by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last week we talked about words that came from Japanese, but have you ever thought it was strange that we call Japan "Japan"?  After all, "Japan" is not a Japanese word and it is not a word that, at least until recently, the Japanese people ever used to refer to their country.  In its early history, the word for Japan was "Wa."  Later the word "Yamato" came into usage, until about the 7th century when "Nippon" began to appear in texts.  Nowadays, Nihon or Nippon are the most common ways in which Japanese people refer to their nation.  

So where does the word "Japan" come from?  

One theory is that "Japan" comes from Portuguese missionaries who, at the end of the 16th century, brought knowledge of Japan back to Europe.  The 1603–1604 dictionary Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam contains two entries for Japan: nifon and iippon.  At the time the common Portuguese term for Japan was "Iapam."  The Portuguese also learned Chinese and the Chinese word for Japan was transliterated as "Cipan" or "Cipangu" (Land of the sun's origin).  In fact, the accounts of Marco Polo refer to Japan as "Cipangu."  

Another theory is that  when the Dutch colonized the Indonesian Islands, they heard the locals refer to "Japang," which was how they pronounced "Cipang."  However, the Malay word for Japan is also borrowed from Chinese and is pronounced "Jepang," so it is also possible that Portuguese traders who visited Malaysia brought the word back to Europe.  

The first recorded instance of the word "Giapan" appears in English in 1577.  After that, the word eventually made it back to Japan in its present form.