Posted by debito on November 16th, 2008
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 email@example.com.