Why is Japan called ‘The land of the rising sun’?

Fuji mountain sunrise

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If you’re from the Western world, chances are high that you’ve heard Japan referred to as the ‘Land of the rising sun’. But why is this the case?

Well in short it’s because in China the sun rises from Japan, the Kanji for ‘Nippon’ means ‘suns origin’, and finally because some sailors told Marco Polo it was the land where the sun rises from.

In today’s short post, we are going to take a look at the many names of Japan, exploring in depth the question “Why is Japan called the land of the rising sun?”, and a whole host of other questions you’ve been asking!

Why is Japan called “Japan” in English instead of “Nippon”?

This is a slightly complicated one, but hang in there and we’ll get through it!

The first Europeans to arrive in Japan were the Portuguese (though as we will later find out, the Italians technically discovered it). After a while, a base was set up in Nagasaki for envoys, trade, and most importantly study to be completed from.

One interesting thing about Nagasaki is its tonal accent system, at least at the time anyway. If you’re interested in learning more about the N-Kei accent system and other regional dialects from around Japan, you can take a look here.

After some time, the Vocabvlario da lingoa de lapam was completed. The first Portuguese-Japanese dictionary.

why is Japan called the land of the rising sun
Vocabvlario da lingoa de lapam (Portugese-Japanese dictionary)

If we study the title, we see the word ‘Lapam’. This was the (at the time) the Nagasaki ‘translation’ of Nippon.

Still with me? Great!

The word ‘Lapam’ was then brought back to the largest Italian city at the time, Padua, and due to the type of Italian spoken then it was further translated to ‘Giapan’. Possibly an easier way for Italians to recognize and pronounce the country’s name.

Given that in Italian the letters ‘GI’ sound like ‘J’ in English, it’s not a massive leap to suggest that the English will have swapped the two over to have a final pronunciation of ‘Japan’.

Why does the sun rise so early in Japan?

The sunrises and sunsets are both influenced by Japan’s position in the northern hemisphere.

Practically this means long days in the summer, but extremely short days in the winter.

The longest day in Japan: About 14 hours in June.

The shortest day in Japan: About 9 hours in December.

Is Japan called anything else in other countries?

Of course, the story we’ve just read is just the way Nippon is translated to English, but there are many other names that Japan has been given over the years.

VietnamNhựt Bổn
IrishAn tSeapáin
The names of Japan in different countries

Japan’s discovery and the origins of ‘The land of the rising sun’

It’s time to find out why Japan is so often called ‘The land of the rising sun’ and to do that we’ll have to go back to the very beginning when Japan was discovered by Marco Polo.

In the beginning half of the 13th century, Marco Polo visited southern China. Whilst in the south, he met a group of sailors that told him of a land that existed in ‘the sun’s origin’ or ‘the rising sun’.

It’s not 100% known that he actually visited Japan himself (in fact the likelihood is that he didn’t) but he still wrote of it in his book ‘The description of the world.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 7th century, a Japanese sovereign was sent from Japan to China. They used ‘the land of the rising sun’ in their message as a sign of respect and possibly to build a relationship with their neighbors.

A century or so after this, Japan’s official name was changed from ‘Yamato’ to ‘Nippon’.

And what does the Kanji for Nippon mean? ‘Sun origin’ or ‘Rising sun’

And Nippon is the name we know today and it’s the name that finally stuck.

The problem with Japan’s rising sun flag

Japan flag mount fuji
Japan’s recognizable red circle flag

Pictured above is the flag of Japan. Nobody has any problem with it and its simple and understated design reflects Japanese culture very well.

Fun fact: The Japanese flag is called ‘Himomaru’ (日の丸) which literally translates to ‘The sun’s circle’. You’ll often find schoolchildren drawing a red circle for the sun instead of yellow for this exact reason.

Japan Imperial Flag

This is the rising sun Imperial flag.

A controversial and polarizing flag of a dark time in Japan’s history.

What does the Japanese rising sun flag mean?

The imperial rising sun flag was used from the 1868s to 1945 by the Japanese Army and Navy. Due to the war crimes committed by Japan in WWII and throughout their ‘expansion’ it has negative connotations.

For many Korean and Chinese people (if not, much of the world) it’s a reminder of a time better forgotten, or at least not still paraded on the Japanese Navy ships to this day.

The land of the rising sun

So in closing, Japan is called ‘The land of the rising sun’ because that’s where the sun rises from the point of view of China, Its name ‘Nippon’ means Sun origin, and because some sailors told Marco Polo it was the land where the sun rises.

Jonny Gleason

Jonny is the founder of A Day of Zen and has an unhealthy obsession with Japan. In 2022 he moved to Japan on a mission to give his audience the best possible information. He's helped over 300,000 plan their trip so far, and is eager to make that number much bigger!

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