Monday, October 24, 2016

Nihon vs. Nippon - Meaning

Have you ever heard the word nippon 日本 in an anime? Maybe you thought you heard it, maybe you thought you misheard nihon 日本, which sounds almost the same. Well, the thing is, both nihon and nippon are actual, separate words in the Japanese language, though they are pretty much alike.

First off, it's all a matter of nuance. They share their meanings, both nihon and nippon mean "Japan" in Japanese. Also, nippongo 日本語, nipponjin 日本人, etc. all mean exactly the same thing as nihongo 日本語 and nihonjin 日本人, etc. in Japanese.

So if the meanings are the same and even the kanji are the same, what's the difference between nihon and nippon?

Po's Over Ho's

Well, it's so very simple it's actually stupid if you think about it. The difference is... nippon ニッポン sounds stronger than nihon ニホン. In fact, the Japanese alphabet treats po as ho with an accent. Just try saying it. "nihon." Meh, it just doesn't have the bang. Now say "nippon." It's almost niPOWn, isn't it? Now that's a bang.

Now you must be thinking: "just what the fuck does that have to do with anything?" The answer is a mix between formality, pride, culture and maybe a pinch of assertion.

Glorious Nippon Steel

Usually, when the Japanese people talk about their country, Japan, they will use the word nihon. That's the common word. The normal word. The default word.

However, when they want to pass the feelings of how great they think their country is, that is, to show their pride for the nation of Japan, for the stuff Japan does or makes, they will use nippon, as that word sounds more imposing than nihon.

Now. That second scenario basically never happens. You can talk about how great Japan is without using nippon, it's just that some people would deliberately say nippon to put more emphasis on their point.

As with all human things, pride doesn't need to be justified. You'll notice that nippon is often used in sports events for example, where the Japanese people cheer for the Japanese team. Some of those sports include soccer and Japan is like 50th in the worldwide FIFA ranking. Still, it's their country so it's normal they'd cheer for it no matter how much it sucked.

Glorious Nippon Anime

All this talk about Japanese pride and stuff might have gotten you thinking: is nippon a word only Japanese people can use? After all you can't possibly feel pride for a country that isn't even yours, right?


It's a word, not a cop. If you're a fan of Japan, the country, and want to sound obnoxious by saying nippon instead of nihon, just like Japanese people would, then sure, go for it. Who can blame you? If you want to use it to make jokes on the internet, who cares? It's not like there's some sort of anti-nippon power rangers going around the web writing tickets to foreigners who use the word.


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  1. 1st things 1st: thank you for your helpful articles.
    2nd: (is this related?) the 'rice field' kanji 田 should read as た e.g. as in 田中 (たなか), but in 山田 (やまだ) it reads as だ?

    1. Yes. The readings of names written with kanji are extremely complicated in Japanese, though tanaka vs. yamada is more your usual Japanese madness and not the advanced name madness.

      In many cases, when a kanji reading starts with "ta" it just might become "da" when preceded by certain syllables. This happens in some common words, too. Like watashi-tachi 私達 vs. tomodachi 友達.

      These mutations happen way too often. For example, kaku 格 + kou 好 mysteriously becomes kakkou 格好 and, similarly, gaku 学 + kou 校 becomes gakkou 学校. Also san 三 + hon 本 turns into sanbon 三本. etc.

      I recommend not trying to make much sense of it and just focus memorizing the words instead of the kanji.