Portuguese language may begin to rouse interest in Japan | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Brazil’s spot in the global limelight may increase interest in teaching and learning the language in Japan, suggests professor from Osaka University

Portuguese language may begin to rouse interest in Japan

October 17, 2012

By Elton Alisson

Agência FAPESP – Increased direct contact between the Japanese and Brazilians in recent years due to factors such as globalization and the attention Brazil is receiving worldwide could once again give rise to an interest in teaching and learning the Portuguese language in Japan.

The evaluation was made by Akira Kono, professor of Portuguese language and linguistics at Japan’s Osaka University School of Letters and Culture, during a conference at the FAPESP auditorium on September 20 on the teaching of Portuguese in Japan.

Kono had participated in a meeting with FAPESP directors the previous day with the objective of discussing possibilities for intensifying scientific cooperation between researchers in São Paulo State and Japan.

The researcher said that the Japanese people have had contact with the Portuguese language at three different stages, and this contact has influenced not only the foreign tongue but also the native tongue. The first contact occurred in 1543, when Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived on the island of Tanegashima, southern Kiushiu, to spread Catholicism.

During this period, the Portuguese Jesuits studied the Japanese language and published books such as A arte da Lingoa de Iapam and Arte breve da Lingoa Iapoa, written by father João Rodrigues Girão and published in 1608 and 1620, respectively. This phase lasted until the beginning of the 17th century, when Christianity was prohibited in Japan and the Jesuits were expelled from the country.

“There was a certain influence between the languages during this first stage of contact between the Japanese and Portuguese. We can note some lexicons from the Japanese in the letters that the Jesuits wrote from Japan, such as daimio, which means feudal lord in Japanese. And there were some isolated cases on the Japanese side of people who learned to speak Portuguese. But there weren’t many,” Kono told Agência FAPESP.

The second period of contact between the Japanese and the Portuguese language was in Brazil after 1908, when the first wave of Japanese immigrants came to the country. This phase ended in 1941, when Japan entered World War II.

Although Japan was one of the world powers at the time, with large corporate conglomerates, such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Suitomo, it was also experiencing serious economic problems, including high unemployment and poverty in the countryside.

As a result, the country received criticism from parts of society that did not agree with the way in which it was developing and overtaking countries by force, as it did during the imperialist period when it invaded Korea, Manchuria and part of China.

One of the alternatives identified to maintain peaceful growth was emigration, which was seen as a way in which both sides won—the nation that sent people as well as the nation that received the immigrants—as opposed to military victory, in which only the invading country benefitted.

For these and other reasons, the Japanese government decided to adapt immigration policies for its citizens to countries such as Brazil, which needed labor for its coffee crops in São Paulo.

“The first Japanese immigrants to arrive in Brazil weren’t well prepared and didn’t speak Portuguese. But little by little, they began to assimilate Portuguese words into the Japanese language that was spoken in the colony and were more related to the agricultural work they did, like hoe and comrade,” said Kono.

However, according to the researcher, the first college degree in the Portuguese language was only created in 1916, some eight years after Japanese immigration to Brazil began, at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The public university recruited Portuguese historian João Abranches Pinto, who resided in Japan at the time and was married to a Japanese woman, to develop the program.

Only in 1964 did the Sophia University Tokyo, a private institution, create a Portuguese department. It was founded by Brazilian priests, and Kono enrolled in 1967 and began to study the language spoken in Brazil.

In that same year, the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies also established a Luso-Brazilian Studies Department to teach Portuguese.

In 1979, a Brazilian Portuguese course was established at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. In October 2007, Portuguese became a college at Osaka University, and Kono was the first professor hired.

In the 1990s—the third stage of Japanese contact with the Portuguese language, when Japan changed its immigration policy and many Brazilians went to work in the country—Tenri University also created a Portuguese language course. However, the course was cancelled in 2010.

According to Kono, the faculty that teaches Portuguese in Japan is mostly composed of Japanese professors with degrees in Portuguese from one of the four universities with courses in the language in Japan. However, not all are specialists in Portuguese as a second language.

“Our approach to the language is more traditional, aimed at teaching the student not only to read in Portuguese but also to communicate with Brazilians and have some fluency in the language, which is a large challenge. It is very difficult for students to master the Portuguese language,” affirmed Kono.

Obstacles to learning the language

According to Kono, some of the biggest obstacles to Japanese people learning Portuguese are inherent in the difficulty they have in learning foreign languages in general due to difference between the Japanese language and other languages.

Unlike the Romance languages, such as Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Romanian, which have similarities that facilitate teaching and learning, the roots and origins of the Japanese language are still not exactly known.

One hypothesis Kono put forth is that the Japanese language—which is extremely peculiar and does not have a phonetic distinction between the letters L and R, for example—is the result of an intersection of many languages, similar to pidgin and creole.

“In grammatical terms, the Korean language is closest to Japanese, but the phonology and lexicon are different. So in this sense, we are ‘orphans’ in relation to filiation with linguistic families, and mastering any language, especially Western ones, requires a lot of determination, perseverance and hard work,” he evaluated.

Another barrier to teaching and learning the Portuguese language, said the researcher, is the fact that the language is divided into European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, both of which have their own grammatical rules.

Another problem with teaching Brazilian Portuguese in Japan is the unfamiliarity with cultural, political, geographic and historical aspects of the country, which are partly compensated for by student exchange programs that send Japanese students to Brazil to become familiar with the Brazilian reality by reading books and listening to songs by Brazilian composers.

“I fell in love with the Portuguese language and learned many expressions by listening to Brazilian popular music by composers like Noel Rosa, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso. This is a superb method that I use in the classroom,” said Kono, who became interested in learning Portuguese when, as a child, he heard the English version of “Girl from Ipanema” by Vinícius de Moraes and Tom Jobim, sung by Frank Sinatra.

According to the researcher, Osaka University now offers 30 openings per year for its undergraduate Portuguese language program, which lasts four years.

In addition to Portuguese, the university’s languages department offers the study of 24 other languages that includes Japanese, as well as English, which is considered to be the country’s first foreign language.

Scientific collaboration with Brazil

Kono was the representative for the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)—Japan’s largest research support foundation—to Brazil from 1995 to 1997 through an office that the institution maintained in São Paulo with support from the Center for Nippo-Brazilian Studies. He says Brazil is a strong candidate for scientific cooperation with Japan because it is one of the world’s largest economic powers.

“The work of teaching and disseminating the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture in Japan should facilitate scientific exchange, which needs to be much more intensive,” he indicated.

In his opinion, one of the main obstacles to increasing Japanese scientific cooperation with Brazil is the lack of Japanese familiarity with the Brazilian federal system, which although centralized, allows states to have autonomy in the elaboration and execution of scientific and technological policy.

Because Japan is geographically small, with centralized policy and little power among the provinces, it is hard for Japanese leaders to understand, for example, the autonomy of Brazilian states such as São Paulo, which is responsible for over 50% of the science produced in Brazil.

“We should recognize the importance of São Paulo State, and consequently, the role that FAPESP has been playing in the advancement of science in Brazil,” said Kono.

To facilitate the cooperation between researchers from São Paulo State and those in Japan and to intensify scientific cooperation between the two nations, FAPESP will hold a meeting with JSPS representatives in March 2013.

The event aims to increase scientific cooperation by bringing together researchers from the two countries to present their latest advances in scientific production and the most impressive scientific results that have been obtained in recent years in different areas.

“Here at FAPESP, we are very concerned with the process of internationalizing science, and we believe it is very important that we stimulate a more intense scientific relationship with nations like Japan. This is why we will host this meeting in Brazil,” said FAPESP President Celso Lafer.

Moreover, in Lafer’s opinion, São Paulo State has a unique relationship with Japan because it received the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Brazil between 1908 and 1941. “In no other Brazilian state is there as strong a perception of the importance of the ties we have with Japan as here in São Paulo,” said Lafer.

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