Nara (奈良市 Nara-shi?) is the capital city of Nara Prefecture located in the Kansai region of Japan. The city occupies the northern part of Nara Prefecture, bordering Kyoto Prefecture. Eight temples, shrines and ruins in Nara remain: specifically Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji, and the Heijō Palace, together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, collectively form “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
By the Heian period, a variety of different characters had been used to represent the name Nara: 乃楽, 乃羅, 平, 平城, 名良, 奈良, 奈羅, 常, 那良, 那楽, 那羅, 楢, 諾良, 諾楽, 寧, 寧楽 and 儺羅.
A number of theories for the origin of the name Nara have been proposed, and some of the better-known ones are listed here. The second theory in the list, by notable folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), is most widely accepted at present.
- The Nihon shoki (The Chronicles of Japan, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history) suggests that “Nara” was derived from narasu (to flatten, to level). According to this account, in September in the tenth year ofEmperor Sujin, “…leading selected soldiers (the rebels) went forward, climbed Nara-yama (hills lying to the north ofHeijō-kyō) and put them in order. Now the imperial forces gathered and flattened trees and plants. Therefore the mountain is called Nara-yama.” Though the narrative itself is regarded as a folk etymology and few researchers regard it as historical, this is the oldest surviving suggestion, and is linguistically similar to the following theory by Yanagita.
- “Flat land” theory (currently most widely accepted): In his 1936 study of placenames, the author Kunio Yanagitastates that “the topographical feature of an area of relatively gentle gradient on the side of a mountain, which is called taira in eastern Japan and hae in the south of Kyushu, is called naru in the Chūgoku region and Shikoku(central Japan). This word gives rise to the verb narasu, adverb narashi, and adjective narushi.” This is supported by entries in a dialect dictionary for nouns referring to flat areas: naru (found in Aida District, Okayama Prefecture and Ketaka District, Tottori Prefecture) and naro (found in Kōchi Prefecture); and also by an adjective narui which is not standard Japanese, but is found all across central Japan, with meanings of “gentle”, “gently sloping”, or “easy”. Yanagita further comments that the way in which the fact that so many of these placenames are written using the character 平 (“flat”), or other characters in which it is an element, demonstrates the validity of this theory. Citing a 1795 document, Inaba-shi (因幡志?) from the province of Inaba, the eastern part of modern Tottori, as indicating the reading naruji for the word 平地 (standard reading heichi, meaning “level/flat ground/land/country, a plain”), Yanagita suggests that naruji would have been used as a common noun there until the modern period. Of course, the fact that historically “Nara” was also written 平 or 平城 as above is further support for this theory.
- The idea that Nara is derived from 楢 nara (Japanese for “oak, deciduous Quercus spp.”) is the next most common opinion. This idea was suggested by a linguist, Yoshida Togo. This noun for the plant can be seen as early as inMan’yōshū (7-8th century) and Harima-no-kuni Fudoki (715). The latter book states the place name Narahara inHarima (around present-day Kasai) derives from this nara tree, which might support Yoshida’s theory. Note that the name of the nearby city of Kashihara (literally “live oak plain”) contains a semantically similar morpheme (Japanese 橿 kashi “live oak, evergreen Quercus spp.”).
- Then, there is the idea that Nara is a loan word from Korean nara (나라 : country, nation, kingdom). This idea was put forward by a linguist Matsuoka Shizuo. However, almost nothing about the Old Korean language is known today. The first written attestation of a word ancestral to Modern Korean nara is as late as the 15th century, such as in Yongbieocheonga(1447), Wolinseokbo (月印釋譜. 1459), or Beophwagyeongeonhae (法華經諺解. 1463), and there is no evidence that proves the word already existed as far back as the 7th century. These 15th-century books used narah (나랗), an old form of nara in Korean, and its older form might be reconstructed *narak. Americanlinguist Christopher I. Beckwith infers the Korean narak derives from the late Middle Old Chinese 壌 (*nrak, earth), from early *narak, and has no connection with Goguryoic and Japanese na. (See also the next theory.) Kusuhara et al. also points out this hypothesis cannot account for the fact there are lots of places named Nara, Naru and Naro besides this Nara.
- There is the idea that Nara is akin to Tungusic na. In some Tungusic languages such as Orok (and likelyGoguryeo language), na means earth, land or the like. Some have speculated about a connection between these Tungusic words and Old Japanese nawi, an archaic and somewhat obscure word that appears in the verb phrasesnawi furu and nawi yoru (‘an earthquake occurs, to have an earthquake’).
The “Flat land” theory is adopted by Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (the largest dictionary of Japanese language), various dictionaries for place names, history books on Nara and the like today, and it is regarded as the most likely.