LET’S COME CLEAN ON “GAIJIN”
JUST BE CAUSE Column Seven for the Japan Times
By Arudou Debito
Published September 2, 2008 as “The ‘gaijin’ debate: Arudou responds”
DRAFT THIRTEEN, version as submitted to Japan Times editor
Last month’s column (JBC August 5) was on the word “gaijin”. I made the case that it is a racist word, one that reinforces an “us-and-them” rubric towards foreigners and their children in Japan.
It generated a lot of debate. Good. Thanks for your time.
Now let’s devote 700 more words to some issues raised.
Regarding the arguments about intent, i.e. “People use the word gaijin, but don’t mean it in a derogatory way”. The root issue here is, “Who decides whether a word is bad?” Is it the speaker using the word, or the person being addressed by it?
If usage and intent become the speaker’s prerogative, then speakers get too much plausible deniability. For example: Punch somebody in the arm. If he cries, “That hurts!” then say, “But I don’t mean to hurt you.”
So if you don’t give priority to the listener’s feelings, you give the speakers with genuine malice (however few) an excuse and a cloaking device. If the person you target doesn’t like being called something, just say you didn’t mean it in a bad way, and hey presto! You’re off the hook.
This logic has long been disavowed. In Japan, the debate on “ijime”, bullying in Japanese schools, favors the person being targeted. The person feels hurt, that’s enough. So stoppit.
Ditto for the word gaijin. People like me who have lived here for many years, even assimilated to the point of taking citizenship, don’t want to be called “gaijin” anymore. We can be forgiven for taking umbrage, for not wanting to be pushed back into the pigeonhole. Don’t tell us who we are–we’ll decide for ourselves who we are, especially in our own country, thanks. So stoppit.
Now for the more controversial claim: my linking “gaijin” with “n*gg*r”. Although I was not equating their histories, I was drawing attention to their common effect–stripping societies of diversity.
“N*gg*r”, for example, has deprived an entire continent of its diaspora. I love faces; I have gazed at many notable African-Americans and wondered about their origins. Is Michael Clarke Duncan a Nuban? Do Gary Coleman’s ancestors hail from the Ituri? How about the laser gaze of Samuel L. Jackson, the timeworn features of Morgan Freeman, the quizzical countenance of Whoopi Goldberg? Where did their ancestors come from? Chances are even they aren’t sure. That’s why Alex Haley had to go all the way to The Gambia to track down his Kunta Kinte roots.
The “non-n*gg*rs” are more fortunate. They got to keep closer ties to their past–even got hyphens: Italian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. But Black people in the US just became “African-Americans”–a continent, not an ethnicity. Thanks to generations of being called “n*gg*r”.
“Gaijin” has the same effect, only more pronounced. Not only do we foreign-looking residents have no hope of hyphenation, we are relegated to a much bigger “continent” (i.e. anyone who doesn’t look Japanese–the vast majority of the world). Again, this kind of rhetoric, however unconscious or unintended, forever divides our public into “insider and outsider” with no twain.
I for one want the hyphen. I’m a Japanese. An American-Japanese, an Amerika-kei Nihonjin. After years of outsiderdom, I want my Japanese status acknowledged. But I don’t want my roots denied either. Being called essentially “foreign-Japanese” would lack something, so why not acknowledge, even celebrate, our diversity?
Words like gaijin don’t allow for that. They are relics of a simplistic time, when people argued with a straight face that Japan was monocultural and monoethnic. Untrue–there’s enough scholarly research debunking that; even our government this year formally recognized Hokkaido’s aboriginal Ainu as an indigenous people.
Moreover, as more non-Japanese reside here, marry, procreate, and bring the best of their societies into the amalgam, change is inevitable. Why force us to deny an essential part of our identity by outsidering us on a daily basis? Intentional or not, that’s what the word gaijin does.
The ace in the hole in this debate: I’m not the only one here advocating “gaijin”‘s obsolescence. Japan’s media has reached the same conclusion and officially declared it a word unfit for broadcast. Don’t agree with me? Talk to the TV.
So if you really must draw attention to somebody’s roots, and you can’t hyphenate or tell their nationality or ethnicity, it’s better to use “gaikokujin”. It’s a different rubric. At least there are ways to stop being one.
Arudou Debito is co-author of Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan.