country, recently the foreign words Japan and even Jipangu (from Cipangu, see below) have been used in Japanese mostly for the purpose of foreign branding.