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Portuguese loanwords in Japanese

Aidan Cross

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

One of our Welfare Secs, Aidan, explores the influence of Portuguese on the Japanese language and the relationship between the two languages. Read on to discover the true origin of a very popular Japanese dish!

The Portuguese arrived to Japan as merchants and missionaries in 1543, during the Muromachi period (室町時代) which lasted from 14th to 16th Century. As the first Europeans to reach Japan, bringing with them new goods and Christianity, many Portuguese words found their way into Japanese and their influence on the language can still be seen today in the form of loanwords. However, this was not a one-sided exchange - as the Japanese learned from the Portuguese, the Portuguese also learned from the Japanese. For example, in 1603, Portuguese missionaries compiled the “Nippo Jisho” (日葡辞書) or “Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam” (Vocabulário da Língua do Japão), translating 32,000 Japanese words into Portuguese and becoming the first dictionary between Japanese and a European language.

In Japanese, loanwords (or gairaigo, 外来語) from foreign languages are typically written in katakana (片仮名), a phonetic script. However, older loanwords, such as many of those originating from Portuguese, are written in kanji (漢字), logographic Chinese characters, and are known as ateji (当て字) in which the characters can both represent the sound and meaning of the word. For example, the Japanese word “tabako” from the Portuguese “tabaco” can be written in kanji as 煙草: 煙 meaning “smoke” and 草 meaning “grass”.

Most of the words introduced into Japanese from Portuguese refer to goods that were brought to Japan for the first time by Portuguese traders such as “kappa” (合羽) from “capa”(cape) and “botan” (ボタン) from “botão”(button), as well as “pan” (パン) from “pão”(bread). Whilst these words are still used in Japanese, many other Portuguese loanwords, especially Christian religious terms, are archaic and aren’t generally heard in modern-day Japan.

Another food that was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese is tempura, known in Japanese as “tenpura” (天ぷら) from the Portuguese “tempora”. Now typical of Japanese cuisine, tempura was a traditional Portuguese dish of deep-fried battered seafood or vegetables, eaten during periods of religious fasting and abstinence from meat. Portugal’s version of this dish survives as the deep-fried battered green beans called Peixinhos de Horta (literally “little fishes from the garden”) – and they’re delicious!


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Portuguese Japanese Loanwords Influence Food Aidan Cross


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Barbara Dawson

average rating is 3 out of 5

Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

average rating is 3 out of 5

Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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