Etymology of ‘Wa’, ‘Yamatai’ and ‘Nippon’

 Transcription of the above golden seal: “漢委奴国王”. In the Records of Wei or the Chronicle of the Wei Kingdom(Wei Zhi):

In 238, Himiko sent a diplomatic envoy to the court of Cao Rui, the Wei emperor in China. The Record of Wei quotes the king as sending Himiko this message:

Herein we address Pimiko, Queen of Wa, whom we now officially call a friend of Wei. [… Your envoys] have arrived here with your tribute, consisting of four male slaves and six female slaves, together with two pieces of cloth with designs, each twenty feet in length. You live very far away across the sea; yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly. We confer upon you, therefore, the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei,” together with the decoration of the gold seal with purple ribbon.

In return, Cao Rui in return sent Himiko the gift of one hundred bronze mirrors, and there were subsequent visits of emissaries between the two kingdoms.

***  

The earliest mentions of the Japanese were made in various Chinese historical classic texts listed below in the sequence of their compilation dates. Wa (倭, “Japan, Japanese”, from Chinese Wō 倭, Hangul Wae 왜) is the oldest recorded name of Japan. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes regularly wrote Wa or Yamato “Japan” with the Chinese character 倭 which is thought to be synonymous with Yamatai until the 8th century, when the Japanese found fault with it, replacing it with 和 “harmony, peace, balance”.

According to Ichikawa’s Wafu textbook:

During the early Han dynasty (205 BCE – 9 CE) scholars standardised the script, as part of a reconstruction of knowledge following the devastating political upheavals of the short-lived Chin dynasty; the block script they chose remains largely unchanged and is still in use. Despite the Chin devastations – including book burnings, interring of scholars, horrific forced labour – it is still possible to trace the early development of many characters from archaeological inscriptions. Wa (和) was formed by combining two pictograms: rice plant (禾) and open mouth (口). A rice plant has a strong central stem, but it is not brittle and – rather than snap – its pliancy allows it to bend and sway in a breeze. Rice is also the most important of the “five grains”, so that the combined characters forming wa conveys an ancient understanding of the relationship between peaceful state, social harmony and food security.

During the Kofun period (250-538) when kanji were first used in Japan, Yamatö was written with the ateji 倭 for Wa “Japan”. During the Asuka period (538-710) when Japanese place names were standardized into two-character compounds, Yamato was changed to 大倭 with a 大 “big; great” prefix. Following the ca. 757 graphic substitution of 和 for 倭, it was written 大和 “great harmony,” using the Classical Chinese expression dàhé 大和 (e.g., Yijing 1, tr. Wilhelm 1967:371: “each thing receives its true nature and destiny and comes into permanent accord with the Great Harmony.”)

The early Japanese texts above give three transcriptions of Yamato: 夜麻登 (Kojiki), 耶麻騰 (Nihon Shoki), and 山跡 (Man’yōshū). The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki use Sino-Japanese on’yomi readings of ya 夜 “night” or ya or ja 耶 (an interrogative sentence-final particle in Chinese), ma or ba 麻 “hemp”, and tō or to 登 “rise; mount” or tō 騰 “fly; gallop”. In contrast, the Man’yōshū uses Japanese kun’yomi readings of yama 山 “mountain” and to < tö or ato 跡 “track; trace”.

The early Chinese histories above give three transcriptions of Yamatai: 邪馬臺 (Wei Zhi), 邪馬台 (Hou Han Shu), and 邪摩堆 (Sui Shu). The first syllable is consistently written with yé 邪 “a place name”, which was used as a jiajie graphic-loan character for yé 耶 “interrogative sentence-final particle” and xié 邪 “evil; depraved”. The second is written with mǎ 馬 “horse” or mó 摩 “rub; friction”. The third syllable of Yamatai is written tái 臺 or 台 “platform; terrace” (cf. Taiwan 臺灣) or duī 堆 “pile; heap”. Concerning the transcriptional difference between Yamaichi 邪馬壹 in the Wei Zhi and Yamadai or Yamatai 邪馬臺.

Wa-Chinese relations

A chronology of Japan-China relations from the first to the ninth centuries reveals that there were periods of frequent contacts as well as of lengthy intervals between contacts. This irregularity clearly indicated that, in its diplomacy with China, Japan set its own agenda and acted on self-interest to satisfy its own needs.

The historian Wang Zhenping summarizes Wa/Wo contacts with China and Chinese perception of Wa people:

When chieftains of various Wa tribes contacted authorities at Lelang, a Chinese commandery established in northern Korea in 108 B.C. by the Western Han court, they sought to benefit themselves by initiating contact. In A.D. 57, the first Wa ambassador arrived at the capital of the Eastern Han court (25-220); the second came in 107.

In a flurry of activity during the third century, and within merely nine years, the female Wa ruler Himiko sent four ambassadors to the Wei court (220-265) in 238, 243, 245, and 247 respectively. After the death of Himiko, diplomatic contacts with China slowed. Iyo, the female successor to Himiko, contacted the Wei court only once. The fourth century was another quiet period in China-Wa relations except for the Wa delegation dispatched to the Western Jin court (265-316) in 306. With the arrival of a Wa ambassador at the Eastern Jin court (317-420) in 413, a new age of frequent diplomatic contacts with China began. Over the next sixty years, ten Wa ambassadors called on the Southern Song court (420-479), and a Wa delegation also visited the Southern Qi court (479-502) in 479. The sixth century, however, saw only one Wa ambassador pay respect to the Southern Liang court (502-557) in 502. When these ambassadors arrived in China, they acquired official titles, bronze mirrors, and military banners, which their masters could use to bolster their claims to political supremacy, to build a military system, and to exert influence on southern Korea. (Wang 2005:221-222)

Shan Hai Jing山海經 “Classic of the Mountains and Seas”.

The textual dating of this collection of geographic and mythological legends is uncertain, but estimates range from 300 BCE to 250 CE. The Haineibei jing 海內北經 “Classic of Regions within the North Seas” chapter includes Wa 倭 “Japan” among foreign places both real, such as Korea, and legendary (e.g. Penglai Mountain).

Kai [cover] Land is south of Chü Yen and north of Wo. Wo belongs to Yen. [蓋國在鉅燕南倭北倭屬燕 朝鮮在列陽東海北山南列陽屬燕] Ch’ao-hsien [Chosŏn, Korea] is east of Lieh Yang, south of Hai Pei [sea north] Mountain. Lieh Yang belongs to Yen. (12, tr. Nakagawa 2003:49)

Nakagawa notes that Zhuyan 鉅燕 refers to the (ca. 1000-222 BCE) kingdom of Yan (state), which had a “possible tributary relationship” with “Wa (dwarfs); Japan was first known by this name.”

Lunheng
Wang Chong’s ca. 70-80 CE Lunheng 論衡 “Discourses weighed in the balance” is a compendium of essays on subjects including philosophy, religion, and natural sciences.

The Rŭzēng 儒増 “Exaggerations of the Literati” chapter mentions ”Warén 倭人 “Japanese people” and Yuèshāng 越裳 “an old name for Champa” presenting tributes during the Zhou Dynasty. In disputing legends that ancient Zhou bronze ding tripods had magic powers to ward off evil spirits, Wang says,

During the Chou time there was universal peace. The Yuèshāng offered white pheasants to the court, the Japanese odoriferous plants. [獻白雉倭人貢鬯草] Since by eating these white pheasants or odoriferous plants one cannot keep free from evil influences, why should vessels like bronze tripods have such a power? (26, tr. Forke 1907:505)

Another Lunheng chapter Huiguo 恢國 “Restoring the nation” (58) similarly records that Emperor Cheng of Han (r. 51-7 BCE) was presented tributes of Vietnamese pheasants and Japanese herbs.

Han Shu
The ca. 82 CE Han Shu 漢書 “Book of Han”‘ covers the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE) period. Near the conclusion of the Yan entry in the Dilizhi 地理志 “Treatise on geography” section, it records that Wa encompassed over 100 guó 國 “communities, nations, countries”.

Beyond Lo-lang in the sea, there are the people of Wo. They comprise more than one hundred communities. [樂浪海中有倭人分爲百餘國] It is reported that they have maintained intercourse with China through tributaries and envoys. (28B, tr. Otake Takeo 小竹武夫, cited by Nakagawa 2003:50)

Emperor Wu of Han established this Korean Lelang Commandery in 108 BCE.

Wei Zhi
The ca. 297 CE Wei Zhi 魏志 “Records of Wei”, comprising the first of the San Guo Zhi 三國志 “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, covers history of the Cao Wei kingdom (220-265 CE). The 東夷伝 “Encounters with Eastern Barbarians” section describes the Wōrén 倭人 “Japanese” based upon detailed reports from Chinese envoys to Japan. It contains the first records of Yamataikoku, shamaness Queen Himiko, and other Japanese historical topics.

The people of Wa dwell in the middle of the ocean on the mountainous islands southeast of [the prefecture] of Tai-fang. They formerly comprised more than one hundred communities. During the Han dynasty, [Wa envoys] appeared at the Court; today, thirty of their communities maintain intercourse [with us] through envoys and scribes. [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國漢時有朝見者今使早譯所通三十國] (tr. Tsunoda 1951:8)

This Wei Zhi context describes sailing from Korea to Wa and around the Japanese archipelago. For instance,

A hundred li to the south, one reaches the country of Nu [奴國], the official of which is called shimako, his assistant being termed hinumori. Here there are more than twenty thousand households. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:0)

Tsunoda (1951:5) suggests this ancient Núguó 奴國 (lit. “slave country”), Japanese Nakoku 奴国, was located near present-day Hakata in Kyūshū.

Some 12,000 li to the south of Wa is Gǒunúguó 狗奴國 (lit. “dog slave country”), Japanese Kunakoku, which is identified with the Kumaso tribe that lived around Higo and Ōsumi Provinces in southern Kyūshū. Beyond that,

Over one thousand li to the east of the Queen’s land, there are more countries of the same race as the people of Wa. To the south, also there is the island of the dwarfs [侏儒國] where the people are three or four feet tall. This is over four thousand li distant from the Queen’s land. Then there is the land of the naked men, as well of the black-teethed people. [裸國黒齒國] These places can be reached by boat if one travels southeast for a year. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)

One Wei Zhi passage (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14) records that in 238 CE the Queen of Wa sent officials with tribute to the Wei emperor Cao Rui, who reciprocated with lavish gifts including a gold seal with the official title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”.

The golden seal said to have been granted to the "King of Wa" by Emperor Guangwu of Han in 57 CE

The golden seal said to have been granted to the “King of Wa” by Emperor Guangwu of Han in 57 CE.

Another passage relates Wa tattooing with legendary King Shao Kang of the Xia Dynasty.

Men great and small, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs. From olden times envoys who visited the Chinese Court called themselves “grandees” [大夫]. A son of the ruler Shao-k’ang of Hsia, when he was enfeoffed as lord of K’uai-chi, cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa, who are fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however, the designs became merely ornamental. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:10)

“Grandees” translates Chinese dàfū 大夫 (lit. “great man”) “senior official; statesman” (cf. modern dàifu 大夫 “physician; doctor”), which mistranslates Japanese imperial taifu 大夫 “5th-rank courtier; head of administrative department; grand tutor” (the Nihongi records that the envoy Imoko was a taifu).

A second Wei history, the ca. 239-265 CE Weilüe 魏略 “Brief account of the Wei dynasty” is no longer extant, but some sections (including descriptions of the Roman Empire) are quoted in the 429 CE San Guo Zhi commentary by Pei Songzhi 裴松之. He quotes the Weilüe that

Wō people call themselves posterity of Tàibó” (倭人自謂太伯之後). Taibo was the uncle of King Wen of Zhou, who ceded the throne to his nephew and founded the ancient state of Wu (585-473 BCE). The Records of the Grand Historian has a section titled 吳太伯世家 “Wu Taibo’s Noble Family”, and his shrine is located in present day Wuxi. Researchers have noted cultural similarities between the ancient Wu state and Wō Japan including ritual tooth-pulling, back child carriers, and tattooing.

Hou Han Shu
The ca. 432 CE Hou Han Shu 後漢書 “Book of Later/Eastern Han” covers the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) period, but was not compiled until two centuries later. The Wōrén 倭人 “Japanese” are included under the 東夷伝 “Encounters with Eastern Barbarians” section.

The Wa dwell on mountainous islands southeast of Tai-fang in the middle of the ocean, forming more than one hundred communities [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國]. From the time of the overthrow of Chao-hsien [northern Korea] by Emperor Wu (B.C. 140-87), nearly thirty of these communities have held intercourse with the Han [dynasty] court by envoys or scribes. Each community has its king, whose office is hereditary. The King of Great Wa resides in the country of Yamadai [邪馬台国]. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:1)

Comparing the opening descriptions of Wa in the Wei Zhi and Hou Han Shu clearly reveals that the latter is derivative. Their respective accounts of the dwarf, naked, and black-teethed peoples provide another example of copying.

Gishi-Wajinden gives a description of Wa country and Wa people and also directions on how to get to the land of Wa.

How the Japanese came to be called ‘Wa’ people (wajin) is explained (Winjerd) thus:

“Literally “Legend of the People of Wa,” one of the chapters in the 30th fascicle of the Gisho entitled “Account of the Eastern Barbarians (Toiden ).” Two other chapters are on the Ugan and Senpi[Xianbi] peoples of Manchuria, and the remaining eight chapters deal with other Manchurian as well as Korean peoples (see Appendix 11 for an explanation on all of these non-Chinese). The Wajin Account consists of 2008? 2024? characters .., surpassing all the other accounts, only Kokuri coming close in depth of coverage. In entirety, the title of the work we are dealing with here would be Sangokushi, Gisho, Toiden, Wajinjo, i.e. “History of the Three Kingdoms, Books of Gi, Account of the Eastern Barbarians, Chapter on the People of Wa.”

6 Also can be pronounced Wi or Wu. A number of theories have been offered on the origin of this word: 1) what the Chinese heard when a Wajin was referring to himself, waga or ware, or even watakushi, though this term is modern; it is highly doubtful that the Wajin language was anything like the Japanese language today (see further comments in Appendix on the early language of the Wajin); 2) the people are subject to women, specifically Himiko (the — part of the character ˜` means “woman”); another reading for this character is shitagau, or “obey”; 3) the people are similar to midgets or dwarves, as the Chinese character shows, though the left radical of the first character for dwarf (waijin) is different. Strangely, however, a number of histories of Japan in English explain that, to the Chinese, Wa meant “dwarf,” a stereotype I feel, however, is not supported by skeletal remains unearthed from this period when they are compared with those of neighboring Asian nations. See “Early Written Records” in the Preface for additional references for Wa. As mentioned before, in later chronicles the term “people of Wa”  was replaced with “the country of Wa”. Still later, in the early 8th century, the Japanese themselves discarded the character for Wa because of its less-than-honorable meaning, and changed all references to their land to nihon (nippon), the current characters used for Japan, meaning literally “source of the sun.” Such change can be seen in the 2nd Kutojo‚ (10th century) and the Shintojo V (11th century).”…

The Chinese perception of Wa country and its people

The historian Wang Zhenping summarizes Wo contacts with China.

When chieftains of various Wo tribes contacted authorities at Lelang, a Chinese commandery established in northern Korea in 108 B.C. by the Western Han court, they sought to benefit themselves by initiating contact. In A.D. 57, the first Wo ambassador arrived at the capital of the Eastern Han court (25-220); the second came in 107.

Wo diplomats, however, never called on China on a regular basis. A chronology of Japan-China relations from the first to the ninth centuries reveals this irregularity in the visits of Japanese ambassadors to China. There were periods of frequent contacts as well as of lengthy intervals between contacts. This irregularity clearly indicated that, in its diplomacy with China, Japan set its own agenda and acted on self-interest to satisfy its own needs.

No Wo ambassador, for example, came to China during the second century. This interval continued well past the third century. Then within merely nine years, the female Wo ruler Himiko sent four ambassadors to the Wei court (220-265) in 238, 243, 245, and 247 respectively. After the death of Himiko, diplomatic contacts with China slowed. Iyo, the female successor to Himiko, contacted the Wei court only once. The fourth century was another quiet period in China-Wo relations except for the Wo delegation dispatched to the Western Jin court (265-316) in 306. With the arrival of a Wo ambassador at the Eastern Jin court (317-420) in 413, a new age of frequent diplomatic contacts with China began. Over the next sixty years, ten Wo ambassadors called on the Southern Song court (420-479), and a Wo delegation also visited the Southern Qi court (479-502) in 479. The sixth century, however, saw only one Wo ambassador pay respect to the Southern Liang court (502-557) in 502. When these ambassadors arrived in China, they acquired official titles, bronze mirrors, and military banners, which their masters could use to bolster their claims to political supremacy, to build a military system, and to exert influence on southern Korea. (Wang 2005:221-222)

Shan Hai Jing山海經 “Classic of the Mountains and Seas”.

The textual dating of this collection of geographic and mythological legends is uncertain, but estimates range from 300 BCE to 250 CE. The Haineibei jing 海內北經 “Classic of Regions within the North Seas” chapter includes Wō 倭 “Japan” among foreign places both real, such as Korea, and legendary (e.g. Penglai Mountain).

Kai  [Cover] Land is south of Chü Yen and north of Wo. Wo belongs to Yen. [蓋國在鉅燕南倭北倭屬燕 朝鮮在列陽東海北山南列陽屬燕] Ch’ao-hsien [Chosŏn, Korea] is east of Lieh Yang, south of Hai Pei [sea north] Mountain. Lieh Yang belongs to Yen. (12, tr. Nakagawa 2003:49)

Nakagawa notes that Zhuyan 鉅燕 refers to the (ca. 1000-222 BCE) kingdom of Yan (state), which had a “possible tributary relationship” with “Wo (dwarfs); Japan was first known by this name.”

Lunheng
Wang Chong’s ca. 70-80 CE Lunheng 論衡 “Discourses weighed in the balance” is a compendium of essays on subjects including philosophy, religion, and natural sciences.

The Rŭzēng 儒増 “Exaggerations of the Literati” chapter mentions ”Wōrén 倭人 “Japanese people” and Yuèshāng 越裳 “an old name for Champa” presenting tributes during the Zhou Dynasty. In disputing legends that ancient Zhou bronze ding tripods had magic powers to ward off evil spirits (according to Wang).

During the Chou time there was universal peace. The Yuèshāng offered white pheasants to the court, the Japanese odoriferous plants. [獻白雉倭人貢鬯草] Since by eating these white pheasants or odoriferous plants one cannot keep free from evil influences, why should vessels like bronze tripods have such a power? (26, tr. Forke 1907:505)

Another Lunheng chapter Huiguo 恢國 “Restoring the nation” (58) similarly records that Emperor Cheng of Han (r. 51-7 BCE) was presented tributes of Vietnamese pheasants and Japanese herbs.

Han Shu
The ca. 82 CE Han Shu 漢書 “Book of Han”‘ covers the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE) period. Near the conclusion of the Yan entry in the Dilizhi 地理志 “Treatise on geography” section, it records that Wo encompassed over 100 guó 國 “communities, nations, countries”.

Beyond Lo-lang in the sea, there are the people of Wo. They comprise more than one hundred communities. [樂浪海中有倭人分爲百餘國] It is reported that they have maintained intercourse with China through tributaries and envoys. (28B, tr. Otake Takeo 小竹武夫, cited by Nakagawa 2003:50)

Emperor Wu of Han established this Korean Lelang Commandery in 108 BCE.

Wei Zhi
The ca. 297 CE Wei Zhi 魏志 “Records of Wei”, comprising the first of the San Guo Zhi 三國志 “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, covers history of the Cao Wei kingdom (220-265 CE). The 東夷伝 “Encounters with Eastern Barbarians” section describes the Wōrén 倭人 “Japanese” based upon detailed reports from Chinese envoys to Japan. It contains the first records of Yamataikoku, shamaness Queen Himiko, and other Japanese historical topics.

The people of Wa dwell in the middle of the ocean on the mountainous islands southeast of [the prefecture] of Tai-fang. They formerly comprised more than one hundred communities. During the Han dynasty, [Wa envoys] appeared at the Court; today, thirty of their communities maintain intercourse [with us] through envoys and scribes. [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國漢時有朝見者今使早譯所通三十國] (tr. Tsunoda 1951:8)

This Wei Zhi context describes sailing from Korea to Wa and around the Japanese archipelago. For instance,

A hundred li to the south, one reaches the country of Nu [奴國], the official of which is called shimako, his assistant being termed hinumori. Here there are more than twenty thousand households. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:0)

Tsunoda (1951:5) suggests this ancient Núguó 奴國 (lit. “slave country”), Japanese Nakoku 奴国, was located near present-day Hakata in Kyūshū.

Some 12,000 li to the south of Wa is Gǒunúguó 狗奴國 (lit. “dog slave country”), Japanese Kunakoku, which is identified with the Kumaso tribe that lived around Higo and Ōsumi Provinces in southern Kyūshū. Beyond that,

Over one thousand li to the east of the Queen’s land, there are more countries of the same race as the people of Wa. To the south, also there is the island of the dwarfs [侏儒國] where the people are three or four feet tall. This is over four thousand li distant from the Queen’s land. Then there is the land of the naked men, as well of the black-teethed people. [裸國黒齒國] These places can be reached by boat if one travels southeast for a year. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)

One Wei Zhi passage (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14) records that in 238 CE the Queen of Wa sent officials with tribute to the Wei emperor Cao Rui, who reciprocated with lavish gifts including a gold seal with the official title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”.

Another passage relates Wa tattooing with legendary King Shao Kang of the Xia Dynasty.

Men great and small, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs. From olden times envoys who visited the Chinese Court called themselves “grandees” [大夫]. A son of the ruler Shao-k’ang of Hsia, when he was enfeoffed as lord of K’uai-chi, cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa, who are fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however, the designs became merely ornamental. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:10)

“Grandees” translates Chinese dàfū 大夫 (lit. “great man”) “senior official; statesman” (cf. modern dàifu 大夫 “physician; doctor”), which mistranslates Japanese imperial taifu 大夫 “5th-rank courtier; head of administrative department; grand tutor” (the Nihongi records that the envoy Imoko was a taifu).

A second Wei history, the ca. 239-265 CE Weilüe 魏略 “Brief account of the Wei dynasty” is no longer extant, but some sections (including descriptions of the Roman Empire) are quoted in the 429 CE San Guo Zhi commentary by Pei Songzhi 裴松之. He quotes the Weilüe that “Wō people call themselves posterity of Tàibó” (倭人自謂太伯之後). Taibo was the uncle of King Wen of Zhou, who ceded the throne to his nephew and founded the ancient state of Wu (585-473 BCE). The Records of the Grand Historian has a section titled 吳太伯世家 “Wu Taibo’s Noble Family”, and his shrine is located in present day Wuxi. Researchers have noted cultural similarities between the ancient Wu state and Wō Japan including ritual tooth-pulling, back child carriers, and tattooing (represented with red paint on Japanese Haniwa statues) as well as from etchings on Jomon figurines.

Hou Han Shu

The ca. 432 CE Hou Han Shu 後漢書 “Book of Later/Eastern Han” covers the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) period, but was not compiled until two centuries later. The Wōrén 倭人 “Japanese” are included under the 東夷伝 “Encounters with Eastern Barbarians” section[i.e. along with the Dongyi peoples].

The Wa dwell on mountainous islands southeast of Tai-fang in the middle of the ocean, forming more than one hundred communities [倭人在帯方東南大海之中依山爲國邑舊百餘國]. From the time of the overthrow of Chao-hsien [northern Korea] by Emperor Wu (B.C. 140-87), nearly thirty of these communities have held intercourse with the Han [dynasty] court by envoys or scribes. Each community has its king, whose office is hereditary. The King of Great Wa resides in the country of Yamadai [邪馬台国]. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:1)

Comparing the opening descriptions of Wa in the Wei Zhi and Hou Han Shu clearly reveals that the latter is derivative. Their respective accounts of the dwarf, naked, and black-teethed peoples provide another example of copying.

Although the change from Wa to ‘Nippon’, lit. “from the sun”, appears to have been motivated by a desire to get away from its perceived derogatory meaning, historically, it may have been influenced by changing dynastic power, with growing influence of the clans of Paekche-kingdom descended lineages.

Yamato = Yamatai???

Anesaki makes these comments on the etymology of yamato:

The etymology of the word Yamato is disputed. According to the commonly accepted theory it means “Mountain-gateways,” because the region is surrounded by mountains on all sides and opens through a few passages to the regions beyond the mountain ranges. This seems to be a plausible interpretation, because it is most natural to the Japanese language. But it is a puzzling fact that the name is written in Chinese ideograms which mean “great peace.” However, the ideogram meaning “peace” seems to have been used simply for the Chinese appellation of the Japanese “wa,” which, designated in another letter, seems to have meant “dwarf.” Chamberlain’s theory is that Yamato was Ainu in origin and meant “Chestnut and ponds.” But this is improbable when we take into account the fact that the ponds, numerous in the region, are later works for irrigation.

How Japan came to be called riben, Nippon and Japan

Before Japan had relations with China, it was known as Yamato and Hi no moto, which means ‘source of the sun’.

Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean ‘the sun’s origin’ and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from the Imperial correspondence with the Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to China.

The Nara period of the eighth century marked the first emergence of a strong central Japanese state, centered on an imperial court in the city of Heijō-kyō (in modern-day Nara) that aggressively adopted Chinese administrative practices, arts, sciences and technology.

The 945 CE Tang shu “Book of Tang” 唐書 (199A) was said to have the oldest Chinese reference to Rìběn 日本. [However, earlier dates have emerged see Xin Tang Shu and Haruyuki below] The “Eastern Barbarian” section lists both Wakoku 倭国 and Nipponkoku 日本国, giving three explanations: Nippon is an alternate name for Wa, or the Japanese disliked Wakoku because it was “inelegant; coarse” 不雅, or Nippon was once a small part of the old Wakoku.

The 1050 CE Xin Tang Shu 新唐書 “New Book of Tang”, which has a Riben 日本 heading for Japan under the “Eastern Barbarians”, gives more details.

Japan in former times was called Wa-nu. It is 14,000 li distant from our capital, situated to the southeast of Silla in the middle of the ocean. It is five months’ journey to cross Japan from east to west, and a three month’s journey from south to north. [日本古倭奴也去京師萬四千里直新羅東南在海中島而居東西五月行南北三月行] (145, tr. Tsunoda 1951:38)

Regarding the change in autonyms, the Xin Tang Shu says.

In … 670, an embassy came to the Court [from Japan] to offer congratulations on the conquest of Koguryŏ. Around this time, the Japanese who had studied Chinese came to dislike the name Wa and changed it to Nippon. According to the words of the (Japanese) envoy himself, that name was chosen because the country was so close to where the sun rises. [後稍習夏音惡倭名更號日本使者自言國近日所出以為名] Some say, (on the other hand), that Japan was a small country which had been subjugated by the Wa, and that the latter took over its name. As this envoy was not truthful, doubt still remains. [或雲日本乃小國為倭所並故冒其號使者不以情故疑焉] [The envoy] was, besides, boastful, and he said that the domains of his country were many thousands of square li and extended to the ocean on the south and on the west. In the northeast, he said, the country was bordered by mountain ranges beyond which lay the land of the hairy men. (145, tr. Tsunoda 1951:40)

It has also been suggested (Haruyuki) that “Nippon” or “Nihon” (日本) was originally the name of a territory of Baekje dynasty based on a rubbed copy of Yegun’s inscription (678) .. discovered on July, 2011.

Subsequent Chinese histories refer to Japan as Rìběn 日本 and only mention Wō 倭 as an old name.

The Ainu (for whom Utari meaning ‘comrade’, is the preferred term) who are established by genetics research to have descended from the earliest inhabitants of Japan – the Jomon people, who lived in Japan, although the Ainu are also clearly share genetic affinity with the Paleo-Siberian Nivkhi people (which historically makes sense: In 1264, Nivkh people reported to the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongol Empire that Ainu invaded the land of Nivkh (Sakhalin Island), resulting in battles between Ainu and the Yuan Dynasty). One of the Ainu Yukar Upopo legends, states that “They lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.” Anthropological research establishes the Ainu culture as a mixture of the Satsumon(post-Jomon) and the Okhotsk cultures.

Etymology of ‘Japan’

The English word ‘Japan’ is an exonym, i.e. a name given to an ethnic group or to a geographical entity by other ethnic groups, often pejorative or derogatory. E.

During the sixteenth century, traders and Jesuit missionaries from Portugal reached Japan for the first time, initiating active commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West (Nanban trade)

The English word for Japan came to the West from early trade routes. The early Mandarin or possibly Wu Chinese (呉語) word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. In modern Shanghainese, a Wu dialect, the pronunciation of characters 日本 ‘Japan’ is Zeppen; in Wu, the character 日 has two pronunciations, informal (白讀) and formal (文讀). (In some southern Wu dialects, 日本 similar to its pronunciation in Japanese.) The old Malay word for Japan, Jepang (now spelled Jepun in Malaysia, though still spelled Jepang in Indonesia), 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 a 1565 letter spelled Giapan.

The Japanese names for Japan are Nippon (にっぽん) They are both written in Japanese using the kanji 日本. The Japanese name Nippon is used for most official or formal purposes, however, in casual and contemporary speech, Nihon is commonly used as well. Japanese people refer to themselves as Nihonjin (日本人) and they call their language Nihongo (日本語).

Sources and references:

The Chronicles of Wa | Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd

Wa (Japan), Wikipedia

第59回 交易の民アイヌ Ⅶ 元との戦い” (in Japanese). Asahikawa City. June 2, 2010.

The origin of Japan, Altaic Wiki:

” Dono Haruyuki, professor of Osaka University, recently suggested that the word “Japan”, “Nippon” or “Nihon” (日本) was originally the name of a territory of Baekje dynasty based on a rubbed copy of Yegun’s inscription (678), the oldest record of the word Japan (日本) in existence, discovered on July, 2011″

Cavalli-Sforza. The History and Geography of Human Genes p.253, ISBN 0-691-08750-4:

“The synthetic maps suggest a previously unsuspected center of expansion from the Sea of Japan but cannot indicate dates. This development could be tied to the Jōmon period, but one cannot entirely exclude the pre-Jōmon period and that it might be responsible for a migration to the Americas. A major source of food in those pre-agricultural times came from fishing, then as now, and this would have limited for ecological reasons the area of expansion to the coastline, perhaps that of the Sea of Japan, but also father along the Pacific Coast.

Ainu people (Wikipedia)

Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei Columbia University‘s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators

In the news: Excavations of Makimuku ruins in Nara expected to reveal much about nation’s first true city and Himiko’s Yamatai

Could the Hashihaka burial mound in Sakurai, Nara be Queen Himiko’s? (Heritage of Japan)

Dig in Nara, not Kyushu, yields palatial ruins possibly of Himiko (Japan Times, Nov 12, 2009)

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2 responses to “Etymology of ‘Wa’, ‘Yamatai’ and ‘Nippon’

  1. Clifford J. Lueck

    I have a figurine of a Biwa Yoshi that has a four-character seal script on the bottom. This information has helped me to translate one of the characters for “mouth”. Two of the other four-characters it appears translate to: King, Earth, Heaven, Man; and Wood. The last character looks like this: KIII. I have not been able to translate this character, but I am thankful for the information this reading has given me.
    Thank you!

  2. Clifford J. Lueck

    I meant to write: Biwa Hoshi, not Biwa Yoshi.

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