Thoughtful essay in the Yomiuri on the word “Gaijin” by Mike Guest

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Hi Blog. Here’s a thoughtful essay on the word “gaijin” by Mike Guest.  It doesn’t go so far as to say what one should actually do (or advocate) regarding the usage of the word.  But that’s probably not his job or intention (as it would be mine).  It does get into the aspect of “othering” as a matter of linguistic redundancy, and that makes it worth a read on a Sunday afternoon.  Thanks Mike.  Glad to have helped spark off a debate on the word. Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Indirectly Speaking / ‘Gaijin’ and marked language

I doubt that any one would argue that “gaijin” carries as much historical baggage, has as much power to offend, or displays the same degree of insensitivity that certain other (racially charged) epithets carry. But for proponents of the “gaijin is a bad word” view, this is largely beside the point. The issue for them is that its usage (not its etymology–that is another matter) indicates, creates or perpetuates what we call “othering,” the separation into binary (us/them) units meant to discriminate and possibly, denigrate.

There seem to be two widespread responses to this argument. The first is that some term is needed to distinguish people who are Japanese from those who are not (putting aside for now the issue of whether “Japanese” refers to citizenship, ethnicity or some nebulous combination of the two). And while the more formal “gaikokujin” has been suggested as an alternative, this would not appear to deflect the charge of othering. After all, a classifier is not an epithet. As long as we can find some legitimate basis for classification, we will need terms to express it. It is also worth noting that formal Japanese does not always connote acceptance or friendliness but, in many cases actually expresses distance. More on these points later.

The second response is that proscribing the term gaijin as pejorative would not change that which some actually find to be most objectionable–the underlying insider/outsider value system that the term supposedly represents. In other words, the argument goes, gaijin may denote non-Japanese (and in practice, generally Caucasians) but it connotes something more negative.

But this begs the point of how searching for politically correct euphemisms doesn’t actually allow us to escape from negative connotations. For example, even if we change the accepted term from “handicapped” to “disabled” to “challenged” there will always be a certain unpleasant connotation attached, since the very act of constantly coining euphemisms for the same underlying reality tacitly admits that we view this reality itself as something inherently negative. Now, do we really want to imply that being a gaijin is in itself an inherently unpleasant thing?

Which brings me to today’s central point. Why is it that even the less easily offended among us at certain times find the term “gaijin” (or even “gaikokujin”) awkward or irritating? I would like to offer a few linguistic answers to this question.

Words are never inherently rude or inappropriate in and of themselves but become marked as such through a failure to follow the norms of propriety. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to refer to Prof. Wilson as “Wilson” when simply discussing his theories with a colleague, or even when making a reference to him in a presentation where he is not present. But it would be very insulting to address him personally that way. Likewise, in the case of “gaijin” we should note if it is being used as a form of address or as a reference. One Japanese saying something like, “A lot of gaijin like this restaurant” to another can hardly be said to be pejorative (and in fact many non-Japanese too use “gaijin” in precisely this manner–as it can be a very useful classifier), whereas addressing a non-Japanese as “Gaijin” very much violates the norms of forms of address and therefore marks it as rude or hostile.

We should also consider register. In official and formal situations, Japanese speakers use “gaikokujin” rather than “gaijin” for the same reason that they refer to “a person” not as “hito” but as “kata” and generally avoid using “kare” and “kanojo” (he and she). These words are not inherently impolite or pejorative but they do not meet the standards of distance required by a formal register of language. Using “gaijin” in such a situation would therefore mark it negatively.

Next point: Earlier, I wrote “As long as we can make some legitimate basis for classification…” Why did I say “legitimate”? OK–anecdote time: I was about to board a train recently and a few young people, who were getting on before me, had not noticed that I was boarding behind them. As a result they didn’t enter quickly, leaving me stuck in the doorway, until one turned around, saw me, and said, “Oh I didn’t realize there is a gaijin behind us. Let’s go.” This “Let’s go” was actually intended as an act of courtesy–to move along because I was trying to get on. But why the use of “gaijin” here? It was absolutely superfluous to the situation.

Another true story: I was at an electronic goods shop after experiencing a rather difficult problem with my new computer. After I explained the problem (in Japanese) to a polite staff member, he thought it best that I speak to a specialist and so called for one. When the specialist arrived, the initial salesman said, “Can you help this foreign customer [gaikoku no okyaku-sama] with his problem?” This, unfortunately led the specialist to believe that I couldn’t speak (or hadn’t spoken) Japanese, followed by the awkwardness you’d expect. Why had the first salesman used “foreign customer” in this case? It was superfluous.

Now, I was not offended in either situation. I cannot pretend to be a victim and claim that I was dehumanized. But they did make me curious. After all, when we use redundancies we are usually trying to “mark” the language with what linguists call implicatures.

What are implicatures? Imagine someone introducing a coworker by saying, “This is my black [or white] colleague, Bob.” In such a case, Bob and the person addressed would naturally try to interpret what the speaker meant over and above the words alone because the speaker had marked the language, in this case by using a redundancy. Because of the implicature, Bob would have a linguistically sound reason for reading something suspicious in the speaker’s statement.

A highway bus driver announces that there will be a delay in our arrival time because a “gaisha” (foreign car) has stalled on the road several kilometers ahead, causing a traffic jam. Why does he feel the need to mention that it was a foreign car? The same holds true for phrases like, “Japan’s four seasons” instead of the seasons or “American joke” for any joke told by a foreigner. Marked by redundancy.

So what is the problem with such marked uses of words like “gaijin”? First, it can make an issue out of race or nationality in situations where those should not an issue. It can lead to misunderstandings as in the case of the computer specialist who took the superfluous use of “foreign customer” to mean that I was not communicating in Japanese and therefore assumed that this would be a linguistically troublesome encounter.

Redundant usage of such terms also marks an unnecessary mental classification or separation, which may create a burden when it comes to interacting with non-Japanese. If we try to reduce this core sense of distance felt by our learners, the divisive “othering” mentality that so many culture-learning materials unwittingly foster, we might also begin to reduce negatively marked language and awkward usages that can easily lead to misunderstandings and discomfort not only for (ahem) gaijin, but for Japanese people, too.

Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University. He can be reached at

(Nov. 4, 2008)

32 comments on “Thoughtful essay in the Yomiuri on the word “Gaijin” by Mike Guest

  • great article, and very detailed..yes alot of times when i go shopping im forwarded to the english speaking staff for some reason after i ask for help in im a problem child or something like that,,it happened to me again yesterday at yamada denki store…

  • I believe these issues will never be resolved, so there is no need to intellectualize about them. I guess you could say I take the Farakhan approach to those who hate me. Im a white dude, but I do understand where Mr. Farakhan is ocming from. You cannot fight these issues in the traditional approach. When the Japanese say there is a traffic jam due to a gaisha kuruma, I remind him, that yes, cars made overseas due tend to break down more than Japanese cars, but where did the original idea for the car come from? America! So to me, there is nothing impressive about bragging that the car in your country never breaks down when you copied the original idea from my country. I remind japanese about this type of thing almost weekly.

  • Mike,

    This article by Mike Guest is, as Debito says, a “thoughtful essay” to help us understand the issue. You are short-sighted if you are going to dismiss this as “intellectualizing” something.

    I believe we could resolve these issues, if not in its entirety. If not, what is the use of reminding “Japanese about this type of thing almost weekly”?

  • Thanks for posting my article here Debito, even though our views diverge on a few points. You are certainly correct in noting that it is not expected of me to delve into the political side too much in my columns as they run in a section devoted to language teaching and education.

    If I were to add just one thing for readers here it would be that most NJs in Japan (or anywhere where you may be a ‘visible minority’) have probably had the experience in which a Japanese person makes too much of the NJs ‘gaijinness’ in cases when it should not be an issue and seems hyperconscious of it to the point where interaction becomes awkward or underlying prejudices are revealed.

    But being a visible minority can also work in the other direction (and this is true in any society). We may become hyper-conscious of ourselves as gaijin and start to read in underlying national or racial scripts from Japanese people or institutions where none was ever intended. We may interpret innocuous or idiosyncratic events, people, or language usage as essentially- and negatively- ‘Japanese’ (just like some Japanese tend to interpret anything we say or do as essentially ‘Gaijinesque’) when it may not really be a ‘Japanese thang’ at all. In doing so, we may end up creating or at least reinforcing the very us vs. them distance that we may be accusing some Japanese of.

    Something to keep in mind.


  • Bendrix,

    Yes, in practice, it does. So does “amerikajin”. Children imbibe these usages before reaching school and learning fancier words such as “gaikokujin”.

  • Hey Bendix,

    I think one way to explain it is thus:

    When someone says “bird” most people picture something like a sparrow, or at least something of that dimension and shape. But “bird”, technically includes things like ostriches, which most people would not automatically think of when they think of “birds”.

    Similarly, when someone says “gaijin”, most people think of a prototypical westerner – long nose, blonde hair, tall etc. But it technically also includes other looks, and anyone who is not japanese.

    This is not true for everyone, and some might nitpick my explanation, but I think it’s a fair summary.

    — I think it’s a fair summary too. For example, here’s how they market a “gaijin” mask at Tokyu Hands, with precisely those phenotypes:

    How nice. Photo courtesy Nick G. Debito

  • A completely useless essay.

    A conjectural essay written in english and read primarily by people to whom the word applies will do nothing for `the cause`

    Am I the only one who realizes this?

    It is exactly the same as people complaining in Japanese on Yahoo about foreigners who aren`t residing in Japan…

    Does no good if it`s in the language the `other` cannot understand…

  • Ah, Jesus: gigantic nose, huge blue eyes…that mask is just revolting.

    It would take about ten seconds to cause a huge scene if a “gaijin” showed up at a party with fake squinty brown eyes and huge fake buck-teeth, however.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Read it again. The essay was aimed at an English speaking audience, primarily teachers of EFL/ESL. Somewhere, that will help the cause. It also helps consolidate WHY we feel uncomfortable with the labels given to us.

    But I’d love it if I COULD buy the fake squinty brown eyes and huge fake buck teeth at Loft. Maybe get Dave Specter or the like to appear on TV with them.

    I think it’s a fair summary, too.
    Popular media-created images tell the Japanese that something like 90% of foreign nationals in Japan are blonde-haired, blue-eyed Americans.

    Now, if we can educate the general public that it’s also ****ing rude to talk in fake-accented Japanese to someone just because they are not a native speaker.

    — Oooh yeah, that last one gets to me too… Especially when they do it on Hokkaido local TV shows…

  • Let’s face it, this situation is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche and collects a wide range of aspects – from the occupation to the quasi-religious status of the Japanese language to the mass media portrayal (and lack of) of westerners and other foreigners. A few points:

    Asia foreigners are rarely called and rarely treated as “gaijin”. The Chinese woman at my company is expected to suck up zangyo without complaint while they cower in fear of asking me to stay a half-hour extra. I have been with a group of three westerners and one Korean at a restaurant and the waiter inevitably does the verify my order with the Japanese person routine.

    If you’re Japanese is good enough, don’t put up with the “get an English speaker for the gaijin customer”. Tell them, “Look my Japanese is certainly better than your English so let’s just do it in Japanese”.

    Finally, let’s reclaim the word “gaijin” by using it ourselves, much like other minorities have reclaimed racial epithets. Japanese sometimes bristle when a gaijin refers to herself as such and maybe, just maybe, it raises their conscience about what it actually implies.

  • Andrew Smallacombe wrote:

    Now, if we can educate the general public that it’s also ****ing rude to talk in fake-accented Japanese to someone just because they are not a native speaker.

    I suffer this from my junior high school students a lot, and sometimes from strangers out in public. I can kind of forgive junior high students for doing because of their age but I have yet to hear one of my Japanese co-workers to tell the kids it’s rude. If the situation were reversed I would let my students know they were being rude.

    I dislike being called a ‘gaijin’ unless it’s an appropriate situation, such as at immigration, but what also gets me that so few Japanese people seem to be sensitive to this issue.

  • I wonder if anyone can enlighten me to as why when on national TV if a foreigner (not a “tarento”) fluent in Japanese is interviewed it is necessary to subtitle whilst the Japanese interviewees remarks are not subtitled? Do the media fear the Japanese viewing public will have subconscious “Pavlovian” responses when they see the foreigner and assume that he/she cannot possibly be speaking Japanese?

  • Andrew said: “Now, if we can educate the general public that it’s also ****ing rude to talk in fake-accented Japanese to someone just because they are not a native speaker.”

    I have had this more than once (though my accent is not THAT atrocious).
    I simply ask the speaker what country they are from, because they have an interesting accent.

    The result is actually quite nice in that they usually laugh, which diffuses a little tension. I don’t think most people do it on purpose. My father does it whenever we go abroad together without realizing.

  • @Scotty: I frequently seen native Japanese subtitled on Japanese television. Typically the folks who live out in the sticks get the same treatment. I think it’s just a matter of “how well will Gramma Hanako who is 92 years old and used to the Tokyo dialect be able to understand this?” that determines whether or not something gets subtitled.

  • @Scotty:
    Yes, there is an automatic response on the part of some Japanese when they see a western face- my friend described as a white light permeating the brain. I realize this sounds harsh but I have seen it many times. I can ask for something in perfectly decent Japanese and just get a blank stare.
    To be fair, I have seen subtitles used in American shows for foreigners, usually reality shows where the sound might be a little sketchy…And yeah, they use it for Japanese too, even talent, to kind of emphasize what they are saying.

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher says:

    Just wanted to say bravo for that essay. I think it was excellent. I have similar experiences all the time. What infuriates me most is the presumption that no matter how long I’ve studied Japanese for, I couldn’t possibly understand it. I’ll share a short anecdote to illustrate:

    Some of my students know that I study Japanese and understand a fair bit of it. I’m not fluent, by any means, but I know 90% of what’s being said to me or around in my school. That being said, the students “in the know” sometimes speak to me in Japanese. One day, a student of mine complimented me on my attire. She used the incredibly difficult and advanced word 格好いい in her sentence, and I somehow was able to figure out what she said to me in her indecipherable language. The student next her, realizing how incredibly difficult that word was, lightly chastised her.

    Second student – “He probably doesn’t understand Japanese.”

    The first student looks at me and asks in Japanese if I understand.

    I reply that I do.

    Second student – “He doesn’t understand. He only understands that you’re praising him.”

    Bless her heart, the first student maintained that I did, in fact, understand.

    But apparently, in the second student’s mind, I am much like a house pet – incapable of human language, but just smart enough to replicate some of its sounds and understand the tones of its users.

    Yet, cést la vie… in Japan.

    And Debito – I’ve hated that “hello gaijin” mask since I first saw it in 2004. It’s even worse seeing it worn on television. Do you know the name of that young male Japanese comedian who wears a blonde wig and big rubber nose as part of an eikaiwa program?

    — Not sure. I see a lot of these blond wig/rubber nose programs, sadly. Imagine the shoe on the other foot in broadcast media overseas. Quite a lot was made in the J media of a Francophone TV reporter IIRC during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, who pulled the corners of his eyes “Asian style” during a broadcast. He was roundly scolded and condemned as racist. (Wish I could send you a link, but that was archived on a website killed by its owner once he became rich and famous and found his former activism embarrassing… sorry, I digress). Meanwhile the rubber noses continue.

    Did you yourself correct the second student as to your abilities? And say it to him/her in Japanese? How we react in these situations to set the record straight is a very important part of the story. If you said nothing, I say don’t take it on the chin like this in future — it only allows incorrect impressions to stand and saddles you with a story that rides and irks you for years. But that’s my method of dealing with things like these. I find it effective, though. FYI.

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher,

    I’m glad to hear you’ve found this essay excellent. Mr Guest’s analysis helped me a lot too. I also uphold your analysis of the anecdote involving you and two Japanese students because you are an eikaiwa teacher who is, as a profession, experienced in such inter-language and inter-cultural communications as this one. However, your assertion that the second student regarded you as “incapable of human language” gives me pause. This could be understood otherwise. Don’t take it that I’m criticizing you. I would just like to write down what I thought when I read your comment.

    Firstly, I don’t know if you have written it as kind of joke. But if you really mean to say “格好いい” is an “incredibly difficult and advanced word,” that would cause me a double take. The word “格好いい” is too common a word in Japanese. I think “格好いい” would be equivalent to “cool” (not “cool” ice cream) in English. Anyway, that is what I learned at the earliest stage of my English conversation lessons. I’m not trying to disparage your Japanese proficiency. There is nothing wrong about not knowing “格好いい.” The word is colloquial language, so it may not appear in textbooks. I don’t know what degree of precedence is assigned to the word in the “Japanese as Foreign Language” curriculum. Most importantly, as you suggest, it would be rather easy to guess what it means in conversations. However, the fact that you didn’t know the word may suggest that there may have been more words and phrases that you didn’t understand in the conversation than you had noticed then. I think it may be for this reason that the second student insisted that you didn’t understand what the first student said.

    Secondly, it is a very good thing for your first student to be comfortable in engaging in conversations with you in Japanese. This kind of attitude will greatly help to bring the Japanese and Non-Japanese closer. However, that alone won’t solve the problem. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many Japanese who are well-trained or well-experienced in foreign language. Generally speaking, those who lack the knowledge of foreign language tend to be oblivious about what points you have to be careful in inter-language communications. For example, I know a Japanese politician, when he visited US, kept saying “rice country” because US is called “米国” in Japanese. Here is another example. We have a Japanese idiom “腹を割って話す (Hara o watte hanasu)” meaning “to speak frankly.” Imagine a conversation like this:

    J: “では、腹を割って、話しましょう。”
    NJ: “えっ? 腹を? 割って? 腹切りですか?”
    J: “違いますよ。 だから、腹を、、、 割るの、、、 わかるでしょ?”

    No, I don’t understand. When I speak to Non-Japanese in Japanese, I would make a point of avoiding this kind of expression whose literal translation doesn’t lead you to the real meaning. Also, I will try to be correct in grammar, clear in pronunciation and use less expressions with cultural baggage. The speech of the first student may have had a defect in this regard. Your description, “her indecipherable language,” suggests that, and it may also be for this reason that the second student insisted you didn’t understand what the first student said.

    It is probable that the second student was just trying to point out she had sensed miscommunication in your conversation, but didn’t know how to explain that. Next time you had a similar situation, it would be productive to involve the other student and work out what the point is. I believe the result could be enlightening to all of you. I hope you don’t discard it as “Oh, the Japanese way again.”

    — PnetQ, sorry, but I think you missed the sarcasm behind calling “格好いい” “an incredibly difficult and advanced word”.

  • I agree that gaijin normally conjures up images of white or black people in the minds of Japanese. To that extent, dealing with the issue as whites vs. Japanese people, this is a thoughtful essay. For the actual complexity of the issue, which really involves anyone who is not Japanese, this essay is simplistic and self-serving. It also cheapens the experiences of groups like zainichi Koreans who have been battling discrimination in this country for generations now.

    I’m sorry if the eikaiwa teachers had their righteous indignation bone tickled the wrong way in Japan, but please be more respectful of the actual depth of this issue, which will otherwise just lead to another level of exclusion for those outside the white/Japanese binary. Any who might blend in here based on physical experience only get a superficial level of acceptance. Once the person’s true identity is discovered, there are just as many barriers to be surpassed, and maybe even more so for those of Asian ethnicity as not being Japanese and not being valued for their otherness, which is mostly a benefit afforded to obviously “Western” peoples.

  • Bendrix, I don’t know what your ethnicity is and I can’t speak for you, but I don’t think people who look obviously “Western” have it that good here, either. I can believe it’s worse for you but as a long-term resident in Japan who looks “Western”, the attention I get is unwanted and more often hostile than friendly.
    No matter how well I learn to speak Japanese or come to understand the culture I will always be treated as an outsider because I look foreign.
    I don’t mean to belittle what experiences you have had but to point out that the treatment of Western-looking people who have immigrated to Japan can be no bed of roses.

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher,

    I share your frustration with you. I have been here over fifteen years now and I am told all the time in so many ways that I cannot speak Japanese. It’s really frustrating. To some people it may seem like a small point but when it’s a daily occurence it can really grate on you, on me anyway.

    Good luck to us battling it!

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher says:

    I just wanted to make a few quick responses –

    Debito – I found the particular show I was talking about. Here’s a video link. He’s not just wearing the mask, he’s a mascot for the entire show.

    As for speaking up, I didn’t say anything then. But I have spoken to the disbelieving student in Japanese on other occassions. I’ve also done student counseling in Japanese, to the surprise of several students. My primary reason was because often the Japanese teachers call themselves “bilingual teachers”, as opposed to native speakers of English being “foreign teachers”. And I want the students to know I’m working as hard as they are to learn a foreign language. The more I learn Japanese, the better a teacher I can be.

    PnetQ – I’m afraid there has been a misunderstanding. I was being very sarcastic. 格好いい is one of the first words I learned in Japanese. I think it’s up there with お早うございます、侍、and お茶. And I would argue that by all means, you SHOULD use idiomatic expressions not found in textbooks. Those of us seriously studying Japanese want to know these expressions. It only takes one time to explain an expression. And then that person will be eternally grateful to you because you taught them something. I have learned lots of expressions because someone was kind enough to teach me, instead of being afraid I couldn’t understand. As for “the Japanese way”, I didn’t think it was so. I thought it was that student in particular. It’s too easy to become a bigot yourself, thinking everyone is bigotted against you.

    Bendrix – You’re absolutely right that this issue extends well beyond being White v. Japanese. From some of my friends experiences (those that “look Japanese enough”), they sometimes get overwhelmed by others expecting them to know Japanese and then becoming angry with them. But to write an essay to cover the perspective of every foreigner in Japan would be, I think, an exercise in futility. I think the author wrote about what he knew. He’s not a 在日韓国人, so he would be writing from second-hand experience. If you have experiences that are not being covered, I’d encourage you to write them down. The more voices, the better, I say.

    Behan – Thank you.

  • Thanks, Debito. Now, I understand what An Eikaiwa Teacher really means.

    I didn’t think he really considered “格好いい” as an “incredibly difficult and advanced word”. But I assumed the first student’s language may have been one way or another “indecipherable” and had to be guessed because teenagers’ language is often “indecipherable” to me too.

    With your suggestion, now I understand that the whole passage is sarcasm. Let me rephrase the episode in a straight language which I don’t have to decipher:

    The first student said “格好いい”which was a very basic word, so he of course knew and understood it. There was no need to try to figure out what it meant. Her language was so simple that he understood every bit of it. Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, the second student insisted that he didn’t understand Japanese.

    Also, he doesn’t really think the second student saw him as “a house pet – incapable of human language, but just smart enough to replicate some of its sounds and understand the tones of its users.” This is sarcasm too. What he means is he was infuriated because the second student with no apparent reason insisted he didn’t understand Japanese even when it was about as basic a word as “格好いい.”

    Am I correct? Now, I see how frustrating the episode was to An Eikaiwa Teacher. That said, I’d still like to stick to my advice I have put at the end of my previous comment which I think is same as Debito’s.

  • I agree, it would be impossible to write a fully inclusive essay covering everyone’s gaijin experience in Japan. My frustration was with the wording – at times it sounded like a comparison that states ‘my struggles are tougher than that of other gaijin.’

    My main difficulty, as an American (who happens to be of Asian descent), has so far been that I am perceived as not quite a native English speaker and not quite Asian. A couple recruiting agencies have recommended I take the TOIEC, though I was born in the states. Responses for jobs using English have been very low, and/or unfavorable. Even with a university degree and some work experience, I’m having trouble landing eikaiwa jobs, much less stuff further up the chain of careers (the economy, of course, is to blame. I also understand eikaiwa employers might have problems using someone with an Asian face, but where does that leave me?)

    My view, however pragmatic, is that, ultimately, Japan will never be a progressive society in the Western liberal democratic, pluralist sense. They will never elect a Barack Obama or welcome immigrants. Japanese society is too conservative at its heart. They will keep doing their dance, making their gestures, and using their most polite, passive aggressive keigo to deflect any attempts otherwise. Sorry if my view is pragmatic. I don’t mean to discourage anyone who feels otherwise.

    Anyway, I would like to express my solidarity with other gaijin, whatever your origin or skin color. Even a guy like me gets the English treatment from time to time after it’s found out I’m not from here.

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher,

    Thanks for your response. With Debito’s suggestion, I have corrected my understanding which I posted as my second comment. I hope my understanding is correct this time.

    As to idiomatic expressions, I’d like to add some points.

    First, I’m more than happy to learn idioms. That is one of the most interesting aspects in learning foreign language. You are even encouraged to use such expressions in your conversations with non-native speakers. However, I think it is only when you think you can explain the meaning yourself. Do you remember the Japanese speaker in my imagined conversation? He cannot explain the idiom he uses. I have seen some weird guys who almost intentionally use those idiomatic phrases that they cannot explain when speaking to Non-Japanese. That would be problematic.

    Second, although I’m more than happy to learn idioms, I would appreciate if I could be spared an idiom lesson when I asked someone how to get to the station on the street. Basically, it is case by case. If you are engaged in a conversation with your friend, with enough time to talk about language, it would be an ideal situation where you can learn a new expression in a real context. On the other hand, if you are talking about a new contract with someone from another company, it would be preferable to avoid misleading language. That would be the case with conversations between native-speakers, too. However, if one party of the conversation is a non-native speaker, it is the native speaker who should make efforts to choose appropriate expressions.

    Third, people don’t necessarily learn foreign language to become as fluent as native speakers. This is particularly true with English. As for me, I love learning and using English, but it is not to be like American or British. I use the English language as a Japanese in order to communicate directly with a wider audience than the Japanese language affords me. Therefore, it is not only communication with native English speakers. I can communicate with Chinese or Koreans in English too. When we consider this international situation surrounding English, I think there are occasions in which expressions with strongly British or American cultural backgrounds should be avoided.

    Returning to the Japanese language, it used to be that only those who were eager to understand the Japanese culture learned Japanese. But things have changed. Now a considerable portion of Non-Japanese who live in Japan and speak Japanese choose to do so for their business or some other reasons than cultural interests. For them, Japanese is simply a communication tool. Then, I think some sort of consideration similar to English as the international language must be had when you speak to Non-Japanese in Japanese.

    Lastly, it is basically case by case. If I know you, probably I won’t hesitate to use any words or phrases in conversations. However, as general principles of conversation involving non-native speakers, I maintain what I have written in my first comment.

    1) Be correct in Grammar.
    2) Be clear in pronunciation.
    3) Use expressions with less cultural baggage.
    4) Above all, be respectful. (Yeah, I added this one.)

  • An Eikaiwa Teacher says:

    Bendrix – It sounds like you’ve run into some bad companies. The only want to further enhance the stereotype that Anglophones are all stereotypical Anglos, or rather Angles, from the barbarian days. That is ridiculously far from the truth. The English-speaking world is hardly one color or ethnicity. I think a good example would be those of Hong Kong Chinese decent. My company recently got three people of that background – one is from Australia, another from Canada, another from Scotland. They’re here, teaching English, and anyone would be a fool to think they’re not “native speakers”. I wouldn’t give up hope. The more representation of reality (i.e. language ability is not determined by ethnic background/race), the less those tired stereotypes will hold up.

    PnetQ – Excellent points, albeit characteristically verbose ;). To get back to the topic at hand, avoiding idioms can become part of “othering”. See a NJ face and suddenly one must use plain, colorless Japanese. I have had some bemusing episodes where people have thought they were helping me, but really not doing anything but make me feel like I was a child. A good example:

    A friend and I were looking for a building. We stopped into a convenience store to ask where it was. The clerk wasn’t sure and advised that we ask at the local train station. Her wording was priceless –


    Oh! That’s what 駅 means! A place with trains! <–sarcasm

    Maybe it’s only me, but people presuming what I don’t understand for me is just the teensiest bit irksome. It is a perfect case of “othering”. It’s just like when English speakers think yelling and speaking slowly will somehow convey their message more clearly: It’s embarassing, belittling, and not helping anyone.

    Your four principles in the end only further my seperation from native Japanese speakers, therefore enhancing “othering”.

    1) Incorrect grammar is a normal part of any spoken language.
    2) I wouldn’t get any better at understanding Japanese if everyone spoke like a beginner’s Japanese CD.
    3) Culture and language go hand in hand – you can’t have Japanese with the Japanese people
    4) By respect, I hope you mean “treat others the way they would like to be treated.”

    In the end, your principles are just a set of lowered expectations.

  • Bendrix
    Your over generalisation of Japan being a conservative country may be irksome for many, perhaps, since it is a ‘generalisation’. However, it is hard to argue against such a statement since where is the evidence to the contrary?

    Gaijin, as noted above in the essay, is or rather was binary many centuries ago. The grammar and language of English many centuries ago (as is today) flexible and simply changed to reflect the changing perceptions of the world and those around us. This “social change” revolution, for want of a better term has yet to occur here. Indeed I think we agree that it shall never happen, since there has been little movement on this score in the past 400 years…so why would Japan suddenly change now?

    As the ‘ship of Japan’ sinks lower into the sea of “we are still Japanese and happy to be this way”…those drowning and desperate for a liferaft to escape will wonder why they are the only ones sinking and no one is around to throw them a lifeline, or if a lifeline is thrown, it doesn’t come from a purely ethnic Japanese but from “some outsider”!

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Just as an update… a couple of nights ago some TV news was doing a quick survey to see if people could name the 7 herbs used in nanakusagayu. As always, the responces were subtitled. They got a responce from a blonde woman, whose Japanese was heavily accented but understandable… and subtitled her two word utterance in romaji.
    I notice that when some Japanese celebrity tries to speak English, the subtitle is often either translated into Japanese (so the audience has no idea of the level of accuracy), put in katakana (again, no level of accuracy assessed), or put in English, but with missing words filled in, etc.

  • Mr. Guest,
    Props on the great article. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I hope those who have read what you wrote will be inspired to do their part, however small, to politely enlighten anyone who tries to discriminate.

    An Eikaiwa Teacher,
    As an English teacher myself (specifically, an elementary school ALT – gotta love that term, too, when you consider we’re often the ones leading the lessons and doing all the preparation), I completely sympathize on pretty much every point you’ve made. I agree that it’s more than the teensiest bit irksome when students assume you are incapable of understanding some basic word. But I also have to agree with Debito that it’s very, very important to call students on it when they make such incorrect assumptions. Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean you should let their ignorance go, because if you don’t correct their way of thinking now, who will – and when? When they’re in their fifties and still tossing around insulting comments, it will be that much harder to set them straight because 1) they will have been thinking the same way for a much longer time and be that much more reluctant to see how stupid they sound, and 2) anyone here who corrects a person of a more advanced age runs the risk of being condemned as rude by society.

    I say this because my school principal, though he’s generally a good-natured guy and I know he means well, often makes offensive slips when addressing me. Just this morning, he was explaining how to register my sick leave from the day before. When he finished explaining to me in Japanese (as that is all he can speak), he for some reason felt the need to add in English, “Understand?”
    Oooh. I know I’m probably one of the more easily offended “gaijin” (and people in general) out there, but that always makes my blood boil – he’s by no means the first Japanese person I know to have commited said offense. Why do so many people, knowing that you know Japanese well enough to have bothered to explain something in detail to you in Japanese, think that adding an “Understand?” at the end will do anything but annoy and degrade? Superfluous, to say the least. But naturally, I can’t say anything, because he is my school principal, and to point out that he had slipped up would be going against the Japanese code of respect based on seniority/position…further making me look like an ignorant “gaijin”. 😛

    The thing with kids, especially as young as elementary school age, is that sometimes they don’t think things through logically as well as someone older might. As I said, I lead my lessons as the “assistant” of a Japanese teacher who speaks little to no English, so I am constantly using Japanese in class, and it’s no secret I speak and understand it. One time I misheard what a third grader said – it sounded like “Pikachu”, but it turned out he was talking about another cartoon character. His friend in the back shrugged and said, “Well, she’s a gaijin – can’t expect her to understand your Japanese.” Whoa! I took the next couple of minutes explaining to him and the rest of the class the reasons why what he had said made absolutely no sense, and asked them all in the future to please think before assuming anything like that about someone based on their appearance, because if a foreign-looking person is living and working here, odds are she speaks and understands the language necessary to get by in everyday life. Then the first boy chimed in (and he’s the loudest kid in the class) that I was right, and furthermore that people like me were pretty darned awesome for being able to speak two languages when he and the other kids were struggling to learn English. This class ended up being the one I have the most fun with and am closest to, maybe because there were no longer any perceived communication barriers after that.

    I feel you on the Asian gaijin issue. I’m half-fourth-generation-Japanese-American (you can imagine how hard it is explaining that to 10 kids every day 😉 ) and even though I look almost totally Caucasian, my first and last names are Japanese. This anomaly generally provokes one of two reactions among less educated Japanese: either they insist that my name cannot possibly be my real name, and ask if I don’t have a more “gaijin-like” name they can call me by; or they assume that I must be culturally Japanese and have a fit when I do something “strange” and “typically foreign” like wearing a skirt to the Sports Festival (how was I supposed to know it was mandatory to wear training pants when teachers don’t participate in any of the sporting events?) or separating my pasta and my sauce when I eat spaghetti (come on…who else, J or NJ, does that? Perfect example of why it’s stupid to generalize based on nationality, ethnicity, or any other lump category). I also am expected to stay for overtime and come in earlier than my contract dictates for the morning staff meetings, while the former ALT at our school was not. Go figure.

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