One way to start a conversation with a Tokyo taxi driver is to do what I did and remark, “あっ、大日本帝国さんですね” (“Ah, Dainippon Teikoku-san desu ne,” “Oh, I see that you are the ‘Empire of Japan’ company”).
That’s only if you’re riding in a taxi operated by one of four long-established companies — 大和 (Daiwa), 日本交通 (Nihon Kotsu), 帝都 (Teito) and 国際 (Kokusai). Back in the 1940s, they had exclusive contracts to transport members of Japan’s military. This enabled them to obtain extra gasoline rations, and someone figured out that the first characters used to write their names formed the words “Dainippon Teikoku,” the “Empire of ‘Great’ Japan,” which was the official name of Japan until 1947.
These four firms still remain affiliated, which is why my driver knew what I was referring to. He responded with “よくご存知ですね” (“Yoku go-zonji desu ne,” “You are well acquainted”).
Practically no one would pronounce those characters as “Dainihon.” Yet it would not exactly be wrong either, because there doesn’t seem to be any definitive rule about which circumstances warrant the use of “Nippon” or “Nihon.”
For instance, take the famous bridge at Tokyo’s geographic center, Nihonbashi, and the area in Osaka with a concentration of consumer electronics retailers, called Nipponbashi. Both are written with the same kanji, 日本橋. People in Tokyo and Osaka are comfortable with this discrepancy and no one has suggested that their pronunciations should be standardized.
Nippon (or Nihon) literally means “sun origin.” While the two pronunciations are used interchangeably and at the speaker’s discretion, “Nippon” definitely carries more passion and excitement, and next year you can expect to hear it constantly as excited sports announcers and fans cheer for Japan’s athletes during the Tokyo Olympics. There are also certain compound words for which Nippon tends to be the preferred pronunciation. These include the cheer 頑張れニッポン (Ganbare Nippon, Go for it, Japan), ニッポン一 (Nippon Ichi, No. 1, or the best, in Japan), 日本男児 (Nippon danji, a true Japanese man); 日本代表 (Nippon daihyō, Japanese representative) and 全日本 (zen-Nippon, all-Japan).
Nevertheless, in daily usage Nihon appears to be more common. In its weekly Be Between internet survey, the Asahi Shimbun (Nov. 9) asked readers, “Which pronunciation do you prefer, Nihon or Nippon?” Out of 1,605 responses, 76 percent favored the former, as opposed to 24 percent for the latter.
Their top three reasons for favoring Nihon were: 言いやすい (Ii-yasui, It’s easy to say), with 673 responses; 一般的によく耳にする (ippan-teki ni yoku mimi ni suru, I generally hear it more frequently), with 596; and 語感が柔らかい (gokan ga yawarakai, has a mild or mellow spoken feeling).
In contrast, the top three responses among the one-fourth who said they favor Nippon were: 紙幣や切手にNIPPONとある（Shihei ya kitte ni Nippon to aru, Nippon appears on bank notes and stamps), with 170 responses; 一般的によく耳にする (ippan-teki ni yoku mimi ni suru, I generally hear it more frequently), with 164; and 力強いイメージがある (chikara-zuyoi imēji ga aru, it has a strong image) with 150.
When asked, 国名の読み方を統一した方がいい？ (Kokumei no yomikata o tōitsu shita hō ga ii? Would it be better to standardize the reading for the country’s name?), only 14 percent replied in the affirmative, with 54 percent undecided and 32 percent replying no.
Even the government appears to have no official position. During deliberations in the Diet in 2009, a member of the Cabinet opined that, どちらか一方に統一する必要はない (Dochira ka ippō ni tōitsu suru hitsuyō wa nai, There is no need to standardize to one or the other).
Interestingly, the English “Japan” (ジャパン), which the Japanese pronounce Jah-pahn, also appears to be widely accepted. While 16 percent of the Asahi’s survey respondents prefer it be dropped in favor of Nihon or Nippon, 45 percent were agreeable to its use, with another 39 percent undecided.
Of course, if you’re uncertain as to what to call it, you can always refer to Nihon/Nippon/Japan as この国 (kono kuni, this country), and leave it at that.