I suppose that adding a JIT that finally delivered on the research done previously on Self at Sun Microsystems probably did merit a major version bump, but Sun (and coincidentally Oracle) were masters at a bit of version bumping to warm over products getting a lukewarm reception.
For the record, I stumbled upon Java, Tcl/Tk, Python and a bunch of other languages at the same time, in around 1995. Java was the only one that needed me to get a disk quota upgrade and an account on a flaky Solaris server (whereas the others all ran on SunOS and a multitude of other platforms). I recall a colleague during my summer job showing me Java for the first time: Duke the Java mascot waving in an applet; premium UltraSPARC workstation required.
To be fair, I did get some mileage out of Java for a university project, doing a bit of graphics in AWT instead of using Xlib like everybody else, but a few months later I would saved myself the hassle of the dubious AWT implementation and used something like Python and Tk instead.