Japan: day book?

playing around with the Babelfish, I see that Japan is 日本. However, the translation for æ—¥ alone is “Day”, and for 本 alone is “Book”. The translation for 本日 is “This day”.

No clues to why this might be so at the Wikipedia entry or casual googling. Of course, the Fish might just be on crack today. I need to ask an expert or two

4 thoughts on “Japan: day book?”

  1. Forget babelfish — and instead use one of the most phenomenal sites on the Internet, Jim Breen’s WWWJDC:


    This won’t totally answer your question — but will allow you to confirm the information provided by wikipedia:


    One of the meanings of æ—¥ is “sun” and one of the meanings for 本 is “origin” — so the characters together (in this case) mean “origin of the sun”.

  2. WWWJDIC is indeed a great site, although its name always inspires disrespectful acronym speculation.

    Asking why is a bit ambitious in language study – often, the answer comes back as ‘because’ or ‘consensus’. In this case, 本日 (honjitsu), it’s worth remembering that that character hon is used for 本案 (honan) ‘this plan’, 本学 (hongaku) ‘this university’, and 本件 (honken) ‘this case.’ 本校 (honkou) ‘this school’, 本稿 (honkou) ‘this manuscript’ – it goes on.

    So hon gets used all over the place in compounds to indicate ‘this x’, and its use in 本日 (honjitsu) is nothing out of place. Arguably, this is tied into the common use of hon as indicating the ‘main’ x in a compound, and that in turn is tied into the sense of hon as the ‘real’ or ‘true’ – this is also the hon from 本意 (honi) and 本音 (honne), or for that matter, 本当 (hontou), real intentions as opposed to 立前 (tatemae).

    This may in turn be tied into the sense of hon as origin or source – as Michael notes, 日本 can be read as sun’s origin – Japan is not arbitrarily called the land of the rising sun.

    Still, for all I know, these various meanings are homonym accretions to a single character, connected through folk-etymology if at all, rather than a common semantic root. This seems to me likely to be true at least in part, but I have no evidence for it. A better student of Japanese might know the etymology of each use; I do not.

    The short version of this would have been that kanji are not actually mere conveyances of a platonic form of an idea. They convey extended meanings, associated meanings, fossilized uses of archaic meanings, other meanings which happened to have that same sound as the initial meaning(s), and their extended or associated meanings – and so on. A character will often have several uses in different contexts, and Babelfish’s translation of 本 as book was misleading in context.

    A hypothetical English example might be trying to explain the differences between real, reel (all of them), realty, and the address El Camino Real – if all the re-l words were represented by a single character 本.

  3. [side note: something dynamic in this page really hoses my attempts to use Safari to comment. Are the ads refreshing with a Javascript DOM hack?]

    Figuring out the meaning and pronunciation of kanji quickly gets “interesting”, and the root cause of it all is that the Japanese were about as consistent about adopting Chinese writing as Americans are at adopting foreign words. Sometimes they kept the meaning and adapted the pronunciation, sometimes they kept the meaning and applied it to a native Japanese word, sometimes they threw out the meaning and used it phonetically, sometimes they changed the meaning, sometimes they arbitrarily assigned a new meaning, and sometimes they even copied them down wrong, accidentally creating a new meaning. The best part is that they often adopted the same character several times, with whatever the current meaning and pronunciation were in China.

    So, the current official readings for the kanji æ—¥ are nichi, jitsu, hi, bi, and ka (the first two are phonetically mangled Chinese, the rest native), and depending on the word it’s used in, it will mean day, sun, or Japan. So, 日曜日 (nichi-you-bi) is literally sun day-of-week day (and yes, it means “Sunday”), mixing two different meanings and pronunciations of æ—¥.

    本, on the other hand, only has two official pronunciations, hon (Chinese) and moto (native), but it’s picked up a variety of meanings: “this”, “origin/basis”, “real”, “main”, “book”, “principle”, “counter word for cylinders”, “counter word for plants with roots”, “counter word for rounds/points in a contest (such as a karate match)”, and probably a few others I don’t know about. [to be honest, I didn’t know about half of those until I looked it up just now]

    My understanding of how 日本 came to mean “Japan” is that the Chinese were simply describing where their newly-discovered Eastern neighbors lived: where the sun rises. One of my reference books (Henshall) says the original form of 本 was a pictograph of the roots of a tree, so the root/origin meaning came first.


  4. it sounds like individual characters in Kanji play the same role as root words in Arabic. Excet that the symbolism is literal in that we are actually using icons (symbols) rather than strings of characters.

    Then again, what is a character but a symbol?

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