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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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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.

I don't suppose there would be an ancient native name for the whole of the UK or British Isles, but of course there is Cymru for Wales and Lloegr -- or the English version Logres -- for England.

Logres has the disadvantage that I've never known how to pronounce it, though Lloegr now trips merrily off the tongue. :)

I just say "LOGREZ" in a voice of authority. No one has yet called me on it.

Lloegr if you're coming off the bridge. Where does Albion come from?

WIthout checking, my memory is that Albion is a name deriving from the whiteness of the chalk cliffs of the Kentish coast - but who used it first I don't know. Also, of course, Alba is the Gaelic word for Scotland. I'm not sure what the connection is there, if any.

Oh, this is fascinating. In one proposed etymology, "Britain" is akin to "Prydain"! Would you believe I'd never looked that up?

OED: Etymology: < classical Latin Britannus (adjective) British, (noun, plural Britannī ) Briton, inhabitant of Britain, Breton, inhabitant of Brittany, apparently corresponding to Hellenistic Greek Βρεττανοί , plural (the Latin name was perhaps adopted from the Greeks of Massilia), also Πρεττανοί , Πρετανοί , probably < a British self-designation reflected by Old Welsh Priten , collective (Welsh Prydain ), although the change of the initial presents difficulties (see note); the British self-designation is perhaps ultimately < the Celtic base of Welsh pryd countenance, image, beauty, form (see pryddest n.).


I've looked it up now, and Pytheas is your man, though filtered through others. It does seem indeed that he took the name from the natives (if we can believe Wiki), so the British Wa may indeed be Prydain - as Mr Alexander could no doubt have told us.

Now, though, I rather wish we could have been the Land of the Setting Sun. It would have satisfied my Rorschach lust for symmetry.

Of course some people do equate Hyperborea with Britain. Hence At the Back of the North Wind. Perhaps that would be your best "Land of the Rising Sun" equivalent?

That will do nicely, thank you!

(here from Friends FL)

The story is that the name Nihon was first used in a piece of 7th century diplomatic snottery on the part of the regent Shotoku Taishi. To quote wikipedia:
In his correspondence with the Chinese Sui Emperor, Yangdi, the Prince's letter contains the earliest written instance in which the Japanese archipelago is named Nihon. The Sui Emperor dispatched a message in 605 that said, "the sovereign of Sui respectfully inquires about the sovereign of Wa." Shōtoku responded by sponsoring a mission led by Ono no Imoko in 607: "From the sovereign of the land of the rising sun (nihon/hi izuru) to the sovereign of the land of the setting sun."

Thank you for that - it's very interesting. Put like that, there is a pleasing balance between the two lands. When one sun is removed and the land renamed Chuugoku, it looks quite different. (ETA: It was only half an hour later that the rising/setting contrast and its potential snottiness hit me.)

Edited at 2014-06-08 08:37 pm (UTC)

That makes me think of the Sunset King and Sunrise King in Nancy Springer's The Silver Sun, although that is obviously an entirely different context. But similar imagery, if without the political rivalry.

Aren't we Perfidious Albion? Capital city, Trinovantum?

We're only Perfidious Albion when judged by the standards of France, where they place exceptional store on keeping one's promises come what may. (Just ask Mme Hollande.)

Edited at 2014-06-08 07:42 pm (UTC)

Who's she, the President's mother?

Good point (I don't follow these things very carefully). That should have read "Just ask Valérie Trierweiler". Other cuckolded presidential partners are available...

That's a pleasingly complex history.