What did the Portuguese bring to Japan?
Updated: Jun 1
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan, and their influence on Japanese culture was enormous. Get to know some examples.
When we think of Japanese culture, perhaps its connection with Portugal does not immediately spring to mind. However, for over 400 years, the two countries have maintained commercial, religious and cultural relations that have left a deep mark on Japanese society. From the arrival of the first Portuguese on the island of Tanegashima in 1543 to the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries and the isolation of Japan in the 17th century, the Portuguese influenced various aspects of Japanese life, art, language, and gastronomy.
One of the main areas of Portuguese influence in Japan was religion. The Portuguese were the first to bring Christianity to the country, through Jesuit missionaries led by Saint Francis Xavier, who arrived in Japan in 1549.
The Jesuits managed to convert thousands of Japanese to Catholicism, especially in the regions of Kyushu and Nagasaki, where they gained the support of some feudal lords (daimyos) who saw the new faith as a way to resist the central power of the shogunate. However, Christianity also faced strong opposition from other daimyos, Buddhists, and Shinto groups who saw the foreign religion as a threat to their identity and sovereignty.
Persecution of Christians intensified in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, culminating in the outlawing of Christianity in 1614 and the execution of thousands of martyrs, among them the 26 saints of Japan who were crucified at Nagasaki in 1597. Despite the repression, many Japanese Christians kept their faith secret, forming communities of Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians) who survived for centuries without contact with the outside world. Some of these hidden Christians were rediscovered in the 19th century when Japan opened up to the world and religious freedom again.
Another area of Portuguese influence in Japan was politics. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish contact with Japan and to start trade between the two countries. The Portuguese brought with them exotic products such as silk, spices, sugar, glass, watches and firearms (teppo), which aroused the interest and curiosity of the Japanese.
The teppo were especially important for Japan's political history, as they contributed to the unification of the country under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of the most famous daimyos of the time. The Portuguese also served as intermediaries between Japan and other Asian countries, such as China and the East Indies, facilitating commercial and cultural exchange.
However, the Portuguese presence in Japan also generated conflicts and rivalries with other European powers, such as Spain and Holland, who disputed the control of trade in the region. The Tokugawa shogunate, which was established in 1603 as the central government of Japan, adopted a policy of isolation "sakoku" (Edo period ((also known as the Tokugawa period; 1603–1867)) that severely limited commercial and diplomatic relations with the outside world. The Portuguese were definitively expelled from Japan in 1639.
Apart from the religious and political influence, the Portuguese also left their mark on Japanese culture, in areas such as language, art, music and gastronomy. Many Japanese words have Portuguese origins, such as bateren (priest), botan (button), tempura (seasoning) or pan (bread). Some of these words were later incorporated into the Portuguese language, such as biombo (byobu), catana (katana) or caqui (kaki).
The Portuguese also introduced new forms of artistic expression to Japan, such as oil painting, the organ, theatre and literature. The Jesuits translated classic works of Western literature into Japanese, such as Aesop's fables or Seneca's letters.
The Japanese also created original works inspired by Portuguese culture, like the namban byobu (namban biombos), which depicted scenes from the life of the Portuguese in Japan, or the nanban bungaku (namban literature), which reflected on the cultural and religious differences between the two peoples.
Music was also an area of cultural exchange between Portugal and Japan. The Jesuits taught the Japanese Gregorian chant and polyphonic music, as well as the use of musical instruments such as the organ, violin, and flute. The Japanese adapted these instruments and musical styles to their own tradition, creating genres such as kirishitan ongaku (Christian music) or nanban ongaku (Namban music).
Gastronomy was another area of Portuguese influence in Japan. The Portuguese introduced foods such as sugar, bread, wheat, sweet potato and frying in oil to Japan. Some of these foods gave rise to typical Japanese dishes, such as tempura, kastera (sponge cake), konpeito (confection) or keiran somen (egg threads).
The Portuguese also influenced the eating habits of the Japanese, breaking the Buddhist taboo on eating meat and introducing dishes like aji no namban zuke (fed mackerel) or chiken namban (namban chicken).
Finally, the Portuguese influence in Japan was also felt in the economic area. The Portuguese were the first to open trade between Japan and the rest of the world, bringing with them valuable products such as silk, spices, sugar, and gold.
The Portuguese also served as intermediaries between Japan and other Asian countries, such as China and the East Indies, facilitating the exchange of goods and knowledge.
The Portuguese trade in Japan was very profitable for both parties, generating wealth and prosperity. The port of Nagasaki became the main commercial centre of the country, where the Portuguese had special privileges and an exclusive island to themselves, called Dejima.
Social and cultural impact
The Portuguese trade in Japan also had a social and cultural impact, as it allowed the circulation of people, ideas, and customs between the two countries. Many Portuguese married Japanese women and had mixed-race children, who became known as namban-jin (namban people) or kirisuto-kei (Christian descendants).
Some of these mestizos became important figures in the history of Japan, like William Adams, the first Englishman to arrive in Japan in 1600, who became an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and received the Japanese name Miura Anjin; or João Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who became an interpreter and diplomat to the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu and received the Japanese name Tsuzu.
Portuguese trade in Japan lasted about a century until it was banned by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1639 as part of the country's policy of isolation. The Portuguese were expelled from Japan and their goods were confiscated.
Only the Dutch were allowed to continue trade with Japan but under very restricted conditions. Japan only opened up to international trade again in the 19th century after the arrival of commodore Matthew Perry's American ships in 1853.
The Portuguese Influence on Japanese Cuisine
Very famous in Japanese cuisine, tempura: a vegetable or shellfish surrounded by breadcrumbs and deep-fried is not really Japanese! Tempura owes its origins to the Portuguese. The Portuguese used to cook fish and shellfish in a doughnut batter. The Japanese drew inspiration from this cooking method to create tempura. The word "tempura" comes from the verb "temperar", which means "to season" in Portuguese. Curiously, in Portugal, the term 'tempura' is rarely used. In restaurants, you're more likely to see the term "peixinhos da horta", which means "little fish from the garden" but which, as the name suggests, refers to breaded beans or peppers rather than fish.
The "Castella" or "Kasutera" is a Japanese cake introduced by Portuguese missionaries to the city of Nagasaki, and it quickly became a huge success. You'll be familiar with this cake if you live in Portugal. It's the famous pão de lò, which I've already mentioned in my article on Portuguese desserts. It has become a speciality of Nagasaki, but can be found all over Japan, accompanied by a nice cup of tea. It's very popular!
The Portuguese influence on the Japanese language
The Japanese language contains around a hundred Portuguese words, linked to the fact that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to land in Japan in the 16th century. Here are a few examples in the table below.
The * indicates the word is archaic and no longer in use.
a missionary priest (mainly from Jesuit)
kind of sushi
berlindes, bola-de-gude, bolinha-de-gude
2. a traditional sound-making toy made of glass, also called popin
a kind of small biscuit or cookie
small double-reed wind instrument
waistcoat (UK); vest (U.S.); Jacket
waistcoat (UK); vest (U.S.); Jacket
Deep-fried glutinous rice balls; alternatively, fried tofu balls with mixed vegetables, also known as ganmodoki
the United Kingdom
English (adj); Englishman
missionary next in line to become a priest
undervest for kimono
1. kabocha pumpkin. (ja:栗かぼちゃ)
2. any squash (plant).
3. (obsolete) Cambodia.
Camboja (abóbora) cabotiá
Cambodia (-n pumpkin)
captain (of ships from Europe in The Age of Discovery)
capa (de chuva)
karuta cards, a traditional type of playing cards which is largely different from the modern worldwide ones.
cartas (de jogar)
a specific kind of hakama trousers
Kind of sponge cake
(Pão de) Castela
(Bread/cake of) Castile
Christian people in 16th and 17th centuries (who were severely persecuted by the Shogunate)
Kind of star-shaped candy
a kind of knit textile
The Netherlands, Holland
Holanda, Países Baixos
The Netherlands, Holland
paradise. Specifically in reference to the Christian ideal of heavenly paradise.
pin kara kiri made
running the whole gamut, jumble of wheat and tares
a kind of wool woven textile
raxa – (feltro)
(an insulting word for women)
1. zinc (obsolete)
2. zinc-galvanized sheet iron (e.g. corrugated galvanised iron for roofing)
(Could be of other origin, as Nippo jisho implies.)
tutenag (a zinc alloy; zinc)
tempero, temperar; tempora
seasoning, to season; times of abstinence from meat
*zesu or zezusu
Japanese words from Portuguese.
The arrival of the Portuguese in Japan brought forth a wave of cultural exchange, leaving an indelible mark on various aspects of Japanese society. From the introduction of firearms and Christianity to linguistic influences and culinary delights, the Portuguese influence on Japan is undeniable. Today, we can appreciate the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, which has been shaped by the fusion of indigenous traditions and the influences of various cultures from around the world.
As we explore the history of Japan, it is essential to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of different cultures, including the Portuguese, in shaping the nation's identity. The historical encounter between Portugal and Japan stands as a testament to the power of cultural exchange and the lasting impact it can have on societies.
So, the next time you delve into the wonders of Japanese culture, take a moment to ponder the diverse influences that have been woven together to create the vibrant tapestry that is modern Japan.
We hope this exploration of the Portuguese influence on Japan has piqued your interest and inspired you to delve deeper into the rich history and cultural exchange between these two nations. To continue your journey and engage further with the topic, here are some meaningful actions you can take:
Share the Knowledge: If you found this blog post informative and thought-provoking, consider sharing it with your friends, family, and fellow history enthusiasts on social media. Help spread the fascinating story of the Portuguese impact on Japan and inspire others to explore this captivating chapter in history.
Subscribe for More: Don't miss out on future articles and updates related to Japan and its cultural heritage. Subscribe to our blog to stay informed about the latest insights, travel tips, and historical narratives. Join our community of passionate explorers and never miss a beat.
Join the Conversation: Engage with us and other readers in the comments section of this blog post. Share your thoughts, insights, and questions about the Portuguese influence on Japan. Let's foster a vibrant discussion and learn from one another's perspectives.
Plan Your Journey: If you feel inspired to discover the traces of Portuguese heritage in Japan firsthand, start planning your own journey. Research the historical sites, cultural landmarks, and museums that highlight this unique chapter of Japan's history. Embark on an adventure that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of this remarkable fusion of cultures.
Keep Exploring: The world is full of captivating stories and diverse cultures waiting to be explored. Continue your journey of discovery by exploring other historical influences, cultural exchanges, and travel destinations. Expand your horizons and embrace the wonders our world has to offer.
Remember, by taking action and engaging further with the blog post and the topic of travel in Japan, you contribute to a broader understanding and appreciation of the cultural tapestry that connects us all. Together, let's celebrate the vibrant histories and connections that have shaped our global heritage.