Lost in Translation, Bell Peppers

by Chikashi

Like avocados, bell peppers are not native to Japan, and a Japanese name was never assigned to them. Words of foreign origin are usually written in a different set of characters called katakana. Usually, the etymological origin is easy enough to guess, but not in this instance. Sweet bell peppers are called peeman in Japanese (that is the romanised phonetic representation, so, ok, one could write peaman instead but it wouldn’t be as poetic). For years, I have wondered about the origin of the word partly because it is a somewhat awkward sounding word to an English speaker. However, whenever I brought up the question with my Japanese friends and acquaintances, no one knew the answer.

Pepper No 43 by Edward Weston, 1930

“Pepper No 43” by Edward Weston, 1930:  “Peeman No 43”?

On the way to my local Japanese restaurant Yamayu Santatsu today, I walked by a lorry emblazoned with the removal company’s name, Pieman, and was reminded of the mystery. I posed the question to Kurasawa-san, the chef-proprietor, but he didn’t know either. He did, however, guess correctly that they are of Latin American origin, so we hypothesised that it may have something to do with Spanish or Portuguese. We further hypothesised that it is more likely to be Portuguese because of the prolific trading relationship Portugal had with Japan centuries ago.

I found out that it is pimiento in Spanish and pimentão in Portuguese. Getting warm but not quite there…

Further research on the interwebz revealed that Christopher Colombus brought back chili peppers to Europe from Latin America. The Europeans (not sure which) eventually modified the plant to produce larger, sweet peppers. The original chili peppers were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century and became widely available in the Edo Period (1603-1867) during which they were given a Japanese name taugarashi (番椒).

The sweet peppers were introduced to Japan in the beginning of Meiji Period (mid 19th century) but became widely available only after World War II by accident. When they were first introduced, they had a much stronger fragrance that was not well received by the public. Soon, bell peppers were forgotten. Consequently, when the government ordered severe rationing of food during and after the war, the bureaucrats forgot to include bell peppers in the list of rationed vegetables. Someone spotted this error and started selling bell peppers to the public that was all too willing to buy them. This time, its name was derived from the French word piment despite the fact that it is sweet.

Predictably, we completely buggered the intonation, and the vegetable became known as peeman. Every once in a while, one can spot a Japanese, who is not particularly proficient in English, trying to say something to an English speaker about a peeman, assuming that it is an English word because it is written in katakana.

‘Do you have peeman?’

‘Where can I find peeman?’

‘I need peeman.’

‘Do you like grilled peeman?’

‘I like peeman very much.’

‘Red peeman is my favourite.’

I can only imagine what goes through the mind of the person being addressed, but the look on the person’s face is invariably priceless.