Archaeological research indicates that Japan was inhabited as early as the Upper Paleolithic period. The first written mention of Japan is in Chinese history texts from the 1st century AD. Influence from other regions, mainly China, followed by periods of isolation, particularly from Western Europe, has characterized Japan's history.
The Japanese word for Japan is 日本, which is pronounced Nihon or Nippon and literally means "the origin of the sun". The character nichi (日) means "sun" or "day"; hon (本) means "base" or "origin". The compound therefore means "origin of the sun" and is the source of the popular Western epithet "Land of the Rising Sun".
The earliest record of the name Nihon appears in the Chinese historical records of the Tang dynasty, the Old Book of Tang. At the end of the seventh century, a delegation from Japan requested that Nihon be used as the name of their country. This name may have its origin in a letter sent in 607 and recorded in the official history of the Sui dynasty. Prince Shōtoku, the Regent of Japan, sent a mission to China with a letter in which he called himself "the Emperor of the Land where the Sun rises" (日出處天子). The message said: "Here, I, the emperor of the country where the sun rises, send a letter to the emperor of the country where the sun sets. How are you[?]".
Prior to the adoption of Nihon, other terms such as Yamato (大和, or "Great Wa") and Wakoku (倭国) were used. The term Wa (和) is a homophone of Wo倭 (pronounced "Wa" by the Japanese), which has been used by the Chinese as a designation for the Japanese as early as the third century Three Kingdoms period. Another form of Wa (委), Wei in Chinese) was used for an early state in Japan called Nakoku during the Han dynasty. However, the Japanese disliked some connotation of Wa倭 (which has been associated in China with concepts like "dwarf" or "pygmy"), and it was therefore replaced with the substitute character Wa (和), meaning "togetherness, harmony".
The English word Japan possibly derives from the historical Chinese pronunciation of 日本. Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. In modern Shanghainese, a Wu dialect, the pronunciation of characters 日本 Japan is Zeppen[zəʔpən]. The old Malay word for Japan, Japun or Japang, was borrowed from a southern coastal Chinese dialect, probably Fukienese or Ningpo – and this Malay word was encountered by Portuguese traders in Southeast Asia in the 16th century. These Early Portuguese traders then brought the word to Europe. The first record of this name in English is in a book published in 1577 and spelled Giapan, in a translation of a 1565 letter written by a Portuguese Jesuit Luís Fróis.
From the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, the full title of Japan was Dai Nippon Teikoku (大日本帝國), meaning "the Empire of Great Japan". Today, the name Nihon-koku/Nippon-koku (日本国) is used as a formal modern-day equivalent with the meaning of "the State of Japan". Countries like Japan whose long form does not contain a descriptive designation are generally given a name appended by the character koku (国), meaning "country", "nation" or "state".