"Japan" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re looking east, at the word Japan!

At first glance the name Japan appears to be a simple exonym, a placename used by those who live outside the area, not by the inhabitants themselves, but the etymology is slightly more complicated than that. Around 600 CE, the imperial correspondence of the Chinese Sui Dynastybegan to refer to the region, which had earlier been called Wa, with the phrase Jih-pun (or perhaps pronounced more like nyet-pun at the time) meaning “the sun’s origin”, because the archipelago, relative to China, was where the sun appeared to rise in the morning, in other words to the East. So letters were exchanged between the “sun-rise” country and the “sun-set” country. The sun became a significant symbol in Japanese culture, as would later be reflected in the Japanese flag. In 670 CE during the Tang Dynasty, Japanese scholars of Chinese adopted the name, with the Japanese pronunciations of the Kanji characters (also borrowed from China), which, after a series of sound changes, became Nihon and Nippon, both pronunciations used today. This is what lies behind the more poetic English phrase “land of the rising sun”. Odd, then, that the name the Japanese themselves use is from an external perspective, looking east, but not surprising that later the Chinese reborrowed the name to refer to the country.

It’s from the Chinese version that the name first makes its way to Europe as Chipangu, through Marco Polo, whose writings about histravels through the exotic orient — itself a word from a Latin root that means to rise, so the same sunrise idea — captivated European readers throughout the middle ages and into the early modern period. The Europeans were looking east in the first place for valuable spices and silk. Then, when Portuguese traders finally managed to find a way to sail to Asia, they picked up the Malay version of the name, Japang (which had again been borrowed from the Chinese), and it finally arrives in English in 1577 as Giapan.

During the 16th and 17th century many luxury goods, such as silk and porcelain, made their way back from China and Japan, and lacquered furniture in particular became all the rage in Europe. The so-called Nanban trade period of open trade in Japan from 1543 - 1614 saw a two-way exchange of culturally influential trade goods. Most notably, Japan received the European arquebus gun from the Portuguese, which became known as tanegashima after the island where it was first introduced to the Japanese—who already had some basic cannons from the Chinese, but for whom the muzzle-loading matchlock firearms were a major technological leap forward. Having received these weapons from the Portuguese, however, they promptly improved on the design, improving their range, accuracy, and power (they were already excellent metal workers, making some of the best swords in the world), and used their lacquerwork technology (which you remember became so popular in Europe) to waterproof the guns allowing them to be fired in the rain, which would have rendered the European aquebus useless. What’s more, they started mass producing them, by some estimates outproducing European countries. (See here for the full fascinating history of guns in Japan.)

The Portuguese also gave Japan a food which today is thought of as typically Japanese: deep-fried battered tempura. The name itself comes from the Portuguese word tempero, which either means “seasoning” from the Latin tempero “to temper, mix”, or comes from Latin tempus “time” in reference to the time of Lent, Fridays, and other holy days when the eating of meat was forbidden leading to the popularity of deep fried fish and vegetables, since it was Portuguese Jesuits who introduced the dish to the Japanese. Either way, Latin tempero probably ultimately comes from tempus in any case in the sense of timeliness and restraint, and goes back either to an Indo-European root meaning “to stretch” or “to cut” (in the sense of a segment of time). In Portugal to this day, there is a dish known as peixinhos da horta meaning “fishies of the garden” which is actually fried battered vegetables thought to resemble fish, though as it turns out, the Portuguese probably got the recipe in the first place from Goa, India, where there is a dish known as pakora meaning “cooked small lump”. There are also a number of recipes for actual fish, battered & fried, in the Mediterranean such as Spanish pescado frito “fried fish” and escabeche (which probably also gives us the word ceviche) from Arabic as-sikbaja, itself from Persian sikbaj, from the word sik meaning “vinegar”; though this dish actually started off as sweet-and-sour beef, before being changed by the sailors who spread it to fish! This dish may also lie behind British fish and chips, which is traditionally served with malt vinegar. But since Japanese tempura contains both fried seafood and vegetables, it may be a combination of the two culinary traditions. Talk about international fusion cuisine!
The brief period of open trade between Japan and Europe that allowed for all this cultural and technological exchange ended, however, with the Sakoku Exclusion Edicts and the isolationist Edo period that followed.

But getting back to that lacquered wood furniture, it was in such high demand, and was so costly to ship back to Europe that attempts were made to reproduce the effect, which came to be known as japanning, even though the style in question, Japan black, often came from China rather than Japan. One such substitute was invented in about 1730 by one Thomas Allgood of Pontypool, Wales, using turpentine made from the local oil shale, which had the additional benefit of being fast drying. As it happened, Pontypool was also a major iron producer, and since much of the timber in Britain at the time was being used for shipbuilding, Allgood instead started using his Pontypool japan as an innovative way to rustproof all that local iron—which was needed because Germany had recently developed tin-plating, threatening to leave British manufacturing behind.

Later still, this became useful for the automotive industry as Henry Ford began using the innovation of the assembly line to good effect producing the Ford Model-T, the world’s first cheap, mass produced car. And the finish he preferred was that old japan black, since it dried faster than any other colour finish, leading him to make the now famous joke “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”.

The irony of all this is that today it’s Japan that’s known for its innovative robotic automotive assembly lines and China that’s famous for its cheap mass production industry, so technological improvements and mass production, just like those guns in 16th century Japan, and once again, as with the spice and silk trade, the west is looking east.

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