Wo (Wa), Early Chinese name of Japan

According to Japanese legend, the empire was founded by Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C.E.. However, the earliest records of a unified Japan date from a thousand years later, about 400 of the Common Era. Chinese influences played an important role in the formation of the Japanese civilization, with Buddhism being introduced to the islands before the sixth century C.E. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

A feudal system dominated Japan between 1192 and 1867, with locally powerful noble families and their samurai warrior retainers controlling local government, and a succession of military dictators, or shoguns, holding the central power, This ended when Emperor Meiji assumed power in 1868. The Portuguese and Dutch developed some minor trade with Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. United States Commodore Perry opened American trade with Japan in an 1854 treaty. Japan gained Taiwan and other concessions following an 1894-1895 war with China, gained the south half of Sakhalin from a 1904-1905 war with Russia, and annexed Korea in 1910. During World War I, Japan ousted the Germans from Shantung and took over the Pacific islands controlled by Germany. In 1931, Japan took over Manchuria, starting a war with China in 1932. World War II started with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and ended with two atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution that reduced the Emperor to a state figurehead and left all the governing power with a Diet. In a few decades, Japan quickly moved to become a major world power and leader in economics, industry, technology, and politics.

Websites: Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

History of Early History of Japan

King of Wa gold seal

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Although many questions about the origins and early development of the Japanese people remain unanswered, archaeologists have done particularly impressive work since World War II in tracing the existence of human habitation in Japan to a vastly earlier time — perhaps hundreds of thousands of years BCE — than previously thought. [Source:Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Among the sources for our present knowledge of prehistoric Japan are chronicles written by Chinese scholars in the first few centuries CE. The Chinese knew of the islands and their people from a very early date, and although their historians deal with Japan only briefly and as a distant and rather insignificant tributary area, their accounts give many clues to the growth and culture of the early Japanese state.

“The accounts show that during the first five centuries CE the central and southern areas of "Wa," as the Chinese called Japan, were occupied by numerous communities of fairly closely related people who kept some contact with the mainland. Later accounts point to the rise of the kingdom of Yamato in central Honshu, and by at least the fifth century the Yamato ruler was called "King of Wa" by the Chinese. Yamato was securely established, and the stage was set for the true foundation of the historic Japanese state.

The Japanese did not begin to write histories until the seventh century. Inspired by the written histories of China, scholars worked for years assembling information, most of it oral, on the myths, legends, and true stories of the Japanese past. The oldest extant "histories" are the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) of 712 and the Nihon Shoki (or Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan), which was completed in 720.

“Since the authors of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki made no sharp distinction between myth and history, here are set forth the early Japanese beliefs about the creation of the universe and the Japanese islands. Here too we are introduced to the first beings, the gods of the Japanese who are called kami.”

Terms and Concepts: Japan and Japanese

Wo (Wa) in different Chinese scripts

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Today, and from approximately the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan is and has been a nation-state with clear geographical and psychological boundaries. By "psychological" here I mean that the vast majority of people who live in Japan regard themselves as Japanese and have a strong consciousness of a distinction between "we Japanese" versus non-Japanese. Furthermore, the government of Japan holds legal sovereignty over the whole of the Japanese islands (with the possible exception of several small, disputed islands in the north). This situation, that is, the congruence of legal, physical and psychological boundaries, is the modern ideal for countries. We tend to regard this congruence as the natural state of affairs, and we thus tend to assume that today’s nations-states existed far back in the past. In most cases, however, today’s nation-states are relatively recent creations. What about the case of Japan? Was it a singular entity throughout time in the manner of its modern form as a nation-state? [Source: “ Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“If we go back in time to the early nineteenth century, as far as we can tell, only a minority of the population of the Japanese islands possessed a strong consciousness of themselves as Japanese. Indeed, were someone to go back in time and ask a typical peasant in most rural areas of the Japanese islands, "Are you Japanese?" the response would most likely be perplexity. Though some urban dwellers were beginning to see themselves as Japanese by the 1840s or 50s, and most well-educated people had long held some sort of notion of a "Japan" to which they belonged, it was not until the 1870s or later that the majority of ordinary Japanese came to regard themselves as such. ~

“And what about the state? Had the Japanese islands always been under the control of a single government? No. Although in 645 a government did claim sovereignty over most of the territory that today comprises Japan, in fact, political authority and sovereignty was often diffused or fragmented through multiple layers of institutions, multiple geographical strata, and multiple systems of symbolic legitimization. During much of its history, the Japanese islands consisted of multiple polities, each belonging to a local ruler. It was not until modern times that a strong central government held unambiguous sovereignty over the Japanese islands both in theory and in fact. ~

“So is it correct to say "Japan" when referring to, for example, the Japanese islands of the year 950? Yes, it is correct, but only in a weak sense. Few ordinary people regarded themselves as Japanese or even conceived of Japan as an entity. Their outlook and sense of identity was much more local. There was a central government ostensibly headed by an emperor, but it had to share much of its authority with local power holders. Sometimes the central government was relatively strong, sometimes it was so weak as to be negligible as a political entity. At many times there was a division of power and authority between local governments and one or more central governments. Japan was never a strong, centralized state until modern times. Furthermore, prior to 645, political authority and culture in the Japanese islands was so fragmented, that it makes no sense to speak of "Japan." It is better, when speaking of this ancient time period, to use the relatively more vague geographic term "the Japanese islands" as I do here.” ~

Derivation of the Name Nippon

Nippon (Japa) in Japanese

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of 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 Heijo-kyo (in modern-day Nara) that aggressively adopted Chinese administrative practices, arts, sciences and technology.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“The 945 CE Tang shu “Book of Tang” (199A) was said to have the oldest Chinese reference to Rìben . [However, earlier dates have emerged see Xin Tang Shu and Haruyuki below] The “Eastern Barbarian” section lists both Wakoku and Nipponkoku , giving three explanations: Nippon is an alternate name for Wa, or the Japanese disliked Wakoku because it was “inelegant; coarse” , or Nippon was once a small part of the old Wakoku. The 1050 CE Xin Tang Shu “New Book of Tang”, which has a Riben 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. (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 Koguryo. 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. 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. [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” 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 Rìben and only mention Wo as an old name.”

Etymology of ‘Japan’

Cipangu on a 1453 map, the first known Western depiction of the island

Kawagoe wrote: 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. 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).[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“The English word for Japan came to the West from early trade routes. The early Mandarin or possibly Wu Chinese word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. In modern Shanghainese, a Wu dialect, the pronunciation of characters ‘Japan’ is Zeppen; in Wu, the character has two pronunciations, informal and formal. (In some southern Wu dialects, 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 They are both written in Japanese using the kanji . 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 and they call their language Nihongo. ” Dono Haruyuki, professor of Osaka University, recently suggested that the word “Japan”, “Nippon” or “Nihon” 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 in existence, discovered on July, 2011.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,;Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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