Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 7: Sequel to “Gaijin” as a racist word

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THE CASE FOR “GAIJIN” AS A RACIST WORD: THE SEQUEL

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”
Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080902ad.html
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.
730 words
ENDS

REFERENTIAL LINK:

Debito.org Poll (August 20-31): Do you think the word “gaijin” should be avoided (in favor of other words, like, say, gaikokujin)?

72 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 7: Sequel to “Gaijin” as a racist word

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  • DR–are you arguing that gaijin doesnt mean outsider?

    Is this really going to slide into an “I know more about Japan than you” debate?

  • I would like to sum up what I have been arguing so far, and add a bit more.

    (1) Both the Japanese and Foreign People Need to Know Each Other’s Point of View
    It would be fair to say the readers are divided into two groups, those who think the term “gaijin” itself has a negative meaning and those who think it is the context that makes the word a problem. The corollary is: there are two sides in the discussion, those who argue “gaijin” shouldn’t be used under any circumstances vs. those who think there may be occasions where it is used permissibly.

    I have been arguing the term “gaijin” shouldn’t be used in conversations involving foreign people, but can be permissibly used among the Japanese themselves. I’m not promoting whispering bad words behind the back of foreign people. My reasoning is that the term in itself is not a negative term, but doesn’t make sense to foreign people. On the other hand, it can be used effectively enough among the Japanese in the present state of the Japanese society.

    This problem is not about governmental procedures or business practices. It cannot be resolved by new legislation or a change in regulations. Unless the Japanese realize what the problem with the term “gaijin” is, they wouldn’t change their speaking habits. When they realize it, though, it is not only about the term “gaijin.” They will have learned how to see the world through different points of view from their own. I’m afraid, though, if foreign people fail to understand what the Japanese have in mind, the Japanese would also fail to see how the term “gaijin” can be offensive to foreign people.

    (2) “Gaijin” and “Outsider”
    Some readers argue the term “gaijin” means “outsider.” True, the term, when analyzed by the smallest units of meaning, can be divided into “gai (outside)” and “jin (person).” It would be good news for foreign language learners, if such an analysis can determine the meaning of word. Unfortunately, language doesn’t work that way. The present-day “gaijin” doesn’t mean “outsider.” As Philip (#43) says, “(g)aijin is about race, ethnicity and nationality.” I have also explained the meaning in my comment (#16).

    Refuting the argument that “gaijin” is a contraction of “gaikokujin,” Debito explained us, in his first Japan Times column on this topic, the historic meanings of “gaijin,” but he didn’t necessarily negated the possibility of the modern meaning being added to the term. Although he cited two historic definitions of the term from “Kojien” — 1 “nakama igai no hito” (person who you don’t keep company with); 2 “tekishi subeki na hito” (prospective enemy) — he failed to mention the third definition in the dictionary: 3 “gaikokujin” (foreigner).

    “Kojien” is a comprehensive dictionary. It contains many historic words and definitions which appear in classic literature but out of use now. The problem is “Kojien” doesn’t indicate whether a word, or a definition, is still in use or not. As a native Japanese speaker, I can assure you, I have never seen the term “gaijin being used with the definitions 1 and 2 in the present-day Japanese. As to the difference between “gaijin” and “gaikokujin,” I am of the opinion that these two words have overlapping meanings but different roles in the present-day vocabulary. For the explanations in detail, please read my comments #16 in this page, and #34(6) in another page with the following link
    http://www.debito.org/?p=1875

    (3) Why the Japanese Say “Gaijin” Is a Bad Word
    A considerable number of the readers report their experiences in which it was revealed the Japanese saw the term “gaijin” negatively. I think I can explain why some, or many, Japanese think and say “gaijin” is a bad word, preferring “gaikokujin.”

    “Gaijin” is a colloquial word. “Gaikokujin” is a formal word. Colloquial words are not necessarily bad words, but the scales of politeness and formalness overlap in many cases. So people tend to think “gaikokujin” is the more polite and better word.

    “Gaikokujin” is a rather abstract concept. “Gaijin” is more like a real person. It is often used with “san,” in the same way as people’s names. “Gaikokujin” is not going to be combined with “san” in any usages. When the Japanese compare “gaijin” and “gaikokujin,” they are likely to feel that “gaijin” without “san” lacks politeness. For this reason, they may prefer “gaikokujin.”

    Many Japanese already know foreign people are disturbed with the term “gaijin.” Most of them don’t understand why foreign people are offended, but choose to refrain from using this term. They say “gaijin” is a bad word because it may offend others.

    Also there are simple-minded people. They say they were taught “gaijin” was a bad word in school. Period. I’m afraid they don’t know, and are not interested in, why “gaijin” can be offensive to foreign people either.

    (4) Gaijin Is Not a Racist Word.
    Until I started to read the comments in this discussion, I thought the offensiveness derived from bad behavior, irrelevance and overuse. Now I think I have come to understand there is more subtle defects in communication behind this problem. I propose the Japanese to stop using the term “gaijin,” and “gaikokujin” as well when they speak to foreign people.

    However, having come to such a conclusion, I am now all the more convinced that the term “gaijin” is not a derogatory term. To call it a “racist word” is a wrong accusation. I have written my analyses and proposals in my previous comments:
    #34, #38, #41, #45, in another page with the following link,
    http://www.debito.org/?p=1875
    #16, #37 in this page.
    I’d be glad if you could spare time to read them and give some thought to them. (My argument has changed a bit as I was writing them)

  • Matthew,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I support your claim that Japanese should not use gaijin, like “Hey gaijin, what’s up!” They should use your name.
    But “gaijin means outsider” is just misunderstanding. It did so 1000 years ago, but not anymore. You can’t simply find any examples of gaijin=outsider usage.
    Yosomono=outsider
    Gaijin=foreigner (not legal)
    Gaikokujin=Alien (legal term)

  • DR,

    I have been referred to as a gaijin many times. And I have heard the word used in my presence even more times.

  • Opinions are divided on what ‘gaijin’ means and if it is rude or not, but many tiems when I hear it used it sounds like the speakers are including a negative meaning in it.
    This is just my feeling or intuition but that’s the way I take it.

  • –FEEDBACK FROM A FRIEND IN AMERICA. DEBITO

    I attended a party last week and I overheard a woman use the “G” word. Before my wife could respond to the woman, I stated that it was rude to use “gaijin” seeing that she was in America, on a US military installation, married to an American, in a house full of Japanese women married to US military officers, and had a son that was either Japanese or gaijin according to her.

    The woman and a few of her friends started apologizing. One woman stated that she meant to use the word American. I then asked her what kind of American since three of the American husbands in the backyard were Japanese-American. Silence. My wife laughed and told the lady that someday she will learn that it everyone who is not Japanese is not considered an outsider. I ended the conversation by saying: “In “my” country, YOU are the gaijin.” The woman immediately responded, “I’m Japanese.” Her husband walked in and said: “And you may be divorced, if you keep that gaijin shit up!”
    ENDS

  • Behan,

    Sorry to hear that somebody used gaijin offensively to you.
    Do you remember what they said? Or at least can you guess what they said?
    Let’s collect examples so that we can correct the Japanese. Like I said before, they don’t even know how to avoid using gaijin. In Debito’s other articles, you can find many cases that people put up Japanese Only signs just because they didn’t know what else to do. Debito taught them what they could do and they corrected the signs and thanked him. So I think we can do the same thing.

  • DEBITO: 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?

    ME: If the word is not generally know for being offensive, it’s generally speaker. If he or she uses it in a bad way with intent to hurt, it is not good. If the person being addressed by it finds it offensive when the person using it doesn’t mean to hurt at all, the person being addressed should inform him or her. It could be ignorance, miscommunication, or just cultural differences.

    DEBITO: 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.

    ME: It’s not the word itself that makes it bad. You know when it’s used for genuine malice. (Tone of voice, the way it’s being said, facial expression, etc) Why label it racist when it obviously isn’t?

    DEBITO: 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.

    ME: So we have label a word racist because a very very small percentage of ethnically non-Japanese Japanese citizenship holders find this word factually wrong, therefore racist. Do you asked every one that I looks ethnically Japanese whether they are have Japanese citizenship before labeling them Japanese? I think not. Do you actually feel bullied when the word gaijin is spoken?

    DEBITO: 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”.

    ME: You should have compared it with the term African then. Like most racist words, wasn’t the word it self, it was how it was used. The n-word just came from negro meaning black. But they called the slaves the n-word. If you compare something with the n-word, you must factor that in. The n-word is never used in a non-offensive way (except maybe when a black person says it).

    DEBITO:“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?

    ME: How does a person who doesn’t know you know you are a Japanese when probably about 99.99999% of all Japanese citizenship holders are ethnically Japanese or look Japanese (Korean and Chinese)? Oh you like the hyphen? Well what are your roots as an American? If you were German, technically you’d have to be called German-American-Japanese to be accurate. A doitu-kei amerika-kei nihonjin. You have a very unique situation. Gaijin doesn’t work for you.

    DEBITO: 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.

    ME: Quote http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%94%BE%E9%80%81%E7%A6%81%E6%AD%A2%E7%94%A8%E8%AA%9E:外人
    外国人の略称として個人的な会話では日常茶飯事使われているが、公場では「グループ外、縁もゆかりも無い人」が原義とされている。その代わりに、「外国人」や「(国家)人」を使っている。ただし、日本語が話せる外国人タレントが自分のことを指して「外人」と言うような場合には、カットされずにそのまま放送される場合がある。
    Gaijin: Even though it is an everyday occurrence that people use it to mean foreigner (gaikokujin), in an official setting, the original meaning is “person outside the group or person without affinity”, so “gaikokujin” or “(name of country)-jin” is used instead. However, if a foreign talent who can speak Japanese says “gaijin” when he refers to himself, it is normally not censored.

    There are many other words that are hosokinshi for he sake of political correctness, such as スチュワーデス (stewardess) and 看護婦 (nurse), that are used on a daily basis.

    DEBITO: 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.

    ME: Okay I agree. It’s better to be on the safe side and use gaikokujin because some people take offense. Let’s all used frick because some people are offended by fuck.

  • Debito

    Some points about the anecdote from your friend in US.

    I think the Japanese lady at the party should have said “American” instead of “gaijin.” I don’t necessarily take her word “rude,” but it was at least careless, ignorant and inappropriate. In that sense, I agree with your friend.

    However, then he takes what seems to me to be an excessive step, asking her “what kind of American.” You must have noticed an irony here. According to his logic, you have to answer him what kind of American you mean when you say you are “American-Japanese.” This is good evidence that we tend to lack appropriate terms to deal with the nationality-ethnicity matter in many countries. It is not only in Japan.

    After this, the story gets rather distasteful to me. By saying “In ‘my’ country, YOU are the gaijin,” he is being intentionally rude to her while she may have been unintentionally rude. Judging from her last reply, she doesn’t seem to have understood what he meant. It is very likely that she wasn’t able to follow the logic in the conversation. Also her English may not have been good enough. I’m afraid it somewhat smacks of looking down on her, if not the Japanese.

    My interpretation may be wrong. Your friend may have been just joking, making it clear by the tone of his voice. Written down like this, distastefulness remains, though. This email must have been written with rather limited readership in mind. With a narrow circle of readers or audience, people tend to be loose in many regards. That’s human nature. I think leniency can be allowed to some degree. May such leniency be granted once in a whole to Japanese people who are saying “gaijin” audible enough and unintentionally rude to you.

    Lastly, when seen as material for our discussion, this anecdote serves as a proof of my case. It is unthinkable that the Japanese lady, married to an American, at a party attended by many Americans and their Japanese wives, used the term “gaijin” with a derogatory meaning. Contrary, she seems to be the opposite type who uses the term “gaijin” with a clearly positive meaning. I’m not saying her use of the term was good. No. She should grow out of this. However, this episode stands as the proof of my case that the term “gaijin” can be used with a positive meaning by the Japanese.

    –Positive or negative (which we cannot say definitively, since we can’t get inside the speaker’s head here), we can say that based upon the conversation it’s clearly being used by the speaker to exclude anyone not “Japanese” no matter what, since she would not include herself as a “gaijin” (despite being a foreigner) by claiming her Japanese status.

  • Philip

    Generally speaking, I agree with your entire argument. Let me point out one thing.

    The explanation of the term “外人 (gaijin)” you quoted from the Japanese Wikipedia contains misinformation.

    Philip Quoted:
    “外人 (gaijin):
    公の場では「グループ外、縁もゆかりも無い人」が原義とされている
    (In an official setting, the original meaning is “person outside the group or person without affinity”)”

    The quoted part may imply that “gaijin” can be used with the original meanings of “person outside the group or person without affinity” in an official setting in the present-day Japanese language, but it is wrong. These definitions are historic ones which are out of use now. The present-day “gaijin has a very close meaning to “gaikokujin (foreigner),” but they are not exactly the same.

    As you have explained in your previous comment which Debito seems to have deleted, “(g)aijin is about race, ethnicity and nationality.” Also please read my previous comment #16 for the meaning of “gaijin”.

    –For the record, I deleted the comment after fair warning that it was misquoting a poll. The poster is welcome to resubmit the comment sans reference to the poll, as I said in that warning.

  • DR Says:
    September 12th, 2008 at 6:09 pm
    Behan,

    Sorry to hear that somebody used gaijin offensively to you.
    Do you remember what they said? Or at least can you guess what they said?
    Let’s collect examples so that we can correct the Japanese. Like I said before, they don’t even know how to avoid using gaijin. In Debito’s other articles, you can find many cases that people put up Japanese Only signs just because they didn’t know what else to do. Debito taught them what they could do and they corrected the signs and thanked him. So I think we can do the same thing.
    ———————————————–
    You have a pretty condescending attitude. Why do you assume I would have to guess what they said?

    Oh, that’s right, I have a different amount of melanin so I couldn’t understand them.

    People didn’t know what else to do? They had no choice but to be racist?

  • Behan,

    I didn’t assume anything. I wrote “Do you remember what they said?” as well. But now I assume you didn’t understand anything but gaijin, because you couldn’t provide us anything specific. That’s why you are upset.

    Now I know that you just wanna whine and call people racist. You don’t even want to solve the problem, because problems are what you are looking for. I think you should read Debito’s articles more carefully.

    And don’t blame your intelligence on melanin.

  • Behan Says:
    “Why do you assume I would have to guess what they said?”

    I don’t need any examples from you to determine whether the “gaijin” spoken to you was offensive or not. If you felt it that way, it must have been offensive. You may be wrong if you are talking about a case where you happened to overhear someone utter “gaijin” on the street. You can tell when a word is spoken directly to you with a derogatory meaning, though. You don’t even need knowledge of the language in question.

    The point that I want you to understand is:
    That a word can be used in an offensive way doesn’t necessarily mean that the word in itself is offensive. There may be many cases in which the word is used with a non-offensive meaning. On the other hand, even a usually harmless word can be used to offend others.

    It may be that all your experiences of the term “gaijin” were offensive to you. I have been trying to make the readers understand that is not all that the term has. I have explained how “gaijin” is used with example sentences in my previous comments. Please read them.

    You may not have much interest in the distinction between “the Word itself” and “the Context.” You may be satisfied if the term “gaijin” stops popping up around you. However, pleas have in mind that if you keep saying “the term ‘gaijin’ is a racist word, so stop using it,” you are embarrassing, and insulting as well, many Japanese who harbor no harm to foreign people.

    I’m not saying there is nothing to blame the Japanese regarding the term “gaijin.” Contrary, I’m now convinced that too many Japanese have been senseless and ill-mannered in their usage of the term so far. Since this site seems to have only a limited number of Japanese readers, I haven’t elaborated on my ideas as to how to change their speaking habits in my comments. I have mentioned some of them. I’d be glad if you could read them too.

  • I just wanted to add, DR, that nowhere in my posts did I call anyone ‘racist’.

    Any again, about my melanin. I was talking about how people see you skin color and make decisions about whether or not you can speak Japanese.

    In the first post you imply that I might not understand what people are saying and in the second you imply that I am not intelligent.

    The first is arrogant and the second is rude.

    Please think before posting.

    –I think this two-way conversation is getting off the issues now. Please wrap it up, you two.

  • By the way, do we even know if 外人(gaijin) in old text used to mean “outsider” or “enemy” was pronounced がいじん (gaijin)? 外人 may have been pronounced そとびと(Sotobito) at that time, no? I’m don’t really know about these things so just asking.

    –Er, you really didn’t read my essays on this subject, did you? Pronunciation (as in guwaijin) was mentioned in my first one. You really should do research before commenting.

  • I did read it. I guess it missed the part where it said that Gaijin was pronounced Guwaijin. Actually I missed it again. Oh now I get it. Gaijin is the contemporary rendering of Guwaijin, and Guwaijin means ‘outsider’. Such an important part shouldn’t be hidden between parenthesis.

    So let me get this straight: Gaijin = Guwaijin; Guwaijin = Outsider; Outsider = Enemy. Therefore, Gaijin = Enemy. Sounds like you have a very good sense of logic.

    But Gaijin pronounced Gaijin was never used to mean outsider/enemy, am I getting this correct? Couldn’t it have been a completely different word all together? Just like 十分(じゅうぶん)(meaning “enough”) and 十分(じゅっぷん)(meaning “10 minutes”); and Gaijin is pronounced Gaijin because it’s a contraction of Gaikokujin that has nothing to do with Guwaijin?

    I could be totally wrong, though. It’d be nice if a scholar on this subject would answer.

    Like you said, let’s use gaikokujin. However, Japanese people who use gaijin aren’t racist. Careless? Maybe. Ignorant? Possibly. Insensitive? Could be. Racist? No. And I think pretty much everyone is in agreement on that. Are you?

    If you want change, not have a bunch gaijin think every Japanese saying “gaijin” is racist, then you should just write an article in Japanese.

    –You provide a good case for sending people back to school to relearn reading comprehension… You’ve already misquoted a poll, and refused to correct your statement even after warning and deletion. Keep putting words in people’s mouths and you won’t be welcome here to participate in discussion.

  • I have read this blog since it started, but have not commented until now. As an American-Japanese like Debito (actually I became a Japanese citizen this month!), I would like to share my view on this hot topic.

    As I don’t look Japanese at all, being referred to as gaijin/gaijin-san/gaikokujin, or being treated differently is a daily occurrence for me. Of course I knew what I was getting myself into when I applied for Japanese citizenship, and understood that I would probably always be treated somewhat differently here no matter how hard I tried to fit in.

    Before I was a Japanese citizen, I used to take great offense at being called “gaijin”, and did not try to hide my feelings of anger, trying to explain why “gaijin” is such a discriminatory word. Looking at the literal meaning/history of the word, no matter whatever Nihonjinron theories you use to excuse it, “gaijin” is still discriminatory, which is why the news media always uses the word “gaikokujin” and not “gaijin.”

    Now there has been a lot of heated debate on this site about the relationship of “gaijin” to other racial epithets like “nigger,” but honestly I think that post number 5 by Andrew Smallacombe sums up the problem perfectly.

    “People used the offensiveness of “Nigger” as a smokescreen to cover the real issue. “Gaijin” is offensive. Period.”

    I have to say I still agree with this in principle. However, recently my thinking has changed somewhat, and I’ve come to think that the words gaijin/gaijin-san/gaikokujin/gaikoku no hito/gaikoku no kata etc. are all equally offensive, not so much for any literal meaning such as “outside (country) person” or “a person who should be viewed as an enemy”, but because they rob all non-Japanese looking people of their identity and label them as a single homogenous group.

    In any case, I’ve made a choice not to let people calling me “gaijin” make me angry and ruin my day. But I believe I have a responsibility to help Japan become a multi-cultural society, and do my best to help end racial discrimination, especially for my child (born and raised in Japan but doesn’t look Japanese), who I don’t want to go through what I’ve had to go through.

    So when Japanese people ask me the standard questions like, “Can gaijin/gaikokujin use chopsticks?” “Do you gaijin/gaikokujin eat natto?” I generally try to respond politely, “Actually I am Japanese so I’m not really sure about other countries, but I have never heard of this country of “Gai”. Can you please tell me where this country called “Gai” is?” It usually takes a while for the point to come home, but then they usually understand the dangers of labeling the majority of the world’s population as a single group.

    By the way, I decided to become a Japanese citizen after reading Debito’s experience on this site, so I should express my gratitude for all the great information about the actual naturalization process…it definitely helped prepare me for the long grueling process of dealing with the Ministry of Justice (especially when most of the bureaucrats here have never dealt with a Westerner trying to naturalize)!

    –Congratulations on naturalizing! Join us at FRANCA.

  • Philip

    I’m not a scholar, but I can answer.

    The change in the pronunciation of “外人” from “guaijin (ぐわいじん)” to “gaijin (がいじん)” has nothing to do with the changes in the meanings of the term. The form “guaijin” was a result of the Japanese’ effort to transcribe Chinese pronunciation of the kanji (Chinese characters) by the Japanese letters, kana. It may have been literally pronounced then. The form “guaijin” was fixed and had been used despite the change in pronunciation which took place somewhere in history.

    It was only after the World War II that the writing system of the Japanese language was changed to directly correspond to real pronunciations. Now we have “gaijin” and pronounce it so. There are many Chinese characters whose pronunciations have changed from “kuai,” “kua,” and “gua” to “kai,” “ka,” and “ga.” However, these changes are not regarded as related to changes in their meanings.

    (BTW, your argument on the term “Oriental” was informative. I’m thankful for that.)

    Debito

    I agree with you in that Philip should have been more careful when he read your articles. However, you are professional as a writer. You shouldn’t miss his point.

    Philip Says:
    ” … Japanese people who use gaijin aren’t racist. Careless? Maybe. Ignorant? Possibly. Insensitive? Could be. Racist? No. And I think pretty much everyone is in agreement on that. Are you?”

    I have been arguing the same thing. You may point out his assertion that “pretty much everyone is in agreement on that” lacks the proof. Does it really matter to you? I’m afraid not.

    When Philip says “Japanese people who use gaijin aren’t racist,” he must mean that the Japanese don’t mean to be offensive when they use the word. I agree on that. Let me quote the definitions of “racism” and “racist” from the Macquarie Dictionary.

    “racism
    noun 1. the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.
    2. offensive or aggressive behaviour to members of another race or people stemming from such a belief.
    3. a policy or system of government and society based upon such a belief. Also, racialism.
    –racist, noun, adjective”

    Judging from the above definitions, I think it is quite fair to assume that being racist involves being intentionally offensive.

    Your argument has remained equivocal so far regarding the criteria for being “a racist word.” Let’s see what you have said.

    In your first Japan Times column (Aug. 5, 2008),

    Debito Says:
    “Gaijin is not merely a word. It is an epithet. About the billions of people who are not Japanese. It makes attributions to them that go beyond nationality.”

    “Japan’s proportion of the world’s population is a little under 2%. In the gaijin binary worldview, you either are a Japanese or you’re not-an “ichi-ro” or a “ze-ro”.”

    “The word is even used overseas by traveling/resident Japanese to describe non-Japanese, or rather, “foreigners in their own country”.”

    I agree on these points except for the term “epithet” in the first point. As I have explained in my comments: 1) “Gaijin” is a combination of foreign citizenship and quasi-ethnicity. 2) It divides the world into the Japanese and the Non-Japanese. 3) In the usual usage, “gaijin” is always used from the Japanese point of view, so the Japanese staying overseas don’t see themselves as “gaijin.”

    However, these things don’t mean that the Japanese are racist in the above mentioned meaning. With the notion of “gaijin,” the Japanese don’t assume their superiority over other people based on their race. They are not acting discriminatory against other people. They don’t mean to be offensive at all.

    In your Japan Times sequel (Sep. 2, 2008),

    Debito Says:
    “Regarding the arguments about intent, … 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.”

    “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.”

    In your comment to my comment (#60),

    Debito Says:
    “Positive or negative (which we cannot say definitively, since we can’t get inside the speaker’s head here), we can say that based upon the conversation it’s clearly being used by the speaker to exclude anyone not “Japanese” no matter what, since she would not include herself as a “gaijin” (despite being a foreigner) by claiming her Japanese status.”

    Now, with these points, I think we can see more clearly what you mean by saying “a racist word.”

    You say it is the listener that decides the meaning of a word. You also say we can’t say definitively the intention of the speaker, since we can’t get inside the speaker’s head. Even with such an offensive word as the N-word, your attention is put upon its too wide categorization. You seem to have no interest in the speaker’s intention. This is why I said above that Philip’s assertion wouldn’t matter to you.

    The speaker’s intention being disregarded, I have no other way but to conclude that you are accusing the term “gaijin” as a racist word simply because it means the “us and them” dichotomy. I can’t agree on such an argument.

    That the Japanese have a notion which divides the world into “us and them” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are excluding others based on the notion. It is about how the Japanese see the world, and in itself a result of history. As the Japanese society changes, the notion will change. But at the present state of the Japanese society, it is still valid and alive. To have such a notion as a result of history is nothing to be blamed.

    Having reviewed your argument, I think your usage of the term “racist” in your two columns is unusual and misleading. When your readers read your claim that the term “gaijin” is a “racist word,” most of them will believe that the Japanese are saying “gaijin” with an offensive meaning. To promote such an incorrect understanding of the Japanese language among the foreign people in Japan is not the way to resolve this problem. I think this is what Philip means when he writes “if you want change, not have a bunch gaijin think every Japanese saying “gaijin” is racist.” I cannot more agree with him.

    Debito, you are an influential figure. Please do justice to you stature and your readers.

  • Jay,

    “Looking at the literal meaning/history of the word, no matter whatever Nihonjinron theories you use to excuse it, “gaijin” is still discriminatory, which is why the news media always uses the word “gaikokujin” and not “gaijin.”

    So is it OK for English speakers to use “foreigner” or “alien”? Why? I think “alien” has a terrible meaning. Nonetheless, it is used on TV.

    Why do some NJ call themselves gaijin?
    Check the following site “for gaijins by gaijins”
    http://www.stippy.com/

    These guys DO love calling themselves gaijin. You should tell them to stop that.

  • Debito: You provide a good case for sending people back to school to relearn reading comprehension… You’ve already misquoted a poll, and refused to correct your statement even after warning and deletion. Keep putting words in people’s mouths and you won’t be welcome here to participate in discussion.

    Your comments are really childish. Maybe I lack reading comprehension; but that’s not what we are discussing is it? Your argument is “gaijin” is a racist word. I said no and provided reasons why. Then you basically say that I’m stupid, a lier, and banned from discussion. Is that a fair argument for a debate?

    Why don’t you answer the one question I asked: Do you still think gaijin is a racist word?

    For a word to be racist, doesn’t it have to refer to a certain race? It doesn’t! Therefore it’s not racist.
    And people that use it don’t automatically become racists. If you still believe it’s racist, do you still believe it should be compared to the n-word, arguably the most racist word?

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