29 Jun /15


The adjective Japanese, which describes the people of Japan, their language and things related to Japan, first appeared in English print, albeit with a different spelling, in a book about China. In 1586, the Spanish author Juan González de Mendoza (1545 – 1618) wrote his work The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof with an English translation by Robert Parke in 1588. Parke used the Spanish word Iapones in his translation because there was no English equivalent for the word at that time.

Sixteenth century Portuguese traders brought the word Giapan back to Europe to describe the country they had visited. Giapan probably derives from the Old Malay word Jepang, although Marco Polo had already recorded the name Cipangu after travelling in China in the mid-thirteenth century. In early seventeenth century English print, Japon and Japons were the singular and plural nouns used to describe the people of Japan, but by the early eighteenth century the word Japanese had come into use.

The book Race and Racism in Modern East Asia (2012) brings together descriptions and observations on the Japanese taken from English encyclopedias and newspaper publications of the mid to late nineteenth century. It makes for quite an eye-opening read since it reveals the feelings and attitudes of Europeans towards the Japanese which included admiration, contempt and a sense of Western superiority.

In the Encyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia (1885), Edward Balfour wrote of the Japanese: “The race are gentle, kind to one another…Their greatest failing are licentiousness and untruthfulness”. In 1874, The Japan Daily Herald cited “fickleness, cowardice…ingratitude” as their negative traits. The Japanese did receive a glowing report from the Europeans, however, in The Japan Weekly Mail (1874): “We can only say that the Japanese have, up to the present time, shown a marvelous aptitude, as compared with other oriental nations, for adapting themselves to European civilization”.

In 1877, The Japanese Gazette rejected Japanese claims that foreigners were brutal and wild and that the English were impolite in comparison with the Japanese, poorer in terms of mental qualities and lacking in respect for their elders.

Of course it did, how unfair of the Japanese to make such outrageous remarks!