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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Japanese Maps and the Meaning of Place-Names

[From November Issue 2010]

Do you know that the kanji “日本” and “日” (ni / nichi / hi) means “day” and/or “sunshine”? Do you also know that “本” (hon / moto) means “book,” but also “origin,” and/or “home”? In brief, together “日本” means “the origin of sunshine.” This is why Japan is often referred to, in English, as “the land of the rising Sun.”

On a map you can see that Japan is mainly made up of four big islands, the largest one being “本州”/Honshu(u). “州”/shu(u) usually means “state,” but on some occasions it may also mean country. “本州”/Honshu(u) means “home state,” and can generally be translated as “mainland.”

The smallest of the four islands is “四国”/Shikoku. Previously it was made up of four independent States (countries), which have now become four distinct prefectures. Originally in the southern islands of “九州”/Kyushu(u) there were nine States. Now, they have become a group of seven prefectures. The northernmost island is “北海道”/Hokkaido(u) which literally means “North Sea Road.” The kanji “道”/do(u) road is said to have been used because there were already main arteries such as “Tokaido(u)” and “Tohokudo(u)” in the area.

Japan is divided into eight regions; Hokkaido(u), Shikoku and Kyushu(u) form one region, while Honshu(u) is subdivided into 5 regions that include Tohoku, Kanto(u), Chu(u)bu, Kinki and Chu(u)goku. The kanji “東北”/To(u)hoku exactly fits the English word “northeast.” Kanto(u) is considered to be the center of Japan’s economy and culture and also where To(u)kyo(u), Japan’s present capital, is located. Chu(u)bu is physically located in the middle of the country, while the Kinki region is commonly referred to as “Kansai.” Chu(u)goku is often confused with the neighboring country of China as it is also written and pronunced “中国”/Chu(u)goku, and is therefore often referred as the Chu(u)goku region.

In Japan’s 8 regions there are 47 ken/prefectures, but in To(u)kyo, O(o)saka, Kyo(u)to and Hokkaido(u), the word “ken” is replaced with other names. Instead, they are called To(u)kyo(u)-to, O(o)saka-fu, Kyo(u)to-fu and Hokkaido(u). Since “do(u)” is already part of its name, no additional ending is required. This is somewhat similar to the capital of the U.S.A., Washington, which is commonly referred to as Washington D.C.

The region’s largest cities are (from north to south): Sapporo, Sendai, To(u)kyo(u), Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyo(u)to, O(o)saka, Ko(u)be, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Central To(u)kyo(u), where many non-Japanese live and work, is divided into 23 wards.

Kyo(u)to had been the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years. “都” (to / miyako) means “capital,” so Kyoto means the “Capital of Kyo(u).” “東京”/To(u)kyo(u), is located to the east “東” (tou / higashi) of “京” /Kyo(u), and therefore means, “To(u)kyo(u),” the capital east of Kyo(u). Located within To(u)kyo(u), a big town “新宿” /Shinjuku means “new inn.” “新” (shin / atarashii) means “new” and “宿” (juku / yado) means “inn.” This name was derived from the new inns that were being built in that area. Thus, each place has its own name-history.


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