Sunday, December 04, 2005


I recently learned from a japanese friend that an old name for Japan is 瑞穂の国, which means "The Land of Abundant Rice." It's a nice name, and easier to follow than the kanji for U.S.A., 米国, which literally means "rice country." (Since rice was synonymous with currency when Japan came into contact with the US, the name actually means "rich country.")

Anyway, the archaic name for Japan struck me as very interesting, since I recognized the first kanji, 瑞, which is one of the chinese characters that represent Sweden: 瑞典. These characters were probably chosen by people in Hong Kong for their phonetic value, because when read in the Cantonese dialect they sound kind of like the English word "Sweden" (or so I've heard, I only know a few words of Cantonese). So now that I knew that the first kanji can be interpreted as "abundant," what could the second one, 典, mean? A quick dictionary check told me "rule, code, law."

Hence, according to its phonetic representation in kanji, Sweden is the Land of Abundant Laws! Extraordinarily, the semantics turned out to be dead-on, as Sweden does indeed suffer from a ridiculous amount of rules and regulations. As Björk once said: "I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me"


DragonL said...

Fascinating research there! Fate in the works, wasn't it? And I've always liked that Bjork line, too.

DragonL said...

瑞 means that the country will be lucky, strong and rich forever. It also means snow (similar to abundant). From this name 瑞穂, you can tell that the Japanese wanted to remain on their island, unwanting to leave their country, go to war or trade, since the most important thing to them was farming. The new name 日本 signifies a new attitude; that of feeling very important and wanting to force others into submission. If someone doesn't agree with me, please keep in mind that I've read a lot of old Chinese texts and I know what I'm talking about! :) /Yulu

jg said...

Interesting analysis. A name like "The Land of the Rising Sun" (日本, origin of the sun) does indeed seem self-centered.

However, as I recall, a chinese prince was the first person to describe Japan as the land of the rising sun, which makes sense since Japan is to the east of China. So in that respect, it's a sinocentric name; it puts China at the centre of the map. Japan did look toward China a lot (buddhism, literature, not to mention the chinese characters).

Still, it's a name that reeks of self-importance. The fact that Japan adopted this description and made it its new name probably does indicate a change of attitude, just like you said. So I'm not disagreeing! :)

DragonL said...

I, too, put it to Y that 中国 sounds like a very self centered name for a country, but she maintains that the name in great part refers to being "lagom", as in being polite but firm, defensive but not aggressive, and so on. That aside, of course it also denotes being the country in the center of the world, as the imperial China was far stronger than the neighbouring countries. Having related those linguistic opinions, I'm now off to bed! :P