June 8th, 2014


Japanese Diary 23: From Land's End to Finisterre by way of Kyoto

Learning to tell my "on" readings from my "kun" readings has got me thinking again about the Chinese influence on the Japanese language, and about the Japan-Britain analogies which I've noticed from the start of this Japanese-learning endeavour - and which indeed largely enticed me into it.

One thing that's struck me for some time is the name of Japan itself - Nihon/Nippon (日本). Everyone knows that Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun, but that name involves a curious act of displacement and self-othering. Because in order to see Japan as the land from which the sun originates you naturally need to be to the west of it - that is, in China. So, the Japanese name for Japan is not only linguistically Chinese but it assumes a Chinese perspective. (There is an older, native name - Wa: I wonder whether there's ever been a movement to reclaim it? [ETA: As has been pointed out on the Dreamwidth version of this post, "Wa" is also originally a Chinese word.]) Similarly, the Japanese word for China - Chuugoku (中国) - literally means "central country", which again puts Japan on the periphery.

What's less clear to me is how deeply buried this etymology is in the minds of those who use the language on a daily basis. A Japanese person looking at the English language might make similar observations regarding, say, the Mediterranean Sea, after all. Most British people today don't think twice about its etymology, I imagine: its use certainly doesn't imply that they consider the world to be centred in that tideless puddle between Spain and Egypt. But that wasn't always the case. Not just during the Roman Empire but for a millennium or so afterwards the countries with a Mediterranean coast must have seemed to the British to be at the centre of civilization: the Holy Land, Rome, Spain, Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey - all were far more "central" than the British Isles. That was still very much the case in, say, 1600 - by 1850 far less so, largely of course due to the rise of the British Empire. Japan's history, however, was very different, and the sense of its "peripherality" maybe survived longer, and/or differently. There are pleasures to being edgy, mysterious, non plus ultra. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a certain relish in the claiming of that identity.

"Britain" meanwhile is no less a Mediterranean name than "Nihon" is a Chinese one - a Romanized version of a Greek word, possibly involving a transcription error (the "B" ought to be a "P", I seem to recall). I wonder what the British "Wa" might be? I rather like the Mabinogion's "Island of the Mighty", but I don't suppose it can be made to stick at this late date.