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Why is Japan called the “Land of the Rising Sun”?

Rising Sun in Kyoto

Why is Japan called the “land of the rising sun”?

Japan-the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan is often called “the land of the rising sun”.  Many people from around the world wonder why Japan is called the land of the rising sun. Is this because Japan is the first country to see the sun?  In Japanese, the country is called Nihon (Nippon). Both Nihon and Japan originate from the same words; they literally mean “where the sun rises”.

In this article, we will delve into the intriguing origins of this name and explore the stories behind its conception.

Marco Polo and the Western Introduction to Japan

Marco Polo, the Italian trader and explorer, introduced Japan to the Western world during the 13th century. He never actually traveled to Japan but instead went to the Southern part of China. There, the people told him about Japan. To the people in South China, where Marco Polo had traveled, Japan lies in the direction where the sun rises. Therefore, people called it Ji-pang or Zu-pang, which can be translated as “the sun’s origin”, i.e. where the sun originates.  The Japanese write 日本 to represent the country of Japan in Japanese. It is pronounced Nippon or Nihon. The Chinese use the same characters to represent Japan although it is pronounced differently.

Chinese Influence in the Naming of Japan

There is more to the story of how the Chinese started calling Japan Ji-pang or Zu-pang – written as 日本 meaning “the sun’s origin”. To be more accurate, around the end of the 7th century (the exact year isn’t known), the government in Japan started calling the country Nihon. Until the 7th century, Japan was called “Wa” or “Yamato” using the Chinese character 倭, which has a connotation of “tiny” or “insignificant” because that is how the Chinese called Japan.

When the Japanese government sent a sovereign message to the Chinese government around the beginning of the 7th century, it used a term meaning “the land where the sun rises” for the first time. The exact phrase in the message was “From the Emperor of the land of the rising sun to the Emperor of land of the setting sun.”

From “Wa” or “Yamato” to “Nihon”: The Transition

The Japanese government changed the country’s name from Wa (Yamato) to Nihon (Nippon) in the early 8th century. An interesting point is that when naming the country, the Japanese took the Chinese government into consideration, possibly to show its esteem for the Chinese, as Japan is located where the sun rises for the Chinese, not for the Japanese.

A Common Misconception: New Zealand Vs Japan

Some people wonder why Japan is called the land of the rising sun, not  New Zealand. As you see, the reason is not because the sun rises first in Japan.

The Symbolism of the Rising Sun in Japan’s National Flag

Japan’s national flag is called “the rising sun flag” in English. At the beginning of the 7th century, the Japanese flag with the sun in the center was first used. However, it is said that the combination of colors on the flag was different from what it is now. The original combination of colors was a yellow sun and a red background. Toward the end of the Edo Era, this flag was used on ships to show their nationality. Then it was used in many other places.

Although it has a very long history, the rising sun flag didn’t become Japan’s national flag until 1999.


Sunrise on New Year's Day

  • The words, Japan, Nippon, Nihon all means “the origin of the sun” i.e. where the sun rises and that it is the reason why the country is often called the land of the rising sun.
  • To the eyes of the Chinese people, Japan is in the direction where the sun rises. ( Japan is on the east of China.)

Japan is called the land of rising sun in the languages other than English as well. e.g. French, Hindi, etc.

In which  country does the sun rise first?- Among the major countries, New Zealand is the country  where the sun rises first. It is not Japan. Depending on the time of the year, the sun rises first in a small island country named “Kiribati” located in the Pacific and also in Russia.  Learn more on this page.