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The origin of the word "Japan"

edited April 2012 in Japanese
If you have studied Japanese for a little while, you know that Japan in Japanese is nihon. Japan doesn’t sound anything close to nihon, does it?! So where does the word Japan come from?

It is commonly believed that the word Japan comes from how an Italian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) called the country in his book, “Il Milione”.  

He writes, “People on the Island of Cipangu have tremendous quantities of gold.”

So he called the country Cipangu, and this is said to be the origin of the word Japan (or Giappone in Italian, Japon in French, etc...). But why did Marco Polo call it Cipangu? Where does that come from?

Through his book, Marco Polo is known to have introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. He also wrote about Japan but he actually never went to Japan. He only heard about the country while he was in China. So the word Cipangu comes from how “the country of Japan” is referred to in Chinese.

In sum, the origin of the word Japan is Cipangu, which is an Italian phonological interpretation of the Chinese word that means “the country of Japan”. Who knew?!


  • I love little bits of knowledge like that. Arigatoo gozaimasu Sakura san!
  • Happy to hear that you enjoyed it! 
  • Cool! I've never wondered about that, but now that I know the answer, I wonder why I've never wondered! :) Great information.
  • Thanks Chris! Although, what is not clear to me is why Japan in Italian is Giappone, which is quite a departure from the original word Cipangu. If Marco Polo himself was an Italian, why didn't they just employ that word as it is?! I don't know the answer to this... 
  • We'll have to ask the Italian eTutors!!
  • I want to know if my name is Chinese or Japanese (Yashiona)
  • It sounds like Japanese rather than Chinese, but I've never heard this name before. I Googled it in Japanese characters just now but I got zero hit. So I don't think this is Japanese either. Are you sure that it is either Japanese or Chinese? Couldn't it be something else?
  • This is great, I always wondered were the name Japan came from, since when I visited Japan  they always said Nihon.
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