Word Bites — Is Japan “Nihon” or “Nippon”? Or both?

Described by the West as “The Land of the Rising Sun”, the country of Japan is known to us English speakers as, well, Japan. In Japanese, this name is written as the kanji 日本, but carry two commonly used pronunciations, “Nihon” and “Nippon“. We see and hear both forms across Japanese media and maybe some instances in pop culture, but is there a correct way to say it?

Well, no.

Both pronunciations are recognised as correct, although there seems to be a preference for Nippon in official stuff, like money, stamps, some events and things like that. However, while the name for the Bank of Japan (日本銀行), for example, is given as NIPPON GINKO on banknotes, many sources may refer to it as Nihon Ginkō.

Where can we find easily identifiable examples? There are plenty out there! Here are some for Nippon:

  • All Nippon Airways (Zen Nippon Kūyu Kabushiki-gaisha)
  • Nipponbashi (日本橋) – referring to a shopping district in Osaka, not to be confused with Nihonbashi
  • Nippon Yūbin, Nippon Yūsei (Japan Post Group)

And for examples of Nihon:

  • Nihon-go (Japanese language)
  • Nihonbashi (日本橋) – referring to a bridge in Tokyo, and not to be confused with Nipponbashi
  • Nihon Kōkū (Japan Airlines)
  • JR Higashi-Nihon (East Japan Railway, JR Group)

So how did this happen? After all, both are technically based off similar Sino-Japanese readings, also known as on’yomi. Let’s break this short analysis into two smaller parts:

– Meaning sun, or day, nichi was once pronounced as niti or jitu, which later underwent a historical sound change to reach nichi. Additionally, there is this sound rule where in compound words, chi would be lost, creating a short pause between the first and second parts of the compound. This can also be transcribed as a “doubling” of the consonant starting the second part of the compound. So we get examples like nichi 日 plus ki 記 (record) is written and pronounced nikki, meaning diary.

– Here, meaning base or origin, hon was originally pronounced pon. When combined with niti, back when final voiceless stops like ‘k’, ‘t’, and ‘p’ were unreleased, it produced a pronunciation similar to “nitpon“, which was “nippon“.

The pronunciation Nihon originated, possibly in the Kantō region, as a reintroduction of the newer pronunciation of 本 into the compound, as hon. This may have occurred during the Edo period, after another sound change occurred which would have resulted in this form becoming Niwon and later Nion.

Several attempts to decidedly determine an official reading were rejected by the Japanese government, which declared both to be correct. And there we have it, both Nippon and Nihon are correct, and examples are featured for both pronunciations. But within Japan’s names, lies more interesting etymologies and sound changes to cover, as we will do in a future post.

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