Located on the east coast of Asia, Japan is an archipelago consisting of many islands. It was China that first viewed Japan as the land from where the Sun rose because Japan was located directly east of the Chinese coastline. This created an illusion that the rising sun came from Japan. Therefore in 618 AD, the Sui Dynasty of China gave Japan its Chinese imperial name Nihon (the characters of this name were pronounced as ‘Jihpen’) which means ‘sun-origin’, translating it further into English, it read, “land of the rising sun,” thus giving Japan its nickname.
During Japan’s early development, China had a large influence on the emerging Japanese culture. The Japanese version of the name, Nippon, was officially adopted in documents and manuscripts during the Taika Reform in 645 AD. This provided a way to centralize the country’s government rather than allow it to continue as a conglomeration of privately owned lands. The Europeans learned of Japan from the Chinese, who mispronounced the name as Zipango. That word eventually evolved into Japan.
The Japanese language originally referred to Japan as wakoku which meant “country of the wa.” Wa was an ethnic group that lived in Japan during the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD). But eventually the Chinese name Nihon gained more popularity, and this is how the nomenclature of Japan developed. The same name is also the inspiration behind the country’s national flag.
According to Japanese tradition, the country’s imperial family is descended from Amaterasu, the sun goddess. A well-known myth about the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu tells how she became so angry with her brother, who was misbehaving, that she retreated into a cave. The goddess’s withdrawal deprived the world of light and warmth. Finally, the other gods tricked her into emerging. The story unfolds that the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, was gentle by nature but her brother Susano’o, the Storm God, could be quite rash. He caused immense damage around the land and this outraged Amaterasu, and therefore she took refuge in the “Rock-Cave of Heaven.” Japan was plunged into darkness, and constant night reigned.
What happened next was that the 800-myriad kami assembled in a divine assembly, and Miyabi, the Dread Female of Heaven, became divinely possessed, exposed her breasts, and pulled her shirt down to her genitals. The laughter of the gods shook the heavens. Puzzled by the uproar, Amaterasu approached the mouth of her cave. A divine mirror was held up to reveal the scene, tempted her further until at last she was seized and hauled out of the cave. The eclipse was over! Susano’o, for his part, was fined and expelled with a divine expulsion. Japan and the sun, the myths tell us, are siblings — elder and younger respectively, both children of the progenitor gods Izanagi and Izanami. Amaterasu, in turn, became the ancestress of Japan’s Imperial house. Thus, this could be considered as another reason why Japan was called the land of the rising sun as the disappearance and reappearance of the Sun was a turning point in the history of the country.
Another interesting fact is that when Cartographers plotted maps they flattened the continents and land masses so that Japan was to the extreme east where the sun rises. The International Date Line or the ‘Prime Meridian,’ passes through Greenwich, England, and the other extremity is 180 degrees, that passes through (almost) the Fiji Islands. Japan is the largest cognizable land mass from where the day would begin and therefore it is called the land of the rising sun.