Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Nippon or Nihon?

July 2, 2009

What’s in a name? A lot, according to one Japanese lawmaker, who’s appalled by his country’s schizophrenia over how to pronounce the two ideographs rendered in English as “Japan”.

“What is the formal name of this country? Overseas, it is called ‘Japan’, but Japanese people say both ‘Nihon’ and ‘Nippon’,” opposition parliament member Tetsundo Iwakuni told me.

JAPAN FLAG“There’s no other country that doesn’t standardise its own name.”

Seeking clarification, Iwakuni asked the government what the official view was, only to be told there wasn’t one.

Consistency is indeed lacking when it comes to how to read the two characters, whose literal meaning is “origin of the sun’.

The Japanese language is written with “kanji” ideographs — Chinese characters that symbolise an idea but can have varying pronunciations — and two phonetic scripts.

Bank notes and stamps are imprinted with “Nippon” in the Western alphabet, but the governor of the Bank of Japan, who’s in charge of money, calls himself the head of ”Nihon Ginko”.

During World War Two, when Japan was still known as ”Dai Nippon Teikoku”, or the ”Empire of Great Japan”, the military tried to force the public to use “Nippon”, Iwakuni said.

Japanese sports fans chant “Nippon, Nippon” when rooting for national teams, a phenomenon that some have found disturbing because it stirs memories of wartime nationalism. Others, though, say it’s simply because “P” sounds more forceful than “H”.

The emperor and empress prefer “Nihon”, although they’ve never explained why, Iwakuni said, while  right-leaning Junichiro Koizumi was heard opting for “Nippon” as premier from 2001-2006.

Current Prime Minister Taro Aso, an outspoken nationalist, uses “Nihon” in the latest video interview posted on his website.

Frustrated by the confusion, Iwakuni suggests a compromise: “For the country name, we should use ‘Nihon’, while for company names and sports fans should be allowed to use ‘Nippon’.”


British people refer to themselves as British, or Scottish, English, etc, and in official use Britain, Great Britain, or United Kingdom are all accepted. So it’s not true to say that Japan is unique in not having a decided name.

Posted by RMilner | Report as abusive

My recent book was published in Japan by Kodansha, and they picked the title. It includes the word Nippon and I can assure you that there was no editorial issue there. Perhaps it makes the title more catchy but none of my Japanese readers have complained so far.

Sweden, my native country, also has several ways to refer to itself, including Sverige and Svea rike. Perhaps it is more of a rule than an exception.


Britain refers to the the island on which England and Scotland reside and the UK was created with a treaty between the two.

Posted by MontelWilliams | Report as abusive

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