Portuguese-Japanese Language Contact. History, Linguistic Features and Socio-Cultural Impact

Term Paper 2013 21 Pages

Speech Science / Linguistics




1. Language Contact in the Sixteenth Century in Japan
1.1 Historical Context and Reasons for Language Contact
1.2 Loanwords in Japanese and Portuguese through Language Contact

2. Language Contact at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century in Brazil
2.1 Historical Context and Reasons for Language Contact
2.2 Loanwords in Japanese and Portuguese through Language Contact

3. Language Contact since the End of the Twentieth Century
3.1 Historical Context and Reasons for Language Contact
3.2 Code-Switching and Loanwords in the Speech of Brazilians Living in Japan



Literary Sources:

Internet Sources:


Language contact between Japanese and Portuguese is not a recent phenomenon. During Japan’s “Christian Era” between 1549 and 1639, the introduction of foreign culture by Portuguese missionaries and merchants influenced not only such fields as religion, technology and art, but also the Japanese language (Nakamizu 2003, 73). The language contact continued over the past centuries and reached a further peak at the beginning of the twentieth century (Page 1995, 102). Up to this point, there still is a quite vivid interaction between Brazilians and Japanese for several reasons, which will be presented in the third chapter. Besides, the number of Brazilian residents in Japan and vice versa is so high nowadays that the contact between those two languages is practically inevitable.[1] [2]

The history of Portuguese-Japanese language contact is divided into three stages (Kono 2011, 43). These aforesaid stages will be discussed as follows: The first chapter deals with the first stage of language contact, which occurred in the sixteenth century in Japan. Chapter two is about the second stage of Portuguese-Japanese language contact, which occurred in Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century. The third chapter deals with the third and last stage of Japanese-Portuguese language contact that began at the end of the twentieth century and still continues. This chapter is followed by a conclusion, a list of references and a declaration about the authenticity of the term paper. Although this subject is quite complex, the purpose of this term paper is to give a short overview about the sociolinguistic and historical significance of the Japanese- Portuguese language contact. Japanese terms are always written in rōmaji. For a better understanding, Portuguese terms, as well as Japanese terms, are always translated into English

1. Language Contact in the Sixteenth Century in Japan

1.1 Historical Context and Reasons for Language Contact

Japanese first came into contact with the Portuguese language in the so-called “Christian Era”. In 1542, Portuguese traders, whose ship was blown off course, landed on a Japanese island. Despite the major language barrier, the Japanese were hospitable to the traders in the early years and early relations were very good between both cultures. A few years later, in 1549, a Roman Catholic missionary named Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with the intent to convert the Japanese to Christianity.[3] For that purpose, he founded the Society of Jesus in Japan. By the time of his departure in 1552, though, he is believed to have converted merely around 760 Japanese. Eventually he had come to the realization that a more effective way to convert the Japanese would have been by establishing Christianity in China first. This was because he knew that the Japanese respected and highly regarded the Chinese as well as their culture (Elison 1973, 229-230).

Japan at the time of the Christian era was at the end of its Sengoku period. The Sengoku period, which is also known as the Warring States Period, was a time of social upheavals and military conflicts for Japan. It lasted from the middle of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Besides their religion, the Europeans brought with them gunpowder, which they traded with the Japanese feudal lords. Gunpowder as well as Western style weapons were very useful to the lords who were all rivaling for control at that time. It is even speculated that the main reason for which the European Christians were tolerated in the beginning was because of the usefulness of the goods they brought with them. Hence, it can be concluded that the Japanese exploited the Portuguese traders and the clergy to a certain degree, just as the Europeans tried to exploit the Japanese. Both parties had economic profits and political interests in mind when they first encountered each other (Elison 1973, 232).

Soon after a central government was reestablished in Japan in 1603, a law was enacted that banned Christianity as a religion. From then on, Christians were perceived as a potential threat to the political stability of the new government. Consequently, many Christians, both European and Japanese, fled the country. Banning Christian practices and European influences of any kind led eventually to the closing of Japan to foreign influences in the following centuries. The Japanese became very hostile to the remaining missionaries. Many were tortured, forced to leave the country and killed, if otherwise. That period is called the Edo Period and lasted for over 200 years (Cooper 1965, 375).

It was not until the reopening of Japan to the rest of the world that Christianity was once again legalized and missionaries started to come back. At that point, the Christian era in Japan had long been over and its lasting effects were hard to find in the Japanese culture (Mihoko 2001, 55). In conclusion it can be said that Christianity had initially failed in Japan for several reasons, but today it is a recognized religion, which is again being tolerated and respected. Nevertheless, it remains as one of the minor religions in the country. After many centuries of persecution and isolation, Japan has become a relatively tolerant and open country towards foreign influences. This new policy of legalization and cultural openness is also reflected in the Japanese language, which includes many loanwords from English and Portuguese (Kono 2011, 46).

1.2 Loanwords in Japanese and Portuguese through Language Contact

Portuguese documents written by Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century contain several Japanese loanwords. The majority of these loanwords were cultural borrowings and direct loans that denote objects which only existed in Japan at that time (Kono 2001, 43). Hence, Japanese loanwords were a convenient way to express matters or describe objects that were of Japanese origin and for which the Portuguese had not yet had names. For instance, a Portuguese missionary named Luís Fróis used the term tatami, a traditionally Japanese floor mat made of rice straws, in the following passage of his book Historia de Japam (History of Japan), in which he describes his experiences as a missionary in Japan: “Forão em companhia daquelle fidalgo athé huma camara, onde el rey ordinariamente via os embaixadores e gente que vinha de fora; e, hindo diante delle, prostrados sobre tatamis, lhe fizerão duas vezes reverencia.” (It was in the company of that nobleman that they entered the chamber, in which the king usually met ambassadors and people who came from far away; and standing before him, prostrating over tatami mats, they reverenced him twice.) (Wicki 1976, 31). Further examples for Japanese loanwords, which were introduced into the Portuguese language at that time, are biombo (Japanese folding screen) and catana (machete).[4] Significantly, these lexical items are still used in the Portuguese language.

Lexical borrowings were not a one-way phenomenon in this phase of Japanese- Portuguese language contact. Japanese Christian documents of that time demonstrate that lexical borrowings occurred also from Portuguese to Japanese. Portuguese missionaries introduced terms as esuperansa (hope; in Portuguese esperança), deusu (God; in Portuguese deus), karidaade (charity; in Portuguese caridade) and bondaade (goodness; in Portuguese bondade) into the Japanese language. These examples show that in that phase of Portuguese- Japanese language contact Portuguese loanwords did not undergo a process of clipping, which has usually been done with borrowed lexical items in Japanese, when introduced into the recipient language. They may rather be classified as loanblends, since they partly correspond with the lexical items of the donor language regarding their content and form (Kono 2001, 44). Importantly, Japanese had already words for most of the aforesaid loanwords. This means that most of the Portuguese loanwords that entered the Japanese language were core borrowings.

However, the question remains how it can be that lexical items of the Portuguese language were so quickly adapted into Japanese. It must be said that these borrowings were primarily applied in religious contexts. Thus, Portuguese loanwords did not disseminate widely in Japan, since Christianity did not widely spread in the country. Eventually, the first stage of Portuguese- Japanese language contact ended after Christianity and all its devotees were expelled from Japan. As a direct consequence of that many of those aforesaid loanwords from the Portuguese language were not used anymore by Japanese speakers and fell into oblivion (Kono 2001, 44-45). It can be concluded that in the first phase of Japanese- Portuguese language contact, there were solely lexical items that were borrowed from Portuguese to Japanese and vice versa. Phonological borrowings or grammatical borrowings of any kind did not exist. Moreover, it can be inferred that the vast majority of all loanwords were nouns, and thus items from an open word class (Kono 2001, 49).


[1] http://stats-japan.com/t/kiji/11623 (03.05.2013)

[2] http://bunkyo.bunkyonet.org.br/ (03.05.2013)

[3] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/650577/Saint-Francis-Xavier%3E (26.05.2013)

[4] http://japanhinomaru.blogspot.de/2012/03/palavras-portuguesasjaponesas-de-origem.html (03.05.2013)


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Language Contact Portuguese Japanese Linguistic Development




Title: Portuguese-Japanese Language Contact. History, Linguistic Features and Socio-Cultural Impact