Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 6: The case for “Gaijin” as a racist word


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan
Column Six for the Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column

By Arudou Debito
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
DRAFT TEN–version submitted to the Editor, with links to sources.

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080805ad.html

Gaijin“. It seems we hear the word every day. For some, it’s merely harmless shorthand for “gaikokujin” (foreigner). Even Wikipedia (that online wall for intellectual graffiti artists) had a section on “political correctness“, claiming illiterate and oversensitive Westerners had misunderstood their Japanese word.

I take a different view. 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.

Let’s deal with basic counterarguments: Calling gaijin a mere contraction of gaikokujin is not historically accurate. According to ancient texts and prewar dictionaries [see Endnote], “gaijin” (or “guwaijin” in the contemporary rendering) once referred to Japanese people too. Anyone not from your village, in-group etc. was one. It was a way of showing you don’t belong here–even (according to my 1978 Kojien, Japan’s premier dictionary) “regarded as an enemy” (tekishi). Back then there were other (even more unsavory) words for foreigners anyway, so gaijin has a separate etymology from words specifically meaning “extranational”.

Even if you argue modern usage conflates, gaijin is still a loaded word, easily abused. Consider two nasty side effects:

1) “Gaijin” strips the world of diversity. 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”. Thus you indicate the remaining 98% of the world are outsiders.

2) And always will be: A gaijin is a gaijin anytime, any place. The word is even used overseas by traveling/resident Japanese to describe non-Japanese, or rather, “foreigners in their own country”. Often without any apparent sense of irony or contradiction. Japanese outside of Japan logically must be foreigners somewhere! Not when everyone else is a gaijin.

Left unchallenged, this rubric encourages dreadful social science–ultimately creating a constellation of “us and them” differences (as opposed to possible similarities) for the ichiro culture vultures to guide their sextants by.

For those hung up on gaijin’s apparently harmless kanji (“outside person”), even that is indicative. The “koku” in gaikokujin refers specifically to country–a legal status you can change. The epithet doesn’t, effectively making classification a matter of birth status, physical appearance, race. Meaning once you get relegated to the “gaijin” group, you never get out.

Allow me to illustrate that with a joke from the American South:

Question: “What do you call a black man with a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard, who works as a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, earns seven figures a year, and runs one of the world’s largest philanthropies?”

Answer: “N*gg*r” (rhymes with “bigger”).

Hardy har. Now let’s rephrase:

Question: “What do you can a white man with degrees from top-tier schools, who has lived in Japan for more than two decades, contributes to Japanese society as an university educator, is fluent in Japanese, and has Japanese citizenship?”

Answer: “Gaijin”.

As a naturalized citizen I resemble that remark. But nobody who knows my nationality calls me a gaikokujin anymore–it’s factually incorrect. But there are plenty of people (especially foreigners) who don’t hesitate to call me a gaijin–often pejoratively.

Thus gaijin is a caste. No matter how hard you try to acculturalize yourself, become literate and lingual, even make yourself legally inseparable from the putative “naikokujin” (whoever they are), you’re still “not one of us”.

Moreover, factor in Japan’s increasing number of children of international marriages. Based upon whether or not they look like their foreign parent (again, “gaijin-ppoi“), there are cases where they get treated differently, even adversely, by society. Thus the rubric of gaijin even encourages discrimination against its own citizens.

This must be acknowledged. Even though trying to get people to stop using gaijin overnight would be like swatting flies, people should know of its potential abuses. At least people should stop arguing that it’s the same as gaikokujin.

For gaijin is essentially “n*gg*r”, and should be likewise obsolesced.

Fortunately, our media is helping out, long since adding gaijin to the list of “housou kinshi yougo” (words unfit for broadcast).

So can we. Apply Japan’s slogan against undesirable social actions: “Shinai, sasenai” (I won’t use it, I won’t let it be used.)
690 words

Arudou Debito is co-author of Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan. A fuller version of this article at www.debito.org/kumegaijinissue.html

Sources for ancient texts and dictionaries concerning the word Gaijin:

1)言海(大正14年出版)pg 299: 「外人:外(ホカ)ノ人、外国人」(Courtesy 北海道立図書館)
2)A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijisen (大辞泉), (p. 437, 1st ed., vol. 1). (1998). Tokyo: Shogakukan. “がいじん。【外人】② 仲間以外の人。他人。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ」〈平家・一〉”
3)”外人”. Kōjien (5). (1998). Iwanami. ISBN 4000801112. “がいじん【外人】① 仲間以外の人。疎遠の人。連理秘抄「外人など上手多からむ座にては」② 敵視すべきな人。平家一「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ」”
4)A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijirin (大辞林), (p. 397, 9th ed., vol. 1). (1989). Tokyo: Sanseido. “がいじん【外人】② そのことに関係のない人。第三者。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ/平家一」”
5)「外人もなき所に兵具をとゝのへ」 (Assembling arms where there are no gaijin) 高木, 市之助; 小沢正夫, 渥美かをる, 金田一春彦 (1959). 日本古典文学大系: 平家物語 (in Japanese). 岩波書店, 123. ISBN 4-00-060032-X.
6)「源平両家の童形たちのおのおのござ候ふに、かやうの外人は然るべからず候」(Since the children of both Genji and Heike are here, such a gaijin is not appropriate to stay together.) 鞍馬天狗
(All courtesy of source footnotes in Wikipedia entry on “Gaijin”, retrieved August 1, 2008.)

33 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 6: The case for “Gaijin” as a racist word

  • I see your point.

    However, in comparing “gaijin” and “nagger” [sic]
    the use of asterisks to obscure the word “nagger”
    while not doing so for “gaijin” seems to show us that
    the words are on completely different levels of offensiveness,
    even by your own example.

    Personally, I don’t mind too much, yet.
    The whole “Why should you care what other people think?” attitude.
    However, if it’s a government employee, I do get a bit miffed.
    But I suppose it will get more and more on my nerves as the years go by here.

    Then we could get into the whole “It’s OK for x group to use the word x amongst themselves, but not OK for people outside group x to use word x.” theory that seems to be accepted.

    Though in those rare cases back in the home country when I see Japanese people using the word “gaijin” to refer to EVERYBODY around them, I do want to trottle them and scream “YOU are the ‘gaijin’ here!”

  • Everything interesting and fine, but I don`t like the way you shortchange wikipedia. I know it is not perfect and still has limits, but think at the greatness of the project. An encyclopaedia written by the people, i.e. stripping the power from the “treshold keepers”. It is powerful, sure it can be bettered, but the idea behind it is just great.

  • Wow that wiki article was a long rant…actually it’s been deleted from the current version but you should definately keep the link to the archived version…its crazy!

  • “For gaijin is essentially “n*gg*r”, and should be likewise obsolesced.”

    Really? come on… You surely can’t be serious… The histories are completely different, and I would argue so are the intentions of the person saying it. The gravity of the two words, and what they imply are poles apart. These days, an individual using the N word **knows** the connotations, where as many Japanese people don’t understand the “connotations” behind the word “gaijin”, and consider it just a contraction.

    Furthermore, many of us bilingual non-Japanese don’t find the word offensive.

    I think it’s absolutely shameful of you to try to equate “gaijin” with the N word. You’re not black, and therefore you will never understand the deeper implications of the word and what it represents.

  • He’s already here. You’re on his website ^_^

    Still. We live in Japan. If we’re from America or Europe then the discrimination we get is IN OUR FAVOR. We get gifts others wouldn’t get, we walk through Narita customs because the staff there love a bilingual white guy, and there are, shall we say, various male benefits. I don’t mind being part of the “gaijin” segment of Japan when I’M BETTER OFF THAT WAY.

    Seriously, people reading this blog who don’t live in Japan, don’t make the mistake of thinking that all or even most foreigners here subscribe to these thoughts. I like Japan just fine, even though it’s not perfect.

  • Michael Weidner says:

    Peter Payne Says:
    “Still. We live in Japan. If we’re from America or Europe then the discrimination we get is IN OUR FAVOR. We get gifts others wouldn’t get, we walk through Narita customs because the staff there love a bilingual white guy, and there are, shall we say, various male benefits. I don’t mind being part of the “gaijin” segment of Japan when I’M BETTER OFF THAT WAY.”

    Yes, you do get things in your favour but here’s the double edged-sword to that; you’re being put in a different category just by the way you look. You will never be treated as an equal or looked at like you are the same; you are different and will be treated as such. I know some people aren’t as insensed by the word as the few of us who are, but you come to hate the word over time. I work hard, I pay taxes, I basically operate as a Japanese person would and have been told by a LOT of people that I should really just change my nationality to Japanese….but by being white, I get treated like I wouldn’t understand just because I am of that color. I do equate Gaij*n to the same as that N word. Gaikokujin is still the proper word and I’m fine with that but the contraction, as literally translated comes as “Outside Person”, or outsider. Some of you may not have had the luxury that Debito and I have had of having the old “Alien Registration Cards” that were green and said the previously quoted title at the top of the card. I had an inkling at that point to draw antenae coming out of my forehead as I was an Alien designated by the Government. I know this post has kind of meandered all over the place but my main point is this: When someone who has worked very hard to fit in, to be treated as an equal, to be accepted as someone who’s not just some stupid foreigner…..the Gaij*n word hurts.

  • GordonM
    The segment that don’t find it offensive are usually short-term english teachers whom are usually refered to as “Gaijin” in a positive light and thus they are not offended.(Because after all, who are they to protest a word which exists in a language which they, as “gaijin” cannot possibly call their own)That segment does not onclude people such as those born and raised in Japan or people who are in for the long haul. Moreover, I feel that many who are not offended by the use of the word towards themselves in an inappropriate context are usually people who unconciously harbor a superiority complex towards those using the word against them and thus it has no affect on the target. Of course, this is just my own speculation.

    Peter Payne
    I have been the target of discrimination both in favor and against myself. I hate both and cannot condone neither. Why the should I get off easy while my Korean and Chinese friends suffer? Why the hell can’t I be treated outright with the same contempt some Japanese have for so many of my friends? (foreign, zainichi, buraku etc)It makes me ill to know there are people whom say they “Don’t mind” Japanese racism because it usually works in their favor. (Not that this is a personal attack on you, please do not take it that way) In your own country would you not view superior treatment towards a white-male as racism which you cannot personally condone?

    I do not think it is a question of whether or not you like Japan. I love Japan and plan to live here until the day I drop dead from liver failure from too much “The Premuim Malts”. However, I feel although there are many opinions I do not agree with on this site, there is nothing wrong with what is discussed here everyday.

    Of course I am much too passive of an individual to even show my feelings when I feel as though I have been called a “gaijin” even in an inapproriate situation and even though I talk a big game on the internet, I probably wouldn’t have the bravery to strike up an argument in person on this subject with even a Japanese friend for fear of disturbing the “wa”. x_x

  • “GordonM
    The segment that don’t find it offensive are usually short-term english teachers whom are usually refered to as “Gaijin” in a positive light and thus they are not offended.(Because after all, who are they to protest a word which exists in a language which they, as “gaijin” cannot possibly call their own)That segment does not onclude people such as those born and raised in Japan or people who are in for the long haul. Moreover, I feel that many who are not offended by the use of the word towards themselves in an inappropriate context are usually people who unconciously harbor a superiority complex towards those using the word against them and thus it has no affect on the target. Of course, this is just my own speculation.”

    Well, Alex… sorry to burst your bubble here, but… I’m an engineer, not an English teacher. I’ve been here since 2001 and have no real desire to leave. I’m married to a Japanese woman and have a young kid. I’m from Australia, but of a northern European background (blonde hair, blue eyes, a little over six foot), and live in **inaka** Japan (believe me, I stick out here). My job requires me to speak, read and write Japanese at a high level. A lot of my friends are in similar situations, ex-pat engineers, ex-pat IT experts, etc. Of the ones I’ve spoken to about it, none find the term offensive. From my experience, I usually find the opposite of what you say to be true – the short termers with a limited grasp of the language find the term offensive.

  • I must admit the “G” word does have some sting. I have seen people use it mindlessly and I am sure that they have absolutely no bad intentions. (In fact, if you point it out to them that the word is offensive they will nearly break down in tears) But that doesn’t mean the word itself is innocent. The point is also that the user of the word is not the one who should decide whether its offensive or not. The person about who it is used is in the best position to decide that.

    I don’t know if I would equate it to the “N” word – but I would equate it with the much maligned “Jap”. I’m sure Japanese people find it offensive given its history, although many would argue it is just a shortened form of “Japanese”.

  • PeterPayne says:

    Still. We live in Japan. If we’re from America or Europe then the discrimination we get is IN OUR FAVOR. We get gifts others wouldn’t get, we walk through Narita customs because the staff there love a bilingual white guy, and there are, shall we say, various male benefits. I don’t mind being part of the “gaijin” segment of Japan when I’M BETTER OFF THAT WAY.

    Peter, I think you’re awesome and I love your website but I have to disagree with you here. Not all Japanese love a bilingual white guy and it can work against you. When I came through customs in March, I made the mistake of letting them know I spoke Japanese. They then proceeded to use me as a gaijin test-dummy, asking me the same questions repeatedly interrogation style, showing me pictures of the same drugs over and over asking me if I had any, making a big show of searching my travel wallet where everyone could see it, and then searching me and my white friend, who they had already cleared but called back after they got to me, in a half-open room with about seven guards in attendance learning from my example. When I went through customs in June, I pretended not to speak Japanese and still got the drug treatment, but no search. I’m pretty sure its because I made it clear I wouldnt be as convenient as before.

    Now mind you, I know full well that if my skin had had more melatonin in it, I may have been treated even worse. But I can’t agree with you that the discrimination is always in our favor, or even most of the time.

  • General question that I don’t see being specifically addressed: To what extent can general discouragement of the use of the word gaijin be expected to actually chip away at the ridged us/them dichotomy in Japan? Granted, I would suspect that the two, the dichotomy and the usage of the word, have a degree of reciprocal effect on one another, but is it not a tad naive to expect reduced usage of the word due to social pressures to have a significant effect in addressing the more core issue? Is it not prudent to be more forward in stating that, first and foremost, it is this dichotomy that is being attacked, not necessarily the word itself? Is it not the case that the word and its objectionable usage, in the end, are not a cause, but more so a symptom than anything else?

    I am not trying to state these questions in a purely rhetorical manner, though. I am genuinely interested to hear what others may have to say.

  • Another John says:

    My take on “gaijin” depends on the context at the time it is used and I feel that our host’s rant runs into political correctness territory. While I support the media’s sensitivity, there are times when it is easier just to say it and even refer to myself and other NJ as “gaijin”. The equation above of “gaijin” = “nigger” (and, yeah, I spelled it in its entirety – will probably get censored) is simplistic, inaccurate and ignorant.

    Honestly, censoring a word or encouraging its disuse is the worst thing you can do. One’s best weapon is to sharpen your verbal scimitar and fire back. Two examples…

    When “gaijin” is used as an epithet, you just have to get a tougher skin and ask, “So tell me in concrete terms, what makes a Japanese so Japanese?” “日本人は日本人になるのは、具体的に説明してくれますか?” I’ve fired this at some folks who try to use the Nihonjin/Gaijin thing as a barrier to understanding and it seems to work. The question pretty much flummoxes most people and those unwilling to entertain the notion aren’t really worth dealing with in the first place.

    Also, I travel overseas frequently. On many occasions, given one situation or another, I have had to tell Japanese abroad, “ここに、あなたは外人ですよ。” Usually, after roiling this around in their heads, they agree. It seems to be a new concept for them, but I have never had anyone challenge me on the idea.

    Than again, for most issues, I am as anti-PC as you can get. People everywhere need to get over this great “offensesensitivity” that has afflicted mankind for the past 20 years. If you’re NJ, you’re not from Japan. There’s got to be a word to differentiate.

  • Peter Payne

    Your comment about “various male benefits” , putting aside the irrelevance of the point, comes off sounding pretty skeevy, I hope you know. And for many people, your claim is just plain wrong.

  • The idea that Gaijin = Nigger is a horrible, horrible one. Seriously, do you actually KNWO the history behind the word besides the popular modern concept, “Using ‘Nigger’ is racist” ???

    Just a few very select and relevant quotes from:

    “There is a direct and strong link between the word nigger and anti-black caricatures. Although nigger has been used to refer to any person of known African ancestry,2 it is usually directed against blacks who supposedly have certain negative characteristics. The Coon caricature, for example, portrays black men as lazy, ignorant, and obsessively self-indulgent; these are also traits historically represented by the word nigger. The Brute caricature depicts black men as angry, physically strong, animalistic, and prone to wanton violence. This depiction is also implied in the word nigger. The Tom and Mammy caricatures are often portrayed as kind, loving “friends” of whites. They are also presented as intellectually childlike, physically unattractive, and neglectful of their biological families. These later traits have been associated with blacks, generally, and are implied in the word nigger. The word nigger was a shorthand way of saying that blacks possessed the moral, intellectual, social, and physical characteristics of the Coon, Brute, Tom, Mammy, and other racial caricatures.

    The etymology of nigger is often traced to the Latin niger, meaning black. The Latin niger became the noun negro (black person) in English, and simply the color black in Spanish and Portuguese. In Early Modern French niger became negre and, later, negress (black woman) was clearly a part of lexical history. One can compare to negre the derogatory nigger – and earlier English variants such as negar, neegar, neger, and niggor – which developed into a parallel lexico-semantic reality in English. It is likely that nigger is a phonetic spelling of the white Southern mispronunciation of Negro. Whatever its origins, by the early 1800s it was firmly established as a denigrative epithet. Almost two centuries later, it remains a chief symbol of white racism.”

    “The word nigger carries with it much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked African Americans. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal justification for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it reinforced the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless parasite. No other American ethnophaulism carried so much purposeful venom, as the following representative list suggests:

    * Nigger, v. To wear out, spoil or destroy.
    * Niggerish, adj. Acting in an indolent and irresponsible manner.
    * Niggerlipping, v. Wetting the end of a cigarette while smoking it.
    * Niggerlover, n. Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
    * Nigger luck, n. Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
    * Nigger-flicker, n. A small knife or razor with one side heavily taped to preserve the user’s fingers.
    * Nigger heaven, n. a designated place, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
    * Nigger knocker, n. axe handle or weapon made from an axe handle.
    * Nigger rich, adj, Deeply in debt but ostentatious.
    * Nigger shooter, n. A slingshot.
    * Nigger steak, n. a slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.
    * Nigger stick, n. police officer’s baton.
    * Nigger tip, n. leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant.
    * Nigger in the woodpile, n. a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.
    * Nigger work, n. Demeaning, menial tasks.5

    Nigger has been used to describe a dark shade of color (nigger-brown, nigger-black), the status of whites who interacted with blacks (nigger-breaker, -dealer, -driver, -killer, -stealer, -worshipper, and -looking), and anything belonging to or associated with African Americans (nigger-baby, -boy, -girl, -mouth, -feet, -preacher, -job, -love, -culture, -college, -music, and so forth).6 Nigger is the ultimate American insult; it is used to offend other ethnic groups, as when Jews are called white-niggers; Arabs, sandniggers; or Japanese, yellow-niggers.”

    And that’s just a sample; the whole article which goes in-depth on the issue with a plethora of examples and citations is at the link.

    The two are simply not equivalent Deibto. That doesn’t mean the word, “Gaijin” is good, it isn’t, and that doesn’t take away from the impact that, “Gaijin” has, but comparing the two words is like comparing apples and Mars. You are wrong on this one.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Strange that almost nobody has brought up the “Jap” argument yet. The Japanese dictionaries define it as an abusive term; the general population would appear to take offence at it - anyone remember a few years back when North Korean diplomats used the word at the UN?
    As I pointed out in a university essay years ago, “Jap” could be considered a mere contraction, although I’m sure you’d have a hard time convincing the general population that.

  • I am not really that bothered by the word “gaijin.” Depends on how it is used, of course. (Similar to references about my 192cm height: I hate it when I hear someone behind me say “Dekai!” (Or worse yet, “Dekeeee!”) To me, it has a negative connotation in there: too big, monster-big. “Se ga takai” sounds less negatively judgmental, more of a statement of fact. To me, at least; maybe I’m over-reacting.)

    In the end, “gaijin” is just a word. It is a word that should go away, because of its literal meaning of “outside person,” but as someone wrote above, it’s just one symptom of the real problem, one that doesn’t show any sign of going away, the us&them problem. Most Japanese people find it inherently impossible to really understand that a non-Japanese can read and write Japanese, for instance. So many times, I have been out with people who I converse with and e-mail in Japanese who are shocked to see me reading the menu. These are not necessarily good friends, but people I have long business relationships with, for instance.

    In most cases they know I have been here for almost 20 years, they know I have my own business, and regularly communicate with me via Japanese e-mails. So on one level, they know that my Japanese level is WAY higher than being able to read 生ビール or からあげ or 季節野菜 on a menu. THOSE are the people that *I* want to throttle….

    The hardest thing for me is that I can’t understand WHY people have this block. Why doesn’t it occur to them that they are being rude to me by being surprised that my Japanese is higher than elementary school level? And I don’t want to hear the old “shimagumi” argument. It’s time that one was retired, too.

    And JEEZ! Peter Payne was being at least mostly facetious. What is the matter with (most of) you people?

  • when I was studying oversea in Canada, I have heard my black classmates saluting each other with “what’s up, nigger?”. I immeidately informed them that “nigger” is an insult to black people, much like white trash or chin. Yes, maybe I am a language police, but I would prefer them not insulting themselves.

    It’s the same thing to gaijin. This word must die, and die quickly. I wanted to see this word being marked “obsolete”.

  • Long time reader, first time poster.
    I agree with you on many points, Mr.Debito however in this article you have made an inaccurate comparison.
    I would refer you to Alexander’s post on the Ethymology of the word “nigger”. It carries with it (among many things) the stigma of slavery.
    The joke where an intelligent black man is described in great detail and then called “nigger” is funny (to some idiots) because this is the word you would call your slave. Intimating that you would have ownership over him despite all his feats.
    In submitting the word “gaijin”, you have completely changed the joke and illustrated very well the difference between the two words, as “gaijin” only carries a minor social stigma in comparison. In this case you are showing that a Japanese person might still call a highly achieved individual “gaijin”, but this is in a context of the in-group, out-group.

    This just doesn’t work at all in trying to illustrate your point, and personally I think it severely detracts from your otherwise sound argument.

  • Im not a FOB (Fresh off the boat) in Japan (5 years) and married to a Japanese..I am also not offended by the word Gaijin, I think this isnt a cause worth taking up….

    Also, if you are offended by the word Gaijin then you give the word power, but if we use the word ourselves the power is taken away.
    There are many examples of this `Fag` for example, many gay friends of mine from Australia call each other this as a friendly joke, even Nigger has been owned and used by the group, thus reducing the power to hurt.

  • It seems what has to be said has been said already.

    I may as well add some things about how to understand dictionaries. Before getting down to my point, though, let me make it clear that I am a NATIVE Japanese-speaker, born and raised in Japan. (Probably, this information would have some relevance to this topic.)

    My point is:
    Debito’s excerpts from Japanese dictionaries in the ENDNOTE may not be incorrect, but are misleading. And the way he draws his conclusion from the excerpts is rather arbitrary.

    In order to support his argument that “calling gaijin a mere contraction of gaikokujin is not historically accurate,” Debito puts six excerpts in the ENDNOTE: four from dictionary entries and two from ancient texts. (As is stated in the ENDNOTE, they have been taken from Wikipedia.)

    Because these excerpts are cited there to clarify the historical meanings of “gaijin,” they are all ancient texts or definitions applied to ancient usages. That is fine. However, it must be noted that they are not exhaustive listing of the definitions of “gaijin” you can find in these dictionaries. Some definitions have been left out here, and some of them will contradict Debito’s argument.

    For example, I have Kojien (digital edition) at hand. Kojien is no doubt the most widely used dictionary in Japan, and cited in the ENDNOTE as #3. My Kojien has three definitions for “gaijin.” The first and second are same as those in the ENDNOTE. The third definition, which is not cited, is:

    3 gaikokujin (外国人), ijin (異人) antonym: houjin (邦人)

    As is clear here, Konjien is of the opinion that the term “gaijin” can be used in the same meaning as “gaikokujin.” (Please allow me to ignore “ijin,” or we will get into that endless word-after-word search for meanings.)

    You may argue that even if someone uses “gaijin” in the sense of the third definition, the first and second will resonate in the mind of the addresser and the addressee, and surely have influence on the real effect of the term. Yes, you can go along that line of argument, but it is not the way the lexicographers expect their dictionaries to be used.

    The fact that an entry in a dictionary has multi-definition doesn’t imply in any way that all the definitions attributed to the term are at work at the same time whenever the term is used. Some definitions may work concurrently. Some may work independently. It is all up to the context and the relations between the definitions. Among the definitoins applied to one word, some of them may have so close meanings that you don’t have to be reminded of. In other cases, the definitions may be so different that you are surprised to find them in one entry. It is for the lexicographers to decide whether they put those definitions in one entry or create another entry. No lexicographer, however, would contest that only those definitions that work concurrently whenever the term is used should be put in one entry.

    Please take up any English dictionary available, and browse through whichever pages you like. I think it is easy to understand what I mean. The words of basic vocabulary have a wide range of meanings. It is impossible to satisfy all the definitions when you use the word. Think of the OED, and the long lists of definitions there. It’s preposterous!

    Because I have mentioned the OED, let me remind you of the compilation policy of the OED here. If my memory is correct, the OED put the definitions in one entry in the historical, or etymological, order. That is to say, the oldest, original definition is put at the head of the list. The definition directly derived from the original one comes in the second. Then the next form of etymological development comes in the third, and so on. The OED assumes this policy for the academic purposes, but other dictionaries for daily use may put the most-widely-used definition at the head of the list. As for Kojien, it follows the OED style. Therefore, the first definition (“someone outside the group”) and the second (“someone to be considered as enemy”) are older usages than the third (“gaikokujin”), but it is no way implied that the former two are more widely used than the last.

    I feel, as a native Japanese speaker, the first and second definitions of “gaijin” in Kojien are out of date now. The original sources for the two definitions cited by Kojien are of publication of the 13-14 C. When you speak or write, do you care about how the people in the era of Chaucer will take your words? Well, … to be fair, I must concede that these old books are cited here to prove that these usages can be traced back to that far. It is not asserted that the first and second definitions were used only in such old days. As far as the description in Kojine of “gaijin” is concerned, the three definitions can all be in use today. It is merely my feeling as a native speaker, and linguistic experiences in Japanese, that tells me the former two are out of date. And I am no authority on this matter. I’m not going to insist on this.

    Sorry for this too long an entry. The following is my conclusion that I think everybody – you guys, Debito and myself – can, and must, agree on.

    As long as you consider dictionaries as something you can draw on to support your argument, you must understand and respect how they are compiled. In this particular case, the fact that Kojien has three definitions for “gaijin” doesn’t mean they are always at work hand in hand. Although the concurrent application is not excluded, they should be basically understood independently. And it is inappropriate to claim that you have relied on the dictionary when you have used only part of definitions and ignored the rest that may not necessarily be consistent with your argument.

    One more thing. I’m not going to deny you’re suffering from incosiderate use of “gaijin” in this society. As some of the comments have already pointed out, I think the problem is not the word but other elements behind it. And prohibiting the word would be the last, but the least effective, way to tackle the problem.

  • I disagree with Mr. Arudou’s comments on the usage of gaijin, and was amazed that after all of his theorizing on the word he offers no alternative for “gaijin/gaikokujin”. What does he propose we use instead of this?


  • Debito,

    Your Gaijin article triggered a funny memory. When I went to South Korea with my wife, at the airport there were signs in both Korean Hanguru and Kanji indicating where Korean nationals should line up and foreigners. Now, being that Korea is still technically a kanji using country, the sign indicating where all foreigners were to line up was written as 外國人 (Gaikoku jin). Let’s just say that I was in stitches just listening to crys of confusion coming from the Japanese passangers. Even my wife was confused. So I said to her at that point, “You see! Now you know how I feel when you and your family call me a 外人 (gaijin).” Needless to say, her and her family never used that word around me since that time.

  • Matt Says:
    August 8th, 2008 at 11:37 am
    Im not a FOB (Fresh off the boat) in Japan (5 years) and married to a Japanese..I am also not offended by the word Gaijin, I think this isnt a cause worth taking up….

    Also, if you are offended by the word Gaijin then you give the word power, but if we use the word ourselves the power is taken away.
    There are many examples of this `Fag` for example, many gay friends of mine from Australia call each other this as a friendly joke, even Nigger has been owned and used by the group, thus reducing the power to hurt.

    I totally disagree. As an African American, I can say with experience the power of that word and the history behind it. When someone uses it to insult or to make fun of us because of our race or color, the impact of the word has devastating consequences. And yes, I know, why is that blacks can call themselves “N” but Whites can’t? When a black person calls another black person the “N”word WE ARE THE SAME RACE, so we don’t feel a level of supremacy or having an inferiority complex. But given the history and the struggles, especially in the US and the way the word was used was to demean, belittle, humiliate, to use jokingly is totally beyond outrageous and hurtful. I was taught when I was growing up to never use that word, it was forbidden in my household, so when I hear other blacks use it, I have to shake my head. These idiot rappers (nowadays most of them) use the word inexhaustibly, so of course, people of all races think, it’s acceptable to use the word, not knowing the true meaning or the history behind it. So if my white friends were to use it to joke around and make fun of it. I would not stand for it. This time I can’t see the correlation with the word “N” If most Whites went to Harlem and dropped that word on blacks, I really don’t they will invite you in for a cup of tea and get all cozy, warm and fuzzy…think about it.
    and “Gaijin” although, I understand how hurtful the word can be to some people wanting to be accepted within the Japanese community and to get pelted constantly can be nerve-racking. But to equate Gaijin and the “N” I am afraid this one time you are way off-base.

  • im offended by the word gaijin, because i work in a high school and i often overhear my students using the word gaijin this and gaijin that..so i wonder why the japanese school system or my fellow japanese teachers never bother to teach the students to be sensitive to other races and cultures in japan. it seems to be that the japanese education system has no policy or program to education these young people so later in life they freely use this negative word whenever and wherever possible. also i think that the students use this word because they hear there parents or there teachers using this insulting word…

  • “Gaijin” is not by itself an offensive word, the problem only arises when one is arbitrarily grouped together with everyone else who is not Japanese.

    Being told that you are the same as people from (insert random country that is not your homeland) is ignorant and annoying. Being told you couldn’t possibly understand something because you are not Japanese is rude.

    If “gaijin” should be considered interchangeable for “outsider” then how is “Non-Japanese” any better ?

    “NJ” is just “gaijin” in disguise. It’s a bit like saying “That (black) guy is an N-word”.

  • Hi, it’s me. PnetQ again in this topic

    I’d like to correct the error I made in my previous comment which is posted as # 22.

    I Wrote:
    “No lexicographer, however, would contest that only those definitions that work concurrently whenever the term is used should be put in one entry.”

    This may convey quite the opposite of what I really meant. The verb in the sentence should have been “contend” instead of “contest.”

    I feel urged to correct it here because the error was made in the very core sentence in my entire argument. Without this correction, I’m afraid my previous comment would be left obscured, or worse rendered meaningless. Please take my apologies, and interpret my argument with this correction. This is what I meant.

    I don’t know why I used the word “contest” when I meant “contend.” I just grabbed the word when it popped up in my head, and used it, erroneously believing the two words could be used in the same way. No, I didn’t use a dictionary then. Interpreting dictionaries arbitrarily is one thing. Not consulting dictionaries at all is another. Both are reprimandable. Sorry for my blunder.

  • Many thanks for your column. After reading the above comments and those of posters at other Japan-related sites, I would like to urge you to do another, follow-up column on the term “gaijin,” if at all possible. Why? Because most readers seem to have missed the point.

    Specifically, many seem to have gotten hung up on your assertion that “gaijin is essentially “n*gg*r”.” The pat response to this seems to be “How in the world can he say that gaijin is the SAME as nigger, given the differing experiences and history of these two groups?” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect you did not mean to imply that the experiences of modern day non-Japanese and African-American descendants of slaves are the same. Rather, gaijin CORRESPONDS to nigger, in terms of function, insofar as it is an epithet, a caste, a category, a label, an expression of “otherness,” and to the extent that it makes attributions “that go beyond nationality. ”

    However, beyond that, as cogent as your column was I feel something important was left unsaid. And that something certainly wasn’t to be found among the subsequent occasional irrelevant attacks against you, the “none of my friends are bothered by the term,” and “it depends on the context” sort of remarks. The bigger point is that in this, the 21st century, in an increasingly interdependent world, where everyone living today on this speck of dust hurtling through infinite space is at the very least a genetic distant cousin, a mindset that necessitates a term like gaijin diminishes the Japanese themselves.

    –Thanks very much for the kind words. I’m pleased somebody actually read (and got) what I said. As for doing a follow-up column, I’m not sure how I can avoid people simply overreading and misunderstanding the text a second time. That said, next Tuesday’s Japan Times Community Page Zeit Gist column will be devoted to the apparent firestorm of letters that resulted from the column, so get a copy! Debito in Santa Cruz

  • not a whole lot to add to this but yes ‘gaijin’, ‘nigger,’ and ‘jap’ are nasty words with different backgrounds and toxicities. all can be used with or without malicious intent or insult. context is everything in language.

    as a long-time foreign resident of japan there are often contexts when i find ‘gaijin’ offensive, for many of the reasons debito addressed. i’d say ‘offensive’ was the default, much like with the other words.

    gaijin illustrates a sort of social infantilism, no?

  • peter payne,

    sorry but what nonsense are you peddling?

    some people are kind to westerners so its ok to discriminate against them in other areas???
    do you really think nobody in the west performs acts of kindness for foreigners??and that those who receive kindness can then be disriminated against in other areas?
    would you also suggest that because asians dont generally get id checked in the street unlike westerners then its ok to discriminate against them in other areas?
    if youre not going to help improve the situation for foreigners in japan -fine,but just get out of the way.

  • Peter Payne Wrote: “Still. We live in Japan. If we’re from America or Europe then the discrimination we get is IN OUR FAVOR. We get gifts others wouldn’t get, we walk through Narita customs because the staff there love a bilingual white guy, and there are, shall we say, various male benefits. I don’t mind being part of the “gaijin” segment of Japan when I’M BETTER OFF THAT WAY.”

    You are still in the what I like to call the “Ueno Zoo Panda Phase.”

  • I couldn’t agree with Debito more. “Gaijin” is a pejorative racial epithet. Moreover, at the risk of the ire of many readers, I think that his comparison of “gaijin” to “nigger” is extremely appropriate within the given context. In the broader historical context (namely, the degree to which the racism was taken), there are certain reasons why the two words are worlds apart; however, in his argument that “gaijin” is a purely racial, negatively charged label, there is no doubt of its suitability.

    Let’s compare how that question would be taken within their respective cultural and historical contexts. If you were to ask your average whitey in pre-1960’s America what words come to mind when they hear the word “nigger”, I would wager that their responses would be quite similar to a modern-day Japanese person’s when asked the same question about “gaijin”. Clearly negative responses such as “uncultured,” “dangerous,” “criminal,” “inherently different,” “lazy,” “big,” “scary,” would not be uncommon if the respondent were answering in a vacuum of honesty. Few and far between would be the more cultured responses such as “the word itself is distasteful” or “I can’t put labels on such a massive group of people.”

    The Japanese (and perhaps many people of color’s) response to that comparison would probably be outrage, seeing as gaijin in Japan were never made by law to use different drinking fountains or sit in a different section of the bus. However, therein lies the ultimate proof of the comparison’s authenticity, for though the degree of the racist treatment of gaijin and Americans of African descent are different, the racist undertone is the same. Gaijin in Japan are often sequestered to isolated areas of restaurants as to not offend the sensibilities of the Japanese patrons. Seats near gaijin on buses and trains are avoided like the plague. Kids at school are bullied with the word “gaijin.” Japan’s racism is just as widespread as America’s was near the middle of last century. The main difference is simply the degree to which it is openly expressed.

    Gaijin reflects the Japanese cultural preoccupation with “uchi” and “soto”. By being born ethnically non-Japanese, regardlessly of where I was born, I was born “gaijin,” born separate in the Japanese way of thinking. On the other hand, ethnic Japanese who are born abroad are, by and large, not subject to this label. Such people, though “issei” or “nissei,” are still Japanese. Therefore, “gaijin” is a purely racial label. It has nothing to do with degrees of assimilation into Japanese culture and society, Japanese language proficiency, or Japanese citizenship. As long as you’re Japanese, you’re part of the “ware ware nihonjin” clan and everyone else (hakujin, kokujin, ajiajin, etc.) can be clumped together under the gaijin banner. Returning to the analogy above, the core of the word “nigger”‘s power was in its fallacy of “separate but equal.” The word “gaijin,” in and of itself, represents separateness, and most Japanese (just as pre-Civil Rights white Americans did about African Americans) would argue that, although we non-Japanese “gaijin” are separate, that we are certainly equal here in Japan.

    I certainly don’t want to incense the passions of any readers of African descent who might misinterpret the scope of my agreement with Debito’s analogy of the two words. I will be the first to admit that, though I have become very familiar with racism here in Japan, I haven’t the slightest clue what it is like living as a person of African descent either in Japan or back in America, with its own dark legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. That doesn’t change the fact that “gaijin” is, as the word “nigger” is, a pejorative racial epithet that should be reviled and forced out of use as quickly as possible.


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