What's in a Name?

Roppongi had a very big effect on me. It was the first kanji place name I understood literally. A few days after I started studying kanji, I realised it meant SIX TREES. After this I was keen to know what all the other place names in Tokyo meant. Soon I had rechristened every spot on the map with English translations of their kanji names.

I now change trains at RED WINGS (Akabane), go shopping in POND BAG (Ikebukuro) and work in NEW HOME (Shinjuku). I used to live in HIGH FIELD HORSE PLACE (Takadanobaba); my oldest friend in Tokyo lives in HILL LOOKING TOWARDS FUJI (Fujimigaoka); and I get my visa renewed in the ominously named BIG HAND TOWN (Otemachi) district of Tokyo!

Once I picked up this habit, I became interested in the original meanings of all sorts of other names. Without the benefit of kanji, I investigated the meaning of my own family name and found out that in Old English it means "Loud Valley." This habit also helped me to look at countries in a different light.

I discovered that some places have rather good names, whilst others have quite ridiculous ones. For example, Tokyo is a good name because it says just what it is: "Eastern Capital." France also is a fine name, deriving as it does from the old Germanic word for freedom, a concept – both in the political and artistic sense – with which that nation has been associated since the French Revolution.

Hong Kong is no longer such a good name because the "fragrant harbor" it once denoted has lost much of its sweetness. England also has an inappropriate, though historically interesting, name, being named after a hook- or angle-shaped piece of land lying in the north of Germany. Perhaps the worst name of all is America because it gives the name of an obscure Italian sailor to two enormous continents. This would be like calling China "Marco Polo Land" or naming Disneyland after one of the first random customers.

Japan is also unfortunate in having an unsuitable name: As we all know, Japan, or Nippon, denotes the source of the Sun, a concept which not only flies in the face of all available scientific evidence, but also provides a potent image for national supremacists who see Japan as somehow more pure, central or virtuous than other countries.

Ironically, this name is not even Japanese. The ancient inhabitants of this archipelago would never have had the temerity to claim that their country gave birth to the Sun. This name is nothing more than a Chinese misconception: the Sun appearing to arise from Japan to somebody living further West. To Japanese people, the sun appears to arrive from across the Pacific, so, in this sense, America must be the real "Nippon" or the source of the Sun!

When you visit Roppongi, the only trees you are likely to see are the ones that have been pulped to make paper for flyers for bars and strip clubs. In the same way, a lot of other names, including those of many nations, mock and even betray their etymologies.

Hiragana Times
January, 2000
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