Home History Discover Nikkei The Japanese Language in Peruvian Speech

The Japanese Language in Peruvian Speech

Japanese words such as karate, tsunami, sensei, ohashi, maki, sushi, and karaoke, among others, are frequently used in Peru. Illustration: Karen Kina / Japanese Peruvian Association.

By Javier García Wong-Kit, Asociación Peruano Japonesa

Translated by Kora McNaughton For The North American Post

Languages crossed national borders well before globalization. Today in any part of the world, you can hear other languages spoken with both native and foreign accents. But what causes one language to incorporate words from another language and appropriate them for everyday use?

Japanese culture figures prominently in Peru, as does the Japanese language, which has been assimilated by young people and adults through consumption of diverse products, media figures, and colloquial usage. It’s not surprising that some Japanese words are not identified as Japanese despite being used frequently.

As with English, certain terms have become universal and are understood everywhere. Karate, karaoke, and tsunami are the Japanese equivalents of the English words closet, lunch, or best seller, all of which are included in the Royal Spanish Academy as “foreignisms.” However, Japanese has much more to say than that, especially in Peru.

In addition to the more than 80,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent who use Japanese terms with friends and family, there are many others who come into contact with the Japanese Peruvian community (through sports clubs, cultural events, or workplaces) or admire the culture and its various forms (arts, sciences, and sports). In Peru, the presence of Nihongo is increasingly noticeable and resonant.

Japanese-Peruvian glossary

In 2010, Nikkei writer José Watanabe published a list of Japanese words used in Peru. The glossary, which the poet and a team of researchers began compiling in 1999, is divided into four parts. One part includes widely used words with their original and new meanings: for example, samurai, kamikaze, and Nikkei have more than one meaning (and geisha refers to the traditional dancer but the word has also been used to describe a submissive person).

There is also the verb “catanear,” derived from “katana,” meaning to give someone a beating, or in soccer jargon, to lose by a landslide.

In his verses, Watanabe combined Japanese terms and colloquial Peruvian usage. Another group consists of words known to those who have contact with Japanese immigrants and their descendants. This group includes words such as dekasegi, ocha, and okane. The third group includes words used exclusively by the Nikkei community (some of which are no longer used) such as chomen, benjō, and gakkō, and finally, Japanese words that are understood in almost all languages (haiku, ninja, tempura).

Let’s talk about Japoñolés

How has Watanabe’s glossary changed in recent years? Lily Niland was born in the United States, studied intercultural communication at Linfield College in Seattle, and specializes in Spanish and Japanese. In 2010, she conducted an ethnographic and linguistic study in Peru entitled “Japoñolés: The Use of Japanese, Spanish, and English in the Peruvian Japanese Community.”

She shares this interest with many people in Peru who have incorporated Japanese terms into their speech as a result of exposure to the culture. For Niland, using words like kaikan, koseki, or Sansei was part of her social and particularly her professional life. In her research, she found that many
Nikkei didn’t know which of the words they used at home came from the Japanese language and which ones were uchinaguchi (from Okinawa). Nor did they know that because of World War II, many Japanese people in Peru chose not to speak their native language outside the family environment to avoid discrimination.

In Peru today, the Japanese Peruvian community has not only achieved recognition but its cultural roots are also admired by fans of manga, Japanese music, and prominent figures (such as writer Haruki Murakami), which have stimulated interest in learning Japanese. Technology and globalization have also helped internationalize the language, but perhaps no other aspect of Japanese culture has made a greater contribution than its cuisine.

Talking and eating

The boom in Peruvian gastronomy in recent years has also influenced popular speech, and in this sense, Nikkei culture has played a central role. In an informal survey for this article, most of the people consulted mentioned words such as sushi, maki, wasabi, and ramen when asked what Japanese words they often use or hear, even if they don’t have a direct relationship with people from Peru’s Japanese community.

How widespread is Japanese language in Peru? It is well-known through certain references (previously technology, now cuisine), but not widely spoken, says one person, and specifically in Lima, adds another person. Many confuse it with Chinese (kion, for example, which comes from the name of the Chinese city Guangdong) and others have become more familiar with it by eating at restaurants.

Using ohashi, asking for more shoyu (soy sauce, called sillao in Chinese) or saying thank you (arigatō or, even better, dōmo arigatō gozaimasu, thank you very much) reflect some of the usage by people in Lima who, unlike the inhabitants of cities with stronger tourism traditions, don’t have a short multilingual dictionary for speaking with a foreigner: to say yes or no, greet someone, say goodbye, or beg someone’s pardon in Japanese.

Talking and sharing

Claudia Kazuko Almeida Goshi studied linguistics at the National University of San Marcos and eight years ago she gave a presentation on the “Lexicon of the Japanese Peruvian Community in Peru.” Through her research, she identified the Japanese words most commonly used by Peruvians. That’s how she found out the forms of expressing courtesy, respect, and affection are more pronounced among the Nikkei. She admits that the Japanese word she uses the most is obaachan (grandmother).

“It’s interesting because this custom has been maintained in younger generations who don’t study Japanese or don’t hear their parents speak it, except for these words,” Almeida
says, adding that because these words are used to replace their equivalent in Spanish (obaachan instead of abuela), they are translated to informal social environments and spread more widely. The same thing happens with Japanese words that are used in certain environments, where their meaning is ultimately transformed.

“For example, matsuri means festival, but in Peru it is identified with the event organized at the AELU (a Japanese Peruvian sports club),” she explains. The semantic scope of a term depends on its context. “Words help build a sense of community, through sharing and bringing people together. That is what happens,” Almeida continues, “with the otaku, fans of anime or music groups.”

Nikkei and Peruvian

A search of the word Nikkei on the Internet provides links to the increasingly popular Japanese Peruvian cuisine and the descendants of Japanese immigrants born in Peru (not in other countries). Despite this, the communities established in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, just to mention a few, have experienced similar lexical phenomena although with slight variations.

In Chile, for example, a study of voices of Japanese origin in the lexicon of the media has identified the terms “nipón” and “yen” as those that appear most frequently in newspapers. Although the list is long and abounds with cultural aspects (architecture, martial arts, illustration, politicalmilitary aspects, and traditions), culinary expressions are the most widespread.

Meanwhile, in Peru the sushi bars, cultural spaces, and Nikkei families are the greatest allies of a language spoken by some 130 million people in Japan and by many others around the rest of the world, where it is recognized in the field of business.

[Editor’s Note] This article was originally published in Kaikan magazine No. 101 managed by the Japanese Peruvian Association (Asociación Peruano Japonesa, APJ). and adapted for Discover Nikkei. Javier Garcia Wong-Kit is a journalist, with a degree in Communication Sciences, and an instructor at San Martín de Porres University in Lima.