Jose Alvares has tried to “reconnect” the Portuguese and Japanese cultures over the last 43 years he has spent in Japan.
The veteran researcher of Portuguese culture and history says it’s difficult to explain why he chose to live in Japan, but he was intrigued by the “mystery” of this country.
Although he has been away from his home country for decades, he says his heart is in Portugal. “And my soul is in Japan. I’m living in two worlds. Every day I make a phone call to Portugal, where my daughter is,” he said.
Alvares was initially intrigued by the strong cultural connection that existed between Portugal and Japan in the 16th century, when the first Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan in 1543.
“The nanban byobu (folding screens with paintings that portray southern European visitors to Japan in those times) depict the dynamic interaction between Portuguese and Japanese in Nagasaki. They are the unique monuments written or designed in that age. No other country has such beautiful paintings,” Alvares said.
“Cultural exchange between Japan continued until 1639. The Portuguese were the epicenter of Western culture then,” he added.
Born and raised in Goa, India, Alvares studied at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, where he obtained a master’s degree in Portuguese history and politics.
He arrived in Japan in 1968 as a lecturer sent from the Portuguese government to Japan. A year later, his wife, Manuela, joined him in Tokyo.
Alvares taught Portuguese language and culture at the University of Tokyo and Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and later at Sophia University.
After 10 years, he became a visiting professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and taught there for another 20 years. Manuela also taught Portuguese at Waseda University and Sophia University.
The couple’s daughter was born and raised in Tokyo until high school but later chose to live in Lisbon, where she is now a professor and researcher at a university.
Alvares has published several books — written in Portuguese and translated into Japanese — about the influence of the Portuguese and other European Christian missionaries in Japan between the 16th and 17th centuries, and about Wenceslau Jose de Sousa de Moraes, the Portuguese naval officer, consul and writer who came to Japan in 1889 and stayed until his death in Tokushima in 1929.
In 1987, Alvares set up the Portuguese Cultural Center in Minato Ward, Tokyo, with the aim of spreading the Portuguese language and culture in Japan. His wife is now the director of the privately run center, where the couple give Portuguese lessons and provide advice to Japanese students who plan to study in Portugal.
To commemorate the 25th year since the opening of the center, Alvares will have a Portuguese translation of the picture book “Katie and the Dream-Eater,” written by Princess Takamado, published in December. The book first came out 14 years ago in both Japanese and English.
He says the publication of the Portuguese version is meant as an homage in Portuguese to the Japanese language. He stresses that he would like Japanese studying Portuguese to use the book as a textbook and also “to find out the beauty of the Japanese language, too.”
“(The book) was a linkage for me to Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon (authors of the classics ‘The Tale of Genji’ and ‘The Pillow Book’ (‘Makuranososhi’), who were both court ladies in the Heian Period). In modern court literature, there’s nobody like (Princess Takamado) writing children’s books. That is why I was absorbed by this,” he said.
Alvares says he finds many similarities between the Portuguese and Japanese languages. “One similarity is the sound. Japanese is a very musical language, and so is Portuguese.”
He also said there are words in both Portuguese and Japanese that can’t be translated into any other language. In Portuguese, one such word is saudade, which he says means the sentiment of separation from people you love, such as family and friends.
“It is used in everyday life, in Portuguese language, literature and music, but it can’t be translated. Only Portuguese can understand it,” he said.
In Japanese, he says the words he thinks that can’t be translated are tatami, fusuma, furoshiki, umami and sashimi.
“If you say that you lay down on straw mats, surrounded by doors made of paper, and you eat raw fish, then people (living outside of Japan) won’t understand what it all means,” he said. “When you speak (Japanese), you’re not speaking the language, you’re speaking the culture. Unless you live in Japan and you eat sashimi and lay down on tatami, it’s very difficult to have a sense of what ‘Japan’ is,” he said.
“(Looking) from the outside, it’s the most mysterious country, and the Japanese are the most difficult people to (make) contact with, but once you live in Japan, everything changes,” he said.
Alvares says the publication of the children’s book “is kind of like thanks to the Japanese language for having given me the chance to understand the beauty of this country,” he said.
For more information about the Portuguese translation of “Katie and the Dream-Eater,” contact the Portuguese Cultural Center at (03) 3586-1792.