(originally posted to Friends Mon, 21 Oct 1996)
click here to see previous parts to this series)

This is a follow-up of my last post, A SNIPE AT BILINGUAL NON-JAPANESE ON JAPANESE NATIONAL TV, where one of Japan's most popular TV news announcers said it would be better if non-Japanese spoke "broken Japanese". Enraged non-Japanese made an issue of it on Fukuzawa, and it looked as if it would become a promising social movement.

Then, unfortunately, the wind was taken out of our sails. The point of this post is how the waters in Japan get really muddy when you're dealing with gaijin circles.


When I left off last, the gaffe hanpatsu was picking up steam, with people saying they were going to write letters, email people, make web pages, etc. In other words, this seemed to be becoming, as we termed it in graduate school, a "hot issue".

But as usual, in seeped the questions:

Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996

Hashimori writes: >Let's flood the office with mail.

I see the posse forming, and I just wonder if all these people saw the program and heard the comment. Or is it just the excitement? --FMU

Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996


To all who are thin-skinned about the word "gaijin":

Not that I don't enjoy seeing Kume squirm, but the commonly used word for "foreign investors" in Japanese is "gaijin toshika." Because foreign investors have such a powerful influence over the Japanese market in recent years, you can see the kanji "gaijin toshika" in the headlines of market coverage in the Nikkei, or most any other paper *almost* everyday. Is everyone going to respond to this as well?

The Nikkei business program, "World Business Satellite," appears right after News Station on ch.12 every night at 11PM and I think they've used the word in their market update every night for the past 6 years at least. Is it really fair to jump on Kume's recent remark and simply leave the "gaijin toshika" syndrome alone? I think not. But what I do think would be better is to simply forget about the whole thing since it won't ever change unless Japan becomes the "great melting pot of Asia", or something.

Regards, CR, ING Baring Securities

We're back outside the letters again. There were more compliments and agreements about my making it an issue afterwards, but people were getting off the track. It was not an issue of one word--"gaijin"--it was its use in conjunction with a disparaging image. I also followed up on TV Asahi and did some groundwork on the Japanese language, and, putting it all together, I emailed Fukuzawa the results:


Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996

To: fukuzawa@ucsd.edu
From: davald@do-johodai.ac.jp (Dave Aldwinckle)



Before I get accused of 1) derailing or hijacking Fukuzawa (I haven't been yet) for posse purposes, or 2) flogging my dead horse, I thought I'd just slip in my final comment on the subject. I'll try to keep covering enough new ground to avoid issue fossilization.


I gave TV Asahi another call this afternoon (in between 3 classes, a staff meeting, and the school festival) and talked to Shichousha Center's Mr Sekimoto. He remembered me and told me what had happened (he speaks incredibly fast Japanese, so I did my best to absorb it all):

1) He did see the broadcast himself and acknowledged that Kevin Thrash's quote was what Mr Kume had said (so that resolves FU's counterargument).

2) This issue was brought to Mr Kume's attention.

3) News Station's response: "Mr Kume probably thought that hearing an Indian (Sekimoto was careful to avoid the "g" word) speak such good Japanese had made him think the Indian was a Japanese. He thought it would be better if he didn't speak such good Japanese. Too confusing for a Japanese."

[NB: Don't ask me to explain the logic. I'm just the messenger.]

4) Anyway, News Station sends their apologies. I asked if Mr Kume had expressed these apologies. Sekimoto said that he heard the apologies from the staff. From Mr Kume directly? From the News Station staff.

5) Sekimoto put this issue on internal memo and sent it around to the appropriate departments. News Station, others, may or may not read it, but somebody important-sounding (I don't understand the Japanese for positions inside a TV station) will definitely have a look at it.

I thanked Sekimoto very deeply for his efforts, and that was that.


I'd like to think so. So what if Sekimoto didn't return my call, or offer any apologies for my shabby treatment by News Station. So what if there was no response to my email (after all--and I mean this nonsarcastically--they're busy and who am I?). And so what if the reasoning behind the gaffe is still unsatisfactory? The important thing is that somebody inside TV Asahi put something down in an office memo. Word about this issue did get inside. And Mr Kume apparently did hear about it. Whether or not that means he's going to say something about it on the air is just getting greedy. I thought we did alright.


The crux of the issue is not really the word "gaijin" (trying to get rid of it would be like swatting all the flies in Japan); it is the use of the word "katakoto" in connection--whether or not it is derogatory and/or infantilizing. Whether or not an influential spokesman like Mr Kume should apparently support the notion that gaijin ought to be nonfluent, and get off scot-free.

I sat down and discussed katakoto with my Hokkaido U students last night. Even showed them the letter I sent to TV Asahi. They said things I think Fukuzawa might find interesting:

1) They all disagreed on the meaning of the word, whether it meant "baby Japanese" (i.e. undeveloped), or "broken" (meaning a means of communication devised from a very limited set of words). Most chose the latter. But all agreed that katakoto is not always derogatory. It's just a word to describe imperfection in language ability.

2) I asked them to define "imperfection". Responses varied from simply "accented" (meaning non-native--but they weren't stupid enough to say the speaker required Japanese blood) to "survival level". For yardsticks, I asked whether some famous people in Japanese spoke katakoto: Japanese-Brazilian tarento Marcia (most responded no), Sumo Rikishi Akebono (most responded no), me (same, thanks). In fact, they couldn't put their finger on anybody they knew who spoke katakoto. Except their image of the average gaijin on the street.

That image, I pointed out, is exactly what Mr Kume happens to be reinforcing.


They then found a good example--my letter. "It's actually very good katakoto". For something typed out in 45 minutes in "internet style", I'll take that as a compliment.

Most importantly, they explained Mr Kume's joke better. "Kume believes that Japanese people these days speak, read, and write terrible Japanese. So if a gaijin can do better than a Japanese at speaking the latter's own language, that's shameful. It's better if the gaijin, not the Japanese, speak the broken stuff."

Huh. Naruhodo. So I asked, "why didn't Kume say, 'Isn't it ironic when an Indian speaks better than many Japanese?'" They had no answer.

Anyway, they did admit that Mr Kume shouldn't have said what he said, and all agreed that contacting TV Asahi was the right thing to do.

So yes, it is worth it. We're not asking for Mr Kume's head on a pole. We just want to make it clear that we are part of the audience nowadays and deserve the same respect as any other respected minority.


At the risk of sounding like a posse-whipper, I say that sending your regrets to TV Asahi, if you feel indignant enough about it, is just fine. The job's not done--a few more "strength-in-numbers" style letters or emails to TV Asahi will add momentum to what's been started. If you want to use my letter as a template (Be my guest, but remember, it's "katakoto". Perhaps Mr Kume would like that better.) and your computer can receive Japanese, it's [been deleted because probably most people out there don't have Japanese software. Sorry.]. Email and snail mail addresses below that. Enough of them and TV Asahi just might pay more attention.

I'll say it again: Rights are not granted. They must be fought for. That is a fact in any society. So do your bit if you are so inclined.

Dave Aldwinckle


TV-Asahi's contact information:

Minato-ku Roppongi 1-1-1 Japan 106  Tel: +81-3-3587-5111

Company Director: Ito Kunio

www-adm@tv-asahi.co.jp (general email)

announcer@tv-asahi.co.jp (to the announcers)

station@flex.co.jp ("News Station" and Mr Kume Hiroshi)

MY RESPONSE ENDS. I left things alone after that, and a few more complimentary and complementary posts came in. The best one was from Glen Fukushima (all you Japan specialists out there know who he is--one of the most influential spokesmen on Japan today from a governmental point of view). That follows now.

Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996

From: "Glen S. Fukushima"
Subject: Gaijin & Katakoto

The DFS discussion this week about Kume Hiroshi's October 14 comment on News Station ("Shikashi, gaijin wa Nihongo ga katakoto no hoo ga ii yo ne") reminded me of the following incident:

About a year ago, I participated in the ACCJ Diet Doorknock, in which the leadership of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan call on Japanese Diet members to exchange views on issues of concern to the American business community in Japan. During one of these visits, when four of us from the ACCJ were meeting with a senior Diet member (ex-Cabinet official), we asked him:

"What should the ACCJ be doing to get our message across in Japan, especially to enhance our credibility and visibility among Japanese decisionmakers?"

The Diet member (who has had significant overseas experience and is considered to be an "internationalist") answered as follows:

"The ACCJ needs a spokesman who can convey your message in the Japanese language to key political and business leaders in Japan. (Pause) However, your spokesman's Japanese shouldn't be as good as Fukushima-san's, since it would no longer be 'kawaii' [cute]." (Laughter)

This mentality is similar to that shown by Kume's statement: a foreigner who speaks Japanese that is deemed "too good" (i.e., close to that of a native speaker) is seen by some to be undesirable, perhaps because he/she would be a threat to Japanese notions of being different, unique, impenetrable and of the Japanese language being too difficult for foreigners to master.

When I joined USTR in 1985, the Japanese media immediately labeled me as a "tegowai aite" [formidable counterpart; tough negotiator] purely because I could speak and read Japanese at a professional level. This made Japanese government officials--who were accustomed to dealing with American counterparts who knew little about Japan--profoundly uneasy, since they would have a harder time getting me to believe their "tatemae" [policy statements, facade, pretense, what they wanted me to believe]. I discovered that they indeed had much to hide.

Not a few Japanese derive a sense of comfort and superiority to hear foreigners struggling with the Japanese language, uttering "katakoto" [Kenkyusha includes "babble" and "prattle" among its English definitions, accurately conveying the sense of childish or immature speech]. A foreigner whose Japanese ability is beyond "katakoto" is no longer "kawaii" (cute, cuddly, harmless, and mascot-like). He/she might even be dangerous, since facility in the language could--heaven forbid!--be utilized to achieve certain nefarious ends--e.g., uncover the "honne" [empirical truth].

This is one reason Japanese TV often features foreigners whose Japanese is so rudimentary that they sound like children uttering gibberish. For some Japanese, it's entertaining, comforting, and reassuring to to know that the "uchi" [inside] has not been invaded or contaminated by the "soto" [outside]. That's why few Japanese would question a statement like, "Shikashi, gaijin wa Nihongo ga katakoto no hoo ga ii yo ne." In fact, it's often the (Caucasian) foreigners whose Japanese language is most fractured who are effusively praised (actually, patted on the head like a pet, whether they realize it or not) by some Japanese: "Oh, your Japanese is SOOOOOOO good!!!"

The situation is quite perverse. On the one hand, many Japanese criticize foreigners (especially Americans) for lacking professional-level Japanese language ability. But when some foreigners do spend the time and effort to master the language, they are often viewed with discomfort or suspicion.

I should, however, close with two disclaimers:

(1) I am not claiming that all Japanese have this view. There are some enlightened Japanese who feel no sense of unease whatsoever dealing with foreigners whose language ability is close to native. They may even feel genuine respect for those who have taken the time and effort to master Japanese. But this is still a minority view.

(2) Unlike business, law, and government (where many Japanese take a zero-sum, or at least adversarial, approach dealing with the outside world), in academia one is apt to encounter less resistance to foreigners who speak fluent Japanese. Thus I would expect many DFS'ers in academia who have not dealt with Japan in business, law, or government (and who don't live in Japan except for short research visits) to have more positive experiences with their Japanese language fluency.

Glen S. Fukushima, Tokyo


But then, the old "gaijin just gotta argue for argument's sake" syndrome started up again. As you perhaps read before in my DRUGS APOLOGIA essay, of my pet theories about Americans (can't say for other Westerners) is that they always gotta take things to their logical extremes in a debate, and in doing so lose the point. Slippery-slope, reductio ad absurdum, you name it. The issue as I presented it got ignored by some, and then somebody just had to make an obfuscating argument like,"I mean, but what if you try to censor ALL words that somebody finds offensive. Gosh, there's no end!" And what happened? The issue became blinkered by anti-PC people.

Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996

Let's drop the "gaijin" controversy, shall we. I use it, every one I have known for twenty years has used it and it sure as hell is easier on everyone's tongue than "gaikokujin" ["foreign country person", whereas "gaijin" means "outside person", literally].

What I find interesting and more indicitive of change is that these days I very rarely hear Japanese describing gaijin with advanced language abilities and social skills as "hen na gaijin." I don't think I have heard it used among people I have met in Tokyo or Niigata for years.--BS

Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996

Political correctness gone rampant!

Right on the money, BS. Gaijin is an abbreviated, and less polite form of gaikokujin; it means foreigner, and may, or may not be derogatory depending on the context (anyway, several other truly derogatory expressions exist). Those who get uptight about it when used in the neutral sense lack understanding of the language and culture. There are not many situations that I can think of where Japanese would use the word gaikokujin amongst themselves (older (sorry, age-challanged) high-society ladies maybe).

With regard to Kumei's flippant comment, there are a myriad of interpretations, but in my humble opinion, the cultural nuance is "gee, its a bit scary when you meet a foriegner who is really fluent isn't it." Let's face it, there are very few fluent non-oriental Japanese speakers around; I also get a bit shock when I see a fluent foreigner on TV, especially when they are an expert in some specialized field, and know what they are talking about (I don't include gaijin tarento [TV personalities] in this category). Kumei's reaction was quite natural and inoffensive in that respect.

Thin-skinned westerners who insist on occupying the moral high ground and relentlessly delivering sermons on non-issues such as this are annoying, and should look for more constructive ways to occupy their time and DFS bandwidth. --AF

Date: 19 Oct 1996

FU writes: I see the posse forming, and I just wonder if all these people saw the program and heard the comment. Or is it just the excitement?

I saw it and did not take offense with the word gaijin. Perhaps if the DFS posse wants to shoot / hang some rustlers and other varmin, why not go after some real nasties suchas the purposely vulgar TV shows. Furthermore, T. Romero, in a Tokyo BBS discussion, noted that there is a magazine being sold openly that is geared towards pedophiles -- such as giving train schedules, noting the times they are packed with school kids. Energy can be better spent on at least getting this magazine (perhaps T. Romero can do some research and give us the e-mail / post address of the publisher) off the street. People can even e-mail Kume and ask him to look into this. Hopefully, that would create enough neg publicity to stop its publication and others like it. --RJM

Around this point our resident loon, Herr Hashimori, got set off and went "postal" (posting about three or four times a day to Fukuzawa in response to anything) about acceptance in Japan and how we have to change ours and everyone's attitude towards Japan's words and whatnot. Issue Derailment. Sigh.

But amidst the chaff, there were some good, reasoned responses, that I think you might find enlightening about the way both Japanese and non-Japanese view life over here.

Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996

>Dave Aldwinckle wrote:

>AND IS THE VERY ISSUE WORTH IT? >The crux of the issue is not really the word "gaijin" (trying to get rid of it would be like swatting all the flies in Japan);

It seems to me that most of you are forgetting the tremendous linguistic forces that have resulted in the truncation of gaikokujin to gaijin. This is the drive to reduce foreign words, whereever possible, to four syllables (and however long a pedigree the word in question may have in Japanese, it is just as foreign in origin as the latest hip term from the West Coast). When these forces yield monstrosities like 'sekuhara' for sexual harassment, I do cringe, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with the word 'gaijin' itself. The way in which it is sometimes used - to divide off the pure and unique Yamato people from those savages who cannot eat rice with chopsticks - is the problem, surely.

I must commend Dave Aldwinckle for the tremendous initiative he has shown in pursuing this matter, and for his courage in actually writing a missive in the 'devil's tongue'. If more of us would apply ourselves in a similar way to questions that actually mattered (unlike this one), who knows, we might actually have some positive impact on the place. (snip)

DMM, Tojinmachi, Fukuoka

Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996

[NB: from a Korean gentleman]

I would like to a small footnote to Mr. Fukushima's lucid political interpretation. Mine is more cultural/sociological. Since I had begun Japanese studies in the mid-1980s, I have never been freed from two obsessions subconsciously. One was the lesson from my MIT teacher and the other, from my previous advisor at Hitotsubashi University.

One: "As Korean, try not to speak Japanese; speak English in Japan"

The moment you speak Japanese, your status will fall down. However, if you speak English, no matter how (un)fluent, you will be respected as a yokomoji speaker (i.e., you will be treated as well as whitemen). In the past 10 years, I found this lesson damned correct.

Two: "Even though you speak Japanese well, as gaijin, always try to say bakateinei (excessive/foolish politeness with huge dosages of honorifics/modesties) for your own good."

I found this lesson equally true. Gaijin! Don't speak "xx no" [childish Japanese] sentences; say "gozaimasu" "irrasshaimasu" [honorifics] or at least "desu masu." [regular politeness levels] Namaiki iuna! [don't say impertinent things] Watch your tongue, and don't be geshikaran [intolerable]! Be kawaii! [cute]

Now, together with Mr. Kume's lesson, what shall we do with our poor tongues! --SJR

Back outside the letters again. The best one came from a person who put it into a good international context. Too many times people like me are likely to fall into pitfalls of "those Asians are just sooo..." or "if this were the 'perfect' West", it would be different and better. One of the most sobering lessons I learned from my European travels was that Japan wasn't all that different after all.

Now we heard the word in a private note from Sweden:

Sat, 19 Oct 1996

(snip) Hi David! I thought your posts about the 'katakoto' thing were really fascinating. I just have a short comment regarding your discussion with your students' interpretation of the joke that Kume made. First of all when I was recently in Japan doing research for 8 months, I was told by several Japanese (not all academics, either) that some non-Japanese now (it seems to be a new thing) speak better (in all senses of the word, grammatically, accent, vocabulary, etc.) than many Japanese do. When I heard that comment the first time, I took it as one of those gratuitous comments like 'Nihongo wa joozu desu ne!' [your Japanese is so good!] after merely having said 'Ohayoo gazaimasu....' [snip] After hearing this comment about how skilled many 'gaijin' are becoming at Japanese, I actually began to take them at their word, especially since there are so many non-Japanese in Tokyo and its environs who DO speak very good Japanese that is much less 'katakoto' than say 10 years ago.

The thing that Kume-san was saying, though, in his comment is that it is embarrassing (in a way) to find that Japanese who are products of an educational system which many believe to be more than adequate are speaking 'worse' Japanese than some people who have learned the language 'outside' of the system. Thus, he and doubtless many others may come to the realization that their system is failing them or that, as I have heard a number of Japanese say, there are more and more Japanese who are thinking for themselves and are not willing just to be a product of a mold (which includes speaking 'proper' Japanese). I suspect that because the majority of Japanese (even including Kume-san) are not ready to be confronted with the individualism growing within Japan and with the growing presence of non-Japanese (most visible in the form of Caucasians, but in numbers as non-Japanese Asians--who 'blend-in' better on a superficial level) in society.

Don't get me wrong. I do not think Japan is changing quickly--hardly! But, similar changes (some people perceive them as threats) are happening in Sweden where there are many immigrants who are looked down upon (especially those from less-desirable areas like former east Europe and the Middle East/North Africa), and who when they do speak Swedish which is unaccented and 'natural' are more often than not seen as threats to the 'real' Swedes. As a result, many immigrants change their names to Swedish-sounding names for a very practical purpose--getting past the initial name prejudice to get an interview for a job. The fact is that if the name is not Swedish-sounding (despite education, linguistic ability, etc.), the applicant will rarely be interviewed. People recognize that non-Swedish-sounding names act as a signal that the person in question cannot speak 'proper' Swedish (rings a few bells re other DFS discussions, ne!), and this problem has been taken up in the press (perhaps the Japanese press will catch on someday).

In short then, I think Kume-san's comments indicate a degree of uncomfortable-ness that many Japanese are feeling about subtle changing going on in Japan. That is probably why he did not (or could not) meet the issue head-on by saying what you suggested, 'Isn't it ironic when an Indian speaks better than many Japanese?' (snip)

PN, Research Fellow, European Institute of Japanese Studies

Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden

Email debate ends. God, I love the internet. So many ways to feed your mind.


Things went pretty well, all in all, but I have to admit that the speedy fall (dare I even say "sabotage"?) of the issue bugs me. I've always been amazed at just how difficult it is to keep an issue on track when we're talking with a bunch of non-Japanese. Granted, this is the result of pluralism, and ideas aren't supposed to be the same, esp in a debate society like Fukuzawa.

But the need to "posture" in a debate is so much stronger in the West than in Japan, and with adverse results at times.

Then again, the Japanese approach is hardly better: "let the superior have the floor at all times unless your opinion is asked for directly", meaning top-down decision-making, makes crucial the need for good leadership (something I think anyone familiar with Japan would not accuse the Japanese of). But concensus here is more easily reached and goals tackled far, far better at times.

If only the twain would meet. The goddamn gaijin here all too often slap labels and shoot down, instead of constructively criticize, issues that might even be in their interest. Posturing on their nose to spite their face. One of the reasons we don't have a lot of rights in this country is because "gaijin" very rarely cooperate with one another. Nowhere even comparable to the "affinity" that Japanese choose to find. And even despite recent attempts to work together, the backbiting, the poured scorn and derision (as mildly evidenced above), and simple Devil's Advocating makes things inconclusive and static.

Don't misunderstand--I prefer the Western way of analysis far better than that which I see here. But I am still waiting for Western-style social interactions to shift a bit more towards valuing "cooperation", especially on what is arguably a good thing--fighting the callous and careless "imaging-down" of the gaijin minority in Japan.

Thanks for reading this far.

But believe it or not, it gets better. The issue leaked out of cyberspace and into the print media. Many Fukuzawans are reporters, and one took this up and made an article of it.

Want to read it?

Click here to access the Chicago Daily Tribune front-page article on the subject.

Click here to access the next round of the debate. I take on the word gaijin and describe how it is a racist sentiment.

Dave Aldwinckle
Sapporo, Japan

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