• Ideas
  • /
  • Article

RE-PRESENT: From Portugal to Japan, and vice versa

RE-PRESENT is a series of research memos that takes as its starting point a critical concept in culinary history  and examines its enduring multicultural legacy today. 

Interaction between Europe and Japan began in 1543, when Portuguese explorers became the first Europeans to reach Japan. This period of time, in which both Europeans and Asians practiced mercantilism, was given the name of “Nanban trade.” For the nearly hundred years in which Portuguese commerce extended into Japan, the culture, language, and food traditions of Portugal also integrated into the Japanese archipelago.1 

The first Portuguese ships to arrive in Japan contained mostly cargo coming from China, such as silk and porcelain. Due to Japan’s strict trade agreements and rampant piracy in the region, many Chinese goods were hard to obtain and sought after in Japan. The Portuguese thereby secured a lucrative niche acting as intermediaries in Asian trade.2 They also introduced firearms to Japan, which proliferated due to the ongoing wars between feudal lords that dominated the political landscape.3 As for trade returning to Europe, Japanese were enslaved in masses. Portuguese traders would sell enslaved Japanese people to many overseas ports, including back home to Portugal, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. 

As a result of sustained Portuguese presence, Japanese society began incorporating the words of their new trade partners into their vernacular.4 In 1603, the Portuguese became the first to translate Japanese to a Western language when a Jesuit missionary published a dictionary in Nagasaki, the heart of Portuguese trade. The Japanese-Portuguese dictionary contained 32,000 Japanese words translated into Portuguese.5 While “the majority of Portuguese loanwords referring to Western material culture have become archaic or infrequent,” they are a useful tool for examining Portugal’s cultural influence in Japanese society.

Perhaps the most famous Portuguese loanword to the Japanese language is tempura. [See Appetite’s more in-depth article on tempura.] 

Some loanwords are for rather obscure foods. One such word is battera, a kind of sushi in Japan, which takes its name directly from the Portuguese word for boat, bateira, due to its shape. 

Some words, like kompeitō, have strongly affected Japanese food culture. Derived from the Portuguese confeito meaning candy, kompeitō is a popular star-shaped confection which was introduced by Portuguese traders in the early 16th century. These same men introduced the technique for producing candy to Japan, as the Japanese lacked the infrastructure and refining technology for sugar in those days. Because kompeitō uses a lot of sugar in its production, it was very rare and expensive as a result. In 1569 a Portuguese missionary presented a glass flask of kompeitō to a daimyō as a gift to persuade him to grant permission for mission work. By the time of the Meiji period (1868-1912), kompeitō had become a standard Japanese sweet.6 Today, kompeitō appears frequently in popular media such as TV and video games. For example, the star fragments in the international hit quarantine video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons are modeled after kompeitō, and the soot sprites in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” are fed kompeitō.7 Kompeitō, along with kasutera— a rich sponge cake— and bolo— small round crunchy-soft cookies— are the three sweets commonly associated with Portuguese-Japanese trade that remain common in Japan today.8

Besides loanwords, cultural artefacts of Portuguese origin can often be found with the Nanban– prefix attached.  Nanban is a Japanese word which originally referred to inhabitants of Southeast Asia, but after Portuguese and Spaniards began to base their colonies in the region, nanban gradually began to describe Europeans instead. 

An example of the nanban prefix in food culture is nanbanzuke, the Japanese version of Portuguese escabeche. Contemporary nanbanzuke consists of deep-fried fish soaked in vinegar-based marinade flavoured with soy sauce, dried red chili pepper, onion or Japanese leek. The dish draws from Portuguese escabeche, which, “is a way of preserving food in vinegar and aromatics…”9

The Portuguese “introduced chili peppers and corn (maize) to Japan, both of which originated in the Americas, the use of beaten eggs and sugar in cooking,” and the technique of deep frying.10 Even the togarashi pepper, which today is considered essentially Japanese, used to be referred to explicitly as a nanban food: “Early nanban cuisine often used chili peppers, originally called nanban-karashi or ‘nanban mustard’; later the name changed to tōgarashi, (Chinese mustard) when the country was closed to the outside world and China became a vague stand-in for anything foreign.”11 From confections to chilis to pickled fish, this entire class of Portuguese-influenced cuisine is referred to as Nanban ryori, or Nanban cuisine. 

The history of Nanban cuisine and Portuguese presence in Japan is intimately tied to trade agreements, Christian colonisation, and Japanese seclusion. One of the reasons that Portuguese food has had such an effect on Japanese cuisine is the long-term presence of traders and missionaries, who would stay in the country for years or even decades at a time, socialising with noblemen and commoners alike and spreading their tastes and traditions. Interestingly, while Japan largely relied on Portuguese and other Western traders to bring their goods to Europe rather than sending out costly missions themselves, the reverse has not quite proven to be true.

There is virtually nothing written about the impact of Japanese cuisine on Portuguese food. While the Portuguese had significant trade and religious flow to Japan, only a few official Japanese convoys made the opposite journey. These few exchanges were not for trade purposes as much as religious ones; the primary goal was to introduce the Japanese to the splendour and grace of European kingdoms and of Christianity. 

European kings and courts were far less interested in receiving the goods brought from Japan than showing their guests what spectacular feasts they put on, and the guests— in one instance a group of young male ambassadors who were no more than 15 years of age— were not doing much of their own cooking.12 Additionally, Japanese ambassadors never stayed long, and the few Japanese people recorded as staying in the West were devout Christians who joined monasteries and tried their best to assimilate to the local culture. 

Although there is no official total of enslaved Japanese people taken to Portugal, it was noted that, “on average, each ship departing from [an intermediary port in] India bound for Portugal carried between 200 to 300 slaves,” with many boats coming in the two decades of legalised slavery.13 It is likely that, especially when employed as domestic servants, they practiced Japanese cooking techniques which were received by Portuguese locals. They also almost certainly cooked for themselves and passed this knowledge onto their children and others in their community. Histories of the enslaved are infamously poorly recorded due to obvious discrepancies in power (sometimes even being purposefully wiped from written record), hiding any legacy they might have left. 

Records show, however, that many Japanese people arrived enslaved and were freed upon arrival due to criminalisation of the slave trade. Afterwards, they quickly integrated into the community, marrying other Japanese people, people brought as slaves from other nations, and even Portuguese locals. In fact,  Japanese people were such a common part of society that they were “not considered a novelty” by Portuguese natives.14 Nevertheless, even in the 16th and 17th centuries during the height of trade between the two counties, “there is no evidence of the existence of a Japanese quarter or association in Portugal.”15 

All of these factors are compounded by Europe’s tradition of describing itself as the dynamic power which acts on other cultures but itself remains unaffected. This remains the case for Japan’s effect on Portuguese food culture, and leads us to an unfortunate truth: the culinary record of Japanese people in Portugal is nearly nonexistent. While Portuguese influence in Japan has left an enduring legacy, Japan’s effect on Portugal is not so clear cut. What happened to the cuisine of the multitudes of Japanese people living in Portugal? What effect, even if never documented in writing, did their culture have on that of the Portuguese?

Annotated Bibliography

de Sousa, Lúcio. The Portuguese Slave Trade in Early Modern Japan: Merchants, Jesuits and Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Slaves. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

There are few books written on the Japanese slave trade to Portugal, but fortunately, de Sousa’s is one of them. This 500+ page work is the best resource available on the topic. Its pages feature an outline of trade policies surrounding Japanese slavery, case studies of particular enslaved individuals, and a look at nearly every diasporic population created in its wake.

Massarella, Derek, ed. Japanese Travellers in Sixteenth-Century Europe: a Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia (1590). Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. 

Japanese Travellers contains the conversational journals of the fifteen-year-old boys and missionaries of the Tenshō Embassy. It provides an in-depth account of the first official Japanese embassy to Portugal and at large Europe, including cultural differences that shocked the travelers and many details on life in early modern European society.

Itoh, Makiko. “Nanban Dishes Are Fit for a Barbarian.” The Japan Times, May 15, 2015. 

This article from The Japan Times was very useful in establishing a brief history of the word “nanban.” Author Makiko Itohv is also very familiar with what constitutes nanban cuisine, providing details which were essential in establishing a list on nanban foods for our article.

Written by Clara Zervigon.


1 “Japan–Portugal Relations.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 11, 2020.

2  “Japan–Portugal Relations.” Wikipedia. 2020. 

3 Ibid. 

4 Japan–Portugal Relations.” Wikipedia. 2020. 

5 “Glossary of Japanese Words of Portuguese Origin.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 22, 2020. 

6 “Konpeitō.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 26, 2020.

7 “Konpeito, a Candy Rooted in Japanese Culture.” Japan Crate News, November 17, 2016.

8 Itoh, Makiko. “Nanban Dishes Are Fit for a Barbarian.” The Japan Times, May 15, 2015.

Wanderer, Rotwein. “Nanbanzuke – Japanese Escabeche.” The Door into Promised Lands, August 22, 2019.

10 Makiko. “Nanban Dishes,” 2015.

11 Ibid. 

12 Derek Massarella, ed. Japanese Travellers in Sixteenth-Century Europe: a Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia (1590). Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. 

13 de Sousa. The Portuguese Slave Trade, 461

14  de Sousa. The Portuguese Slave Trade, 466.

15 de Sousa. The Portuguese Slave Trade,  473.