Zipangu: The Golden Country

Nancy B. Alston

The origins of some countries’ names are not clear. For example, before World War II, the Japanese name for China was Shina. While these two names are clearly related, the origin of the name China is not clear. There are many theories why China was called China; a notable one being a corruption of Qin, China’s first dynasty. The Chinese name for China is Zhongguo. It sounds similar to China and means center country in Chinese.

Japanese name of Japan is Nihon or Nippon. It means the country of the rising sun. The name comes from an ancient letter sent from the Japanese government to China-the opening words of the letter said this is the letter from the country of the rising sun to the country of sunset. This comes from the relative location of Japan, which is located to the east of China. So how did the English name come about? Many Japanese believe that it came from the book, The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo, the thirteenth-century merchant who travelled to the Orient. He did not visit Japan, but he mentions in his book there is a country full of gold and silver called Zipangu.

This book caused European adventurers to travel to the Far East to find the land of gold and silver. Later, it resulted in Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492. Japan today is far from the country of gold and silver introduced in Marco Polo’s book. Why was Japan seen as a golden utopia by European explorers?

In the eleventh and twelfth century, the Fujiwara clan of the Tohoku district built a golden utopia. The clan was related to aristocrats in the central government in Kyoto. While the clan had a close relationship with Kyoto central government, it maintained its independence due to its distance from Kyoto. Kyoto allowed this independence on the condition the clan remained loyal to the central government.

Hidehira Fujiwara was the head of the clan at the peak of its influence. Taking advantage of gold produced in the region, the clan built a golden Buddhist temple, Chuson-ji. The temple’s main hall, called Konjiki-do, was filled with golden decoration. The name means golden hall. People of that time talked about the hall looking like a building in heaven. Clearly, this golden utopia attracted Marco Polo’s attention, along with other adventurers later on in the fifteenth century, including Christopher Columbus.

Recently, the Tohoku district was hit by the recent earthquake and tsunami. Fortunately, none of the buildings of this utopia were damaged. The author hopes the Tohoku district quickly recovers from the damage of the earthquake and tsunami and the tourists come back to admire the buildings.

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