Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column on how “gaijin” concept destroys Japan’s rural communities


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THE JAPAN TIMES Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008
Gaijin mind-set is killing rural Japan

JUST BE CAUSE Column 8  DIRECTOR’S CUT, with deleted paragraph reinstated and links to sources.  Article inspired after several lengthy conversations with James Eriksson of Monbetsu, Hokkaido, quoted below.

‘Gaijin’ mind-set is killing rural Japan

Allow me to conclude my trilogy of columns regarding the word “gaijin” this month by talking about the damage the concept does to Japanese society. That’s right — damage to Japanese society.

I previously mentioned the historical fact that “gaijin” once also applied to Japanese — to “outsiders” not from one’s neighborhood. But as Japan unified and built a nation-state, it made its “volk” all one “community,” for political and jingoistic reasons. Anyone considered to be Japanese became an “insider,” while the rest of the world became “outsiders,” neatly pigeonholed by that contentious term “gaijin.”

However, old habits die hard, and “outsiderdom” still applies to Japanese. Even if not specifically labeled “gaijin,” the effect is the same: If Japanese aren’t from “around here,” they don’t belong, and it’s destroying Japan’s rural communities.

You don’t choose your ‘hood

Here’s the dynamic: Postwar Japanese society has been surprisingly mobile. Japan’s high-speed growth and corporate culture sucked people to the cities and overseas. Afterward, people found themselves unable to return to their rural hometowns because they no longer “belonged” there.

(Referential links here and here)

Consider this phenomenon in microcosm at the school level. Pluck a kid out of class awhile, then witness the trouble “fitting back in.” The readjustment problems of Japanese students who leave the fold, then find themselves socially isolated, are well-reported (there’s even an established term: “kikoku shijo“). And that’s after only a year or two’s absence.

It’s worse for adults. Whole classes of occupations do round-robin transfers throughout Japan. If they take their families along (called “tenkin zoku”), their kids speak of solitary childhoods unable to make friends. To avoid this, fathers often choose “tanshin fu’nin,” where the husband lives apart from his wife and children for years, so as not to disrupt the kids’ schooling. Thus transplanting in Japan is so painful a prospect that people break up their families.

People also move around later in life. Some want that quiet country home away from the rat race. Others want to be closer to their grandchildren, or have their grown-up kids closer to them during retirement. Yet after moving in they often find the locals distant.

“I know some ‘newcomers’ who have waited 20 years for someone to make them feel welcome,” says James Eriksson, a 16-year resident of Monbetsu, a remote seaport city in eastern Hokkaido. “It’s tough in Japan. There’s no Welcome Wagon. In Canada, when my parents moved to a small town 40 years ago, within two days somebody dropped by with flowers and coupons. Then once a month for a year Welcome Wagon had meetings for them to make contacts. People also invited them out. Thanks to that, my parents still live there.

“But imagine a new arrival in Hokkaido being invited to the local Rotary or Lion’s Club. Not likely. Newcomers need to feel welcomed, be included, invited to take part in things — not feel like the perpetual stranger in the room.”

Eriksson concluded, “You can always tell the tenkin zoku here in Monbetsu. They don’t tend their gardens. It’s a great metaphor for how they don’t feel like investing in their community. But without newcomers relocating here, Monbetsu will continue to shrink.”

Monbetsu is but one example.  As business and industry has concentrated in the urban areas (called “ikkyoku shuuchuu”), all of Japan’s rural prefectures are watching in alarm as they lose people to the big cities:  Since 2000, Tokyo’s population has risen by 3%, Nagoya by 2.5%, while the Kansai region stays at equilibrium.  However, rural regions like Hokkaido (-1%), Tohoku and Shikoku (-2%) are watching people flee, and property values drop by double digits (Hokuriku by a stunning 35%).

Can’t even give it away

In fact, according to the New York Times (June 3), Hokkaido towns Shibetsu and Yakumo are offering land for free if people build and live on it. Yet takers are few. Why bother if “outsiders” have to ingratiate themselves like stray cats, having no say for decades in how locals run things? No wonder people favor urban communities where everyone else is “from somewhere else.”

I know this firsthand because I once lived in a small Hokkaido farming town of 10,000 souls. It was only possible to make friends and get politically involved because 40 percent of the population were bed-town newcomers. Woe betide if you lived in the surrounding towns, however.

Here’s how bad it’s getting: The Economist (Aug 24, 2006) mentioned the village of Ogama, Ishikawa Pref., where everyone is above retirement age, and people are too elderly even to farm. The plan is — after everyone moves out and takes their ancestral graves with them — that Ogama’s beautiful valley will become a dump for industrial waste. Thus, in a nation where 40 percent of rural residents are older than 65, whole histories are winking out of existence, fine old structures are collapsing from lack of maintenance, and arable land is going fallow. Or worse.

Treating Japanese as ‘gaijin’

People are trying to reverse the trend, but again, exclusionary Japanese communities are strangling themselves. I witnessed this last July at a Hokkaido forum I emceed near Niseko, the site of a tourism and property boom thanks to Australian skiers and developers.

The forum launched Takadai Meadows ( www.takadainiseko.com ), an organic farm run by Japanese and non-Japanese (NJ). T.M.’s aim is to revitalize the local economy, bringing urbanites out to the countryside for fresh air, healthy locally-grown food — and perhaps even a pastoral home and lifestyle.

Attendees, including dozens of local farmers, were receptive but leery. I realized it wasn’t due to the “foreigner factor.” It was the generic “outsider factor.” During the Q&A, a newcomer Japanese farmer who had retired here many years ago said he still felt unwelcome. Why? Because despite all those years and investments he was still an “outsider.” A Japanese “gaijin.”

This must stop, for Japan’s sake. And believe it or not, the “real gaijin” are in the best position to show the way.

Save us from ourselves

Some of the most culturally fluent and conservation-minded individuals in Japan are not from “around here.” They are immigrants.

Consider author Alex Kerr, who preserves old houses and warns against public works concreting over Japan’s rich past. Or naturalist C.W. Nicol, columnist for this newspaper, who buys up Nagano forests before the loggers arrive. Or viticulturist Bruce Gutlove, who has helped revitalize rural Tochigi by running Coco Farm and Winery. Or Tyler Lynch, of Kamesei Ryokan in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, who seeks to save his local onsen town from crapulence and decrepitude. Or Sayuki, Japan’s first Caucasian geisha, who wants to preserve geisha traditions while opening things up to the modern world. Or Anthony Bianchi, twice-elected city councilor in Inuyama, Aichi Pref., who wants people to discover his under-promoted city, which is steeped in history.

Newcomers they all are, but they are also die-hard fans-cum-curators of things Japanese, trying to save ancient structures and cultures from public-pork-barrel, cookie-cutter “modernizers.” Many come from societies where centuries-old buildings are commonplace, so they know the value of their upkeep. They don’t fall for the scam of recycling homes and mortgages every 20 years, and have an innate appreciation of time-worn wood and stone over sterile concrete kitsch.

Non-Japanese as net gain

Best of all, NJ newcomers represent two absolute pluses. The first is as a repopulater. A native Japanese moving from one place to another is zero-sum: one community gets, another loses. Bring in an immigrant, however, and the entire country net-gains a new taxpayer.

The other boon is cultural. NJ aren’t necessarily culturally hidebound by the notion that “newcomers should shut up and wait to be invited in.” They’re also less likely to swallow the excuse of lack of precedent, i.e. “it can’t work because we’ve never done it here before.” Fortunately, NJ aren’t always expected to be familiar with or follow “the rules” anyhow.

These opportunities, plus the “can-do,” “make-do,” and “muddle-through” attitudes of many immigrants, make them invaluable for revitalization.

Friends must help friends break bad habits. Your friendly neighborhood “gaijin” should speak out against the word and the concept itself. “Gaijin,” in the sense of “outsiders who don’t belong,” is hurting Japan, because it ultimately affects Japanese too. Create the Welcome Wagon, not the Gaijin Cart.

Readers, lead the charge. Don’t accept “gaijin” outsider status. Open Japan and its communities to newcomers, regardless of where they’ve come from. Otherwise this very rich society, in every sense of the word, will continue to wither despite itself.


Debito Arudou is co-author of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants to Japan.” Send comments and story ideas tocommunity@japantimes.co.jp

32 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column on how “gaijin” concept destroys Japan’s rural communities

  • Nice way to round off the series. You took it in a new direction that I didn’t expect, but I like it and it rings true.

    Nice work!

  • You come off as very condescending, even imperialistic, in your stance towards Japan.

    I find it amusing that this article directly contradicts your earlier articles; that the idea behind the term ‘gaijin’ is not at all racist. It’s a facet of Japanese society – There are “in-circles” and “out-circles”, and they exist at a variety of social levels. Foreigners, therefore, are inevitably a part of the system.

  • All your arguments are fine about the positive contributions by the NJ newcomers to the otherwise declining Japanese society. Although you sometimes deal with distinct issues as if they belonged to one social phenomenon, and I don’t necessarily agree with all your analyses, I find your arguments well-organized and informative.

    The problem is that you still stick to your ill-conceived understanding of the term “gaijin.” In this column, your emphasis seems to be put not so much on language as to be on social issues. However, you have made clear that this piece is a conclusion to your two previous columns which were devoted to what I think was false accusation against the term itself.

    The most important analysis in this essay would be the “insider-outsider” mind-set of the Japanese society. You call it “gaijin” mind-set. That is where your problem lies.

    In the second paragraph, you write:
    “I previously mentioned the historical fact that “gaijin” once also applied to Japanese – to “outsiders” not from one’s neighborhood.”

    I have already pointed out in my comments to your previous columns that this meaning is already out of use. When you consider about the present-day language, you shouldn’t be confused with usages as old as Chaucer’s times.

    You are not necessarily explicit in the above-mentioned paragraph about whether you mean to say “gaijin” still means “outsider” in modern Japanese. In the concluding part of this essay, you make it clear.

    In the paragraph the second from the last, you write:
    “Your friendly neighborhood “gaijin” should speak out against the word and the concept itself. “Gaijin,” in the sense of “outsiders who don’t belong,” is hurting Japan, because it ultimately affects Japanese too.”

    Now, with this paragraph, it is apparent that you still contend that “gaijin” means an “outsider” in modern Japanese. That is simply false as I have repeatedly argued in my comments since this discussion was started by your August Japan Times column. Most regrettably, by being confused yourself, you are misleading your readers.

    When seen as a stand-alone piece of writing, this column is a reasonable one. However, that doesn’t compensate for the fallacies by which you criticized the term “gaijin” in your previous columns. Social causes you stand for are important. Language is important too. It hurts me when someone puts a false accusation onto our language.

    I really want you, and the readers, to read my comments since August, and try to understand what is there. I believe it helps make the situation better.

    My previous comments are posted in Debito.org as
    #34, #38, #41and #45 in the following link.
    Also #16, #37, #45, #52, #64 and #69 in tha following link

  • Question for you – PnetQ. I’m curious – Are you flawlessly bilingual? I have never in all my time here met a Japanese native speaker, (and I have met and taught hundreds if not thousands of people) that no matter how high there level has flawless English. Just as I think there aren’t many non-native speakers of Japanese (if any) who would be able to write absolutely flawless Japanese, especially at the level your articles are written at. Did you live overseas for extended lengths of time?
    As for the word gaijin – regardless of your semantic approach – it is an offensive word to a lot of foreigners, especially the ones who have lived here for a long time and been treated to the outsider mentality.

  • Buenos Dias desde Espana. I just moved here from Japan with my Japanese wife, to assume a new job. I am writing to report that as an EU citizen, and my wife the spouse of an EU citizen, we just moved to a new country, were warmly welcomed, and given ID cards, health cards, job & language assistance, housing assistance and all the rest without the mention of the equivalent “estranjeros” even once. “Community Residents” is our status, no values attached, no restrictions, no special privileges, no fingerprinting, (not even a passport check coming through Orly!) etc. etc. Equal treatment under the law, and generally, in the eyes of the locals who are just delighted when we try our best to communicate in Spanish. What a change. Good luck with the “Kampf!” folks. Keep up the great work Debito! Much appreciated.

    –Best of luck with life in your new home!

  • I am very confused. Please help me out.
    Who are non-Japanese (NJ)? I know that some of the “immigrants” you listed hold Japanese citizenship. Are they NJ or J?

  • Scott,

    No, I’m not bilingual in any sense. I’m a native Japanese speaker who was born and raised in Japan. I started to learn English as a school subject in junior high just as most Japanese kids do. Actually, I’m staying in Australia now, but with limited opportunities to use English, I’m afraid I have failed so far to improve my English skills. Probably, I can say I am better as a writer than a speaker in English. Anyway, thanks for your positive assessment of my writing. With very few responses to my comments from the readers, I was wondering if my English was not clear enough to put my points across.

    I know the term “gaijin” can be offensive. As is written in my comments, I propose that the Japanese stop using the term when they speak to foreign people. However, as is also written in my comments, that is not because “gaijin” has a derogatory, or racist, meaning. This distinction is very important to me.

    “Gaijin as a racist word” was the main theme in Debito’s previous Japan Times columns in August and September. We have seen considerable number of positive responses, almost enthusiastically supportive in some cases, to this notion from the readers. I’m glad that Debito didn’t use this expression in his column this time. It is not that he has explicitly retracted his contention, though.

    “A racist word,” as I understand it, is something you don’t use in any circumstances. I think “gaijin” can be used permissibly among the Japanese because it is not a derogatory, or racist, word. I’m insisting on this point not only for the Japanese speakers, but also for the foreign people in Japan. If you really understand what the term “gaijin” is all about, you may be able to avoid being unnecessarily disturbed when you happen to overhear someone utter the term in restaurants or on the streets.

    (I’m not saying the Japanese can feel free to talk about “gaijin,” “gaikokujin,” “foreigners” or whatever, with foreign people around them. They should be persuaded out of such behavior.)

  • >I know that some of the “immigrants” you listed hold Japanese citizenship. Are they NJ or J?<

    They are Japanese on paper only, but when they enter Japan their stamp in passport is not the same as “pure” Japanese get. I don`t remember this word, but is not “帰国”Maybe Mr. Debito can help me with this?

    –I haven’t noticed anything different about my stamp in my passport when I return to Japan, FWIW.

  • The biggest problem with this article is that it refutes your earlier assertion that gaijin is a racist term. After all, if there are Japanese who are “gaijin” in Japan how is it fundamentally racist?

    –Because those who are actually and explicitly labeled with the term “gaijin” are done so under racially-based paradigms.

  • great article debito, one of your best ever..i liked how you stuck to the facts, and the fact are that the word gaijin is a dirty ugly word that should be banned in japan..in fact i hope that the website http://www.gaijinpot.com will also change there name to something else..and it doesnt surprise me that in your article you stated that osaka has zero population growth..i think this is because the osaka government is so anti-international unlike kanagawa that continues to grow in every sense of the word..

  • >–I haven’t noticed anything different about my stamp in my passport when I return to Japan, FWIW.

    Thank You Arudo. I`m very surprised what you wrote but you are the one who can really prove it. I mentioned this because I`ve seen on JTV quiz with “tarentoz” in which one of question was regarding stamp at the entry to Japan for “pure” Japanese and naturalized foreigners. I was shocked that they still make us “seperate” even though you hold their passport. Maybe it has changed within 3 months…???


    –I double-checked just now. I have departure and arrival stamps from the GOJ dating as far back as 2005, and as late as Sept 2008. Nothing in those stamps indicates I’m any different from any other J citizen leaving or returning to Japan. Dunno how that squares with your source, but FYI. Debito

  • PnetQ – you are staying in australia now. are you now a gaijin where you live? would you like being called this name? i would be interested to know as most of my students cannot believe they could ever be gaijin anywhere in the world. they tell me they are japanese and all the other people (even in their native countries, mind you) are gaijin. my students range in age from 10 -20.

    and, by the way, your english letter-writing is marvelous.

  • A Man In Japan says:

    Does no one see the hypocrisy in what Betty Boop has pointed out here? The Japanese don’t expect to be called “gaijin” when they go to other countries?? But they insist that the word doesn’t have any negative associations when we get called “gaijin”!! Oh, I can feel, there it goes, its….my….BULLSHIT DETECTOR!!!!! Everybody over here still thinks that they are going to take over the world at some point. Thats why they are STILL all backwards.

    Yes this fucking word “gaijin” IS destroying Japan! Its certainly destroying my love for the place. I guess it’s no surprise that by reading this article that the Japanese treat OTHER Japanese as “gaijin”! Like, to go around calling people in your OWN DAMN COUNTRY frigging “gaijin” just because they come from a different area! I suppose it’s better for you Japanese to to make sure that you label SOMEone as a “gaijin” to keep the old cycle going, huh? Like if theres no “real gaijin” to label as a thief or just to blame, then why not call one of your OWN people a “gaijin”?!

    So no matter where you are in Japan I guess it’s pretty much “gaijin” who are responsible for the big, bad, things that happen.

  • Suppose two Japanese travel abroad.

    A: Wow! Look at the gaijin over there! (boke)
    B: Here, YOU are the gaijin! (ここでは、お前が外人や!) (tsukkomi)

    This is a classic joke. Google お前が外人 (You are gaijin).
    I bet Betty Boop’s students just didn’t understand her intension.

  • > “They are Japanese on paper only, but when they enter Japan their stamp in passport is not the same as “pure” Japanese get. I don`t remember this word, but is not “帰国”Maybe Mr. Debito can help me with this?”

    Nothing unusual in my passport when I re-entered Japan last year either, and the entire immigration process was swift (over in the time it took to stamp the passport) and clinical without so much as a raised eyebrow. In fact the only thing in my passport that even implies I may not be a Yamato-blooded citizen by birth is the photo.

    Getting into England on the other hand was a little more interesting. Naturally, immigration officers are more aware than anybody that nationality and ethnicity aren’t always related so there was no question as to whether or not the passport was legitimate, but the officer still called several others away from their desks to marvel at the spectacle of the white Japanese with estuary English. I was an immigration celebrity.

    (Apologies for getting a little off topic)

  • Betty Boop,

    Sorry for being late to respond to your comment. (It took time, really) I hope my answers are relevant to your questions.

    Betty Boop Says:
    “you are staying in australia now. are you now a gaijin where you live?”

    I think I use the English word “foreigner” in mind when I consider my status here if it is what you are asking. I may be using “gaikokujin” as well, but “gaijin” is the most unlikely choice. “Gaijin” to me is a word which applies only to the Japanese society, but nowhere else.

    Betty Boop Says:
    “would you like being called this name?”

    Do I like being called “gaijin”? Practically, it is impossible for me to be called “gaijin,” if I wanted to, because there are no Australians who speak Japanese in my neighborhood. Probably this is not the answer you expect, but it contains an essential element of the truth about this issue.

    The application of the term “gaijin” to Japanese staying outside Japan is a recurrent question in this discussion. I have already expressed my analysis in my previous comments. Maybe I could give it another try. Allow me to be repetitive.

    (1) What “gaijin” means
    First, you have to know the exact definition of “gaijin.” While “gaikokujin” is a notion about nationality – or citizenship – as is the case with “foreigner,” “gaijin” is a combination of nationality and quasi-ethnicity.

    It would be easier to grasp what “gaijin” means if you understand another term “Japanese” in advance. “Japanese” in a usual usage is also a combination of nationality and ethnicity. When someone is said to be “Japanese,” it is taken for granted that the person is Japanese in terms of both nationality and ethnicity. Such a notion is sustained by the reality of the Japanese society where the overwhelming majority of Japanese nationals are ethnically Japanese too.

    Now, with this understanding of “Japanese,” the term “gaijin” can be said to mean “Non-Japanese in terms of both nationality and ethnicity.” Such a wide categorization as “ethnically No-Japanese” must sound ridiculous to most of you. However, practically speaking, the ethnical element of “gaijin” usually means Westerners, but can vary according to the context.

    (2) “Gaijin” as “Non-Japanese”
    You have to be careful to understand the nationality element of “gaijin.” The nationality which “foreigner,” and “gaikokujin” as well, indicates can be anything. “Foreigners (gaikokujin) in Japan,” “foreigners (gaikokujin) in US” and “foreigners (gaikokujin) in France” signify different nationalities. On the other hand, the nationality in the term “gaijin” is always fixed to Non-Japanese because the term always includes being ethnically Non-Japanese.

    This is why I said above that I didn’t consider myself as “gaijin.” And I think this is also why your students “cannot believe they could ever be gaijin anywhere in the world.” To simply put it, Japanese won’t consider themselves as Non-Japanese in any circumstances.

    (3) Interchangeable usage of “gaijin” and “gaikokujin”
    Now, I’d like to call your attention to an interesting aspect of this pair of words, “gaijin” and “gaikokujin,” which I believe is worth considering. As I have explained above, these two words have very close and overlapping meanings, but should be regarded as distinct words. What blurs the distinctions between “gaijin” and “gaikokujin” is the fact that they are interchangeably used in various contexts.

    It may be simply that there are lots of careless speakers. However, there can be some ways to linguistically theorize this interchangeable usage. One of the candidates is the influence of the style on the speaker’s word choice. On top of the differences in the notions that the two words bear, they are different in regard to the style. While “gaikokujin” is basically written language, “gaijin” is definitely colloquial language.

    Therefore, there is no word with the notion of “gaijin” in the written language vocabulary, and no word with the notion of “gaikokujin” in the colloquial language vocabulary. When you want to convey the notion of “gaikokujin” in your casual speech, for example, you might use “gaijin” based not on the exact notion of the word, but rather on the style. It is possible to do so because the two words have such close meanings, and language is very much context-dependent. If you can communicate the intended notion with the help of additional information from the context, that is fine. That is how language works. This is why you can say to a Japanese in Australia, “Koko dewa anata wa gaijin desu. (You are a gaijin here.)”

    (4) Calling the people in their homeland “gaijin”
    Now let’s see another often-mentioned type of behavior of the Japanese. How can Japanese, while staying abroad, call people “in their native country” “gaijin”? Isn’t it absurd for Japanese tourists in US to call American people around them “gaijin”? Yes, it is. However, if you understand the exact meaning of “gaijin” I explained above, it is quite logical for them to do so. “Gaijin” means Non-Japanese. Japanese can refer to American people, whether in US or in Japan, as “gaijin” that is Non-Japanese.

    Having said that, I’m not supportive of using the term “gaijin” outside Japan. “Gaijin” can be effectively used only in Japan where foreign people stand out among the overwhelming majority of the Japanese. The Japanese who was unable to tell the differences between Americans, British, Germans, French, Italians and so on took up the term to cover the foreign people as one group, and have been using it up to now That is not the case when you are outside Japan, though. When you are in US, people around you are no doubt mostly American. There is no need to resort to such a vague word as “gaijin.”

    I don’t think there are very many Japanese who call people around them “gaijin” when abroad. I also believe the number is decreasing. Basically, such a behavior signifies their ignorance and unsophistication. Those who have gone to US as their first trip abroad may, in an uninitiated manner, call American people “gaijin.” However, if they are lucky enough to keep going abroad later to, say Britain, France and Germany, they will certainly learn to call the peoples in their visiting countries Igirisu-jin (British), Furansu-jin (French) and Doitsu-jin (German) respectively. I hope the Japanese will grow out of this kind of behavior in the end.

    (5) Japanese being called a “gaijin”
    Next, let’s consider how Japanese will feel when called “gaijin” while staying abroad. In my previous comments, I have examined the usages of the term “gaijin” and concluded that the Japanese should stop calling foreign people “gaijin” when they speak to them. Basically the same conclusion can be drawn from the situation in which Japanese staying abroad are called “gaijin.” The situations in which you are called “gaijin” can be divided into two types. They are situations in which you are called “gaijin” by someone who knows you, and situations in which you are called so by a stranger.

    When someone who knows you call you “gaijin,” it is offensive not because the term has a derogatory meaning, but because such a way of speaking amounts to disrespect to you. When you get to know someone, in order to be respectful to the person, you try to remember his/her name, and nationality if necessary. Not making such an effort, satisfied with calling you “gaijin” or “gaijin-san,” is tantamount to lacking enough respect, thus offensive. This analysis applies both to foreign people and Japanese when they are called “gaijin.” Therefore, Japanese staying abroad can be reasonably disturbed when called “gaijin” by friends or acquaintances.

    In Japan, foreign people may be called “gaijin-san” by a stranger. In my previous analyses, I have concluded this usage of “gaijin” can be offensive too although the reasoning is different from that in the above paragraph. Do Japanese feel offended when called “gaijin-san” by a stranger in a restaurant in US? Unfortunately, though, it won’t happen to the Japanese when seen from the linguistic point of view. When someone speaks to another in Japanese, the speaker knows, or is acting on the premise, that the addressee is Japanese. The Japanese language is a language which is spoken among the Japanese, and by Non-Japanese trying to communicate with Japanese. Therefore, any Japanese called “gaijin-san” by a stranger can be safely qualified to wonder why this speaker calls him so despite the fact that the speaker knows, or at least assumes, the addressee is Japanese. This makes this situation very similar to the other one: to be called “gaijin” by someone who knows you. For this reason, we cannot, and need not, think what will happen to Japanese in this type of situation.

    (6) Japanese being called a “foreigner”
    Lastly, I’d like to consider what Japanese will feel when called “foreigner” while speaking English. I think we have seen some readers try to come up, rather unsuccessfully, with English-speaking situations equivalent to foreigners in Japan being called “gaijin” by Japanese.

    Some of the readers opined that the term “foreigner” in English had clearly negative connotations. As a non-native English speaker, I don’t share such a sense. For this reason, I would have no problem with being identified, and referred to, as a “foreigner.”

    I wrote above “I would have no problem,” instead of “I have no problem” because actually I haven’t been called so by anyone so far except for myself referring to myself as “foreigner.” (I may have been called, but I can’t remember.) There are two reasons for this; one reason is social, and the other is linguistic.

    The social reason is that I live in a very multi-ethnic area in Australia. With people with really various ethnical backgrounds walking around on the streets, you can’t tell who is a foreigner, and who is not. Even if you could, it wouldn’t make sense to do so because I suppose there are too many foreigners to make such identification practically effective. If I may add one thing, this is quite a different situation from that in Japan.

    In order to understand the linguistic element, I’d like to remind you of one of the grammatical characters of the Japanese language, the existence of which makes the use of “gaijin,” or “gaijin-san” exactly, a commonplace in daily conversations. The Japanese language has a strong tendency to avoid second person pronouns in conversations. In place of the avoided second person pronouns are often used nouns denoting social statuses, or something similar to that, such as sensei (teacher or doctor), kacho (chief), okyaku-san (customer), untenshu-san (driver) and so on. The term “gaijin-san” is one of such words. The common nature among these words replacing second person pronouns is that they clearly bear the respect to the addressee. “Sensei” and “kacho” are respectful enough on their own. “Okyaku-san,” “untenshu-san” and “gaijin-san” can be respectful because they have an honorific, “san,” in them. Thus, the utterances including “gaijin-san” can be regarded as polite enough from the Japanese language’s point of view. However, I have concluded this usage should be stopped, all the same. For the reason of my conclusion, read my previous comments.

    The term “foreigner” in English cannot be used like “gaijin-san” in Japanese. You don’t call a foreigner “Mr foreigner.” The second person pronoun “you” is not avoided in any way. If you forcibly insert “foreigner,” into a sentence, like “you foreigner,” it would sound unnatural as English, if not rude. To call someone “Hey, you, foreigner.” would no doubt sound outright rude to everyone’s ear. Indeed, you can’t reproduce what the Japanese term “gaijin” does in Japanese by the English term “foreigner.” Generally speaking, it is an ill-advised idea to assume that you can always find the same linguistic phenomenon in different languages. For this reason, I think, I don’t hear the term “foreigner” spoken to me in Australia. If I did, the English expression with “foreigner” would be of different nature from that with “gaijin.” Therefore, I think, it would be of little use to compare my feeling in such a occasion to the feeling of foreign people called “gaijin,” or “gaijin-san” in Japan.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    A Man In Japan,

    I really want you to read this comment. I’m afraid this is a bit too long, but I have written this with you in mind as well. I believe it contains something relevant to your concerns.

  • >Dunno how that squares with your source, but FYI. Debito

    Hi Debito,

    I can only say again, that I`ve watched JTV tarento quiz in which they were asked a question about this stamp. I was very surprised. Anyway, if you have the same “circle” stamp with 帰国 then I cannot argue with you because you know better. I`ve never seen naturalized person`s J passport.

  • PnetQ – thank you for your response. it gives me a lot to think about. it still comes through in your answer, though, that the term gaijin (have been told over and over and over again that it is a contration of gaikokujin – so don`t get myself in a snit over it) can not be applied to japanese anywhere in the world therefore japanese are never foreginers – only japanese with foreigners all around them where ever in the world they may be – and you don`t particularly like it be that is the way it is. or am i wrong.

  • Betty Boop,

    Thank you for your interest in this issue. I’d like to post my additional explanations.

    (1) “Gaijin” as a contraction of “gaikokujin”
    Many Japanese say that the term “gaijin” is merely a contraction of “gaikokujin” which means “foreigner” in English. In order to get an academically reliable conclusion as to whether the present-day usage of “gaijin” really originated as a contraction of “gaikokujin,” you would have to go through printed material since the beginning of Meiji era when the government is said to have started to use the latter term.

    However, even if the term “gaijin” could have such an origin, that is not relevant to this issue at all. The point is that the two words, “gaijin” and “gaikokujin,” have distinct, if close, definitions and usages in modern Japanese. If a Japanese, when asked what “gaijin” means, say that it is a contraction of “gaikokujin,” and couldn’t add anything more, it surely indicates the person has never given serious thought to this issue.

    (2) Combination of nationality and ethnicity
    The bottom line is, as I wrote in my last comment, that “gaijin” is a combination of nationality and ethnicity, whereas “gaikokujin” is only about nationality.

    If I were to write entries for a Japanese-English dictionary, they would be:

    [ gaijin 外人 ] noun (informal) – Non-Japanese in terms of nationality and ethnicity
    [ gaikokujin 外国人 ] noun (written) – foreigner

    This definition of “gaijin” is being sustained by the reality of Japanese society where the overwhelming majority is Japanese in terms of both nationality and ethnicity. Accordingly, most Japanese are not accustomed to considering the two notions of nationality and ethnicity as distinct. I think it makes a sharp contrast to those from multi-ethnic societies such as US and Australia.

    I have noticed lots of readers who responded to this topic understand the term “gaijin” in terms of either nationality or ethnicity, but not as a combination of these two.

    For example, many readers, including you, argue that Japanese should be regarded as “gaijin” while staying abroad. In this case, “gaijin” is understood only in terms of nationality. In other words, “gaijin” is thought to be equivalent to “foreigner.” Actually, “Gaijin” means “Non-Japanese,” not “foreigner.” I’m afraid you still have this type of misunderstanding.

    Betty Boop Says:
    “… the term gaijin … can not be applied to japanese anywhere in the world therefore japanese are never foreigners …”

    The first part of your statement is correct, but the latter part is not. I didn’t say that Japanese couldn’t be foreigners. They are foreigners or “gaikokujin” while abroad. It is that they cannot be “gaijin” because Japanese cannot be Non-Japanese.

    If your Japanese students insist that they could never be “gaijin” anywhere in the world, I would suggest you ask them whether they think of themselves as “gaikokujin” when outside Japan. If their answers are positive, then ask them what they think the difference between “gaijin” and “gaikokujin” is. It would be a useful lesson to your students. I’m afraid there are lots of Japanese who don’t comprehend exact meanings of these words, even if their usages of the words are correct.

    On the other hand, I have also noticed some of the readers consider “gaijin” as no more than “ethnically Non-Japanese.” They insist that those who have acquired Japanese citizenship, but are not ethnically Japanese be called “gaijin.” This understanding of the term is also wrong. In order for you to be counted as “gaijin,” you have to be Non-Japanese in terms of ethnicity and nationality as well.

    (3) “Gaijin” and “gaikokujin” as interchangeable words
    Although they should be regarded as distinct words, the terms “gaijin” and “gaikokujin” are, as I have written in my last comment, often used interchageably. This very fact makes their distinctions rather evasive.

    The entries for a Japanese-English dictionary I proposed above would be modified as follows:

    [ gaijin 外人 ] noun (informal) – 1.Non-Japanese in terms of nationality and ethnicity 2.foreiner
    [ gaikokujin 外国人 ] noun (written) – 1.foreiner 2. Non-Japanese in terms of nationality and ethnicity

    For example, “foreign investor” would be translated as “gaikokujin toushika.” In this case, ethnicity would have nothing to with this notion, so the term “gaikokujin” is the appropriate choice. The term “gaikokujin toushika” would be used in documents, newspaper articles and advertisement. However, I suppose those who work in the security industry may say once in a while, when they chat with their colleagues, “gaijin toushika.” It is purely my guesswork, but I think it is likely. If such a thing happens, it is no more than economy in speech.

    That said, please bear in mind that this interchangeable usage doesn’t negate the importance of distinctions between “gaijin” and “gaikokujin.”

    (4) “Gaijin” is not a negative word
    If you mean to say that I don’t like the way the term “gaijin” is used by the Japanese, you are right.

    – I propose the Japanese stop calling foreign people “gaijin” when they speak to them
    – Logical it may, it is still rather ridiculous to call Non-Japanese “gaijin” in their home countries.
    – Basically, the term “gaijin” seems to be overused.

    I do admit there are many cases of ill-mannered behavior, or worse, xenophobic morons. Nevertheless, I maintain that the term “gaijin” doesn’t have a negative connotation. True, the term is an ethnicity-based concept, but it doesn’t contain any sense of superiority on the side of the Japanese. I do use the term, for example, when I speak to my family or as internal speech, and I have never in my life used the term with a derogatory meaning.

    Basically, what has created, and sustains, such a word as “gaijin” is the reality of Japanese society. What makes the term weird for foreign people, and particularly those from the multi-ethnic culture, is also the reality of their own societies. To resolve this long-standing grievances among foreign people in Japan, I think, we all must try to see things through the eye of other people.

  • PnetQ – thank you for all your thoughts but shame on you for using a word, you said yourself, you think is not nice. even if is with your family or as internal speech. i don`t use any of the derogatory words for other ethnic groups myself even if it is with my family and friends AND i take them to task when they do. as long as we do the us and them mentality, we are not seeing things through the “eyes of other people.” if japan is ever to really join the rest of the world (the UN for example) they will have to look at the world as the human race rather than the japanese and the gaijin.

  • Betty Boop,

    Please explain to me why “Foreigner”, “Alien” and “Non-Japanese” are not as derogatory as “gaijin”.
    I would simply avoid them because they are equally bad pragmatically in most situations, and equally non-derogatory semantically.
    The problem of the Japanese is that they use the word way too often, because of the reasons provided by PnetQ. I agree that the Japanese should not overuse “gaijin”, but claiming that the word is derogatory would not lead to an agreement, since such a claim is semantically unfounded.
    Just tell them that using “gaijin” is impolite. Don’t tell them that “gaijin” is a bad word. Then they will ignore your advice.
    If you still want to claim that gaijin” is a bad word, and hence to be obsolesced, I think you have to do the same thing to the words such as “Foreigner”, “Alien” and “Non-Japanese” .

  • Betty Boop,

    It seems I have already said all that I can say, but at least I would like to remind you of this.

    In the second paragraph from the last in my last comment, I wrote:

    ” … I maintain that the term “gaijin” doesn’t have a negative connotation. … and I have never in my life used the term with a derogatory meaning.”

    I’m not saying that the term “gaijin” is a derogatory word, but I use it without such a bad meaning. No. I’m just saying that the term “gaijin” is NOT a derogatory word.

    As for the “us and them” mentality, I have already examined it in my previous comments. For now, I cannot add any more.

  • PnetQ,

    I would like to add some applause on your level of English expression. You have done an excellent job of setting out your understanding of the issues. Thank you for taking the time and for creating such interesting reading.

    I would be interested to hear your view on how what you have written is applied to children with one Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent, particularly when the child is raised in Japan and is fluent both culturally and linguistically.

    My expectation is that while your view (and quite possibily the view of the majority of Japanese) is that “gaijin” is a binary term where you are either Japanese or non-Japanese (ethnically and by nationality) that there are many Japanese-born people who would qualify as being Japanese both ethnically and by nationality who by reason of their parentage (or in some cases by reason of their genetics) can be singled out as not looking “Japanese” enough and therefore somehow slip outside your binary “gaijin” definition.

    Is it your view that in order to be considered “Japanese” (and therefore by your definition Japanese both ethnically and by reason of nationality) you must also appear Japanese physically? Is physical appearance an essential part of ethnicity? Who determines who looks “Japanese” enough to avoid the “gaijin” category?

  • AJS,

    Before responding to your comment, let me make a correction. In my previous comment posted as #17, I examined the two terms “gaijin” and “Japanese,” and wrote to the effect that the Japanese tend to use these words as a combination of nationality and ethnicity. I still stand by this analysis, but I should have written “Nihon-jin (Japanese)” instead of “Japanese.” “Japanese” is not a Japanese word. (^-^)

    As you have pointed out, my analysis is that the Japanese have a binary world view consisting of “Nihon-jin” and “gaijin,” both of which are combinations of nationality and ethnicity. Your question is, broadly taken, about how the Japanese handle cases which don’t fit into this binary world view. Specifically speaking, you propose the issue of physical appearance be considered, questioning whether it affects the ethnic element in the binary world view.

    First, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not saying that the Japanese cannot step out of this simplistic world view. I’m not saying either that the Japanese unwaveringly uphold this world view, refusing to accept any contradicting realities. Contrary, this is merely a set of expectations prevailing among the Japanese which has survived so far because it hasn’t been challenged in their daily lives.

    True, there are some cases which require the Japanese to be explicit about the distinction between nationality and ethnicity. They are viable challenges to the binary world view. It is not that the Japanese language lacks terms to deal with nationality and ethnicity distinctly. The terms “Nihon kokuseki (Japanese nationality)” and “Nihon minzoku (ethnic Japanese)” are there for you to use. The problem is that most Japanese seem to be unaware that they are combining nationality and ethnicity into one set of notion when they use the term “Nihon-jin.” Basically, this is a reflection on the reality of Japanese society. However, while the society is always, if slowly, changing, language tends to be fixed. In addition, the more commonly a word is used, the more oblivious people are of the exact meaning of it. This is what the Japanese, and any people in the world for that matter, must be careful about.

    Now, let us examine your question closely. You ask whether children:
    1) who were born of a Japanese parent and a Non-Japanese parent,
    2) and raised in Japan, thus absorbed Japanese culture fully,
    3) but may not look like “Nihon-jin” because of their parentage
    are considered as “Nihon-jin” or “gaijin.”

    Practically speaking, the answer is simple and clear. They are “Nihon-jin,” never “gaijin.” Japanese law concerning nationality stipulates that if either of the parents of a child is Japanese, the child automatically acquires Japanese nationality. Because of their Japanese nationality, they cannot be considered as “gaijin,” whatever physical appearances they may have.

    Your case, Japanese children who don’t look like “Japanese” because of their parentage, would possibly be a challenge to the binary world view. The Japanese may be required to set up a new category: those who are Japanese by nationality but not ethnically so. However, as far as the issue of appearance is concerned, I don’t think the Japanese take that tack. Instead, they are most likely to simply enhance the notion of ethnicity to embrace those who have foreign appearances. The ethnic element of “Nihon-jin” is flexible, or vague, enough to make it possible. The children of your case, after all, may not look like “Nihon-jin,” but are linguistically and culturally nothing else but Japanese. Also, this conclusion is consistent with the legal conclusion I mentioned above.

    You have raised a question of whether “physical appearance” is “an essential part of ethnicity.” I’m afraid this is too big an issue to be justly handled here because it directly leads to difficult questions such as the definition of ethnicity, and the relation of ethnicity and race. As far as the issue of the terms “Nihon-jin” and “gaijin” is concerned, though, I think the physical appearance is not so much about the notion, as to be about the reality.

    A Japanese person who doesn’t look like “Japanese” is very likely to be regarded as a “foreigner,” or “gaikokujin,” by others unless the facts are known to them. I think this type of mistaken perception can be tolerated as long as it remains a matter of perception. As I have written in my previous comments, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese society is Japanese in terms of both nationality and ethnicity. Also, the overwhelming majority of those who look like foreign people doesn’t hold Japanese citizenship. Given these facts, it is impractical to try to raise awareness among the Japanese that a foreign-looking person may actually be Japanese.

    The more deplorable aspect of this issue would be cases of bullying. It is reported that those children who don’t look like Japanese are often bullied by their peers at school. Other kids may harass, or tease at, them by saying “gaijin” or “gaijin mitai (look like a gaijin).” Such a behavior must not be tolerated or overlooked at any moment in any way. All adults, whether teachers, parents or anyone in the community, must cooperate to lead their children out of such behavior, if noticed, and teach them how their friends are seriously hurt when treated like that.

    I think the problems I mentioned in the above two paragraphs derive from, and could be dealt with in, the reality, not the notion. On the other hand, there are cases where the very notion of the binary world view is challenged. Lately we saw one of such occasions when Prof. Nambu was awarded the Noble prize this month.

    First, it was reported in the Japanese media, and announced by the Japanese government as well, that three Japanese academics, including Prof. Nambu, were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics. Later, it was found that Prof. Nambu had acquired American citizenship, thus was American at least in terms of nationality. There has been a bit of confusion in the media and the government about whether Prof. Nambu should be counted as Japanese, particularly in the governmental statics of the Nobel awardees. (We have seen a discussion on this topic in Debito.org too.)

    On October 15, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced that Prof. Nambu “will be listed as an American in public documents to be issued by the Japanese government.”

    Here is an excerpt from the Mainich Daily News on Oct. 16.
    “‘Considering his current nationality, he cannot be recognized as a Japanese citizen. However, he had Japanese nationality when he made the achievements. In emotional terms, we would like to congratulate him as Japanese,’ said a ministry representative.”

    I think the government made a right decision. Attention must be paid to a phrase in the quote, “congratulate him as Japanese” the original language of which is “Nihon-jin to shite oiwai shitai.” Judging from the context, it is evident that this “Japanese,” or “Nihon-jin,” doesn’t include nationality. Well, this is the way language works. Also, the Japanese can, when necessary, handle nationality and ethnicity as distinct matters although it may have been done a bit awkwardly this time.

    — I don’t know how much more of this self-serving and long-winded kiben I can take…

  • PnetQ – i truly enjoy your writing and thinking. i don`t always agree with what you say. as a matter of fact i have a bone to pick with you. you say that “language tends to be fixed.” i do not beleive that to be the case otherwise for example: all nihonjin and those of us who can speak japanese would be “degozaru” all over the place. (in english we would be “thee” and “thou” all over the place) in this particular case is has yet to catch up with the reality of japan. the reality of the world getting smaller and smaller due to the ease of travel and communication. see, language is used by living breathing humans and thus changes. just how quickly is another matter.

  • Hey Betty Boop,

    Would you please answer my question, as well?
    Why aren’t “Foreigner”, “Alien” and “Non-Japanese” as derogatory as “gaijin”?

  • i personally don`t like the “g” word. it has been used “on” me in various situations both deragatory and not. i have lived and worked here for almost 20 years so it was bound to happen. i suppose my main point is that, especially when the person`s nationality is known, that word should be used, such as egirusu-jin, amerika-jin and so on. i have had people refuse to do so. i don`t like foreigner nor alien but non-japanese is okay, but take exception when that word is applied to some one like my child who is bi-cultural. i don`t like the use of foreigner or alien in my own language but use “some one from another country” if the nationality is not known. i also use it in japanese when refering to others. i guess my problem with these words as used in japan is that i have heard for 20 some years from students, co-workers and aquaintances – gaikokujin (or gaijin) don`t take off their shoes when they enter a house. foreigners talk using big gestures. foreigners don`t know how to use chopsticks, ad nausem. well, there are other cultures that take off their shoes when they enter a house (turkey is just one example), there are other cultures that use chopsticks (china, etc.), that don`t use big gestures (some cultures are rather reserved). i feel that those words lump all non-japanese into one category. and that is the crux of my argument. don`t lump all non-japanese into one group and japanese into another. and the other thing that makes me really sad, after being a member of a group here in japan, sometimes for years, paying the same dues, doing the same things, all along i thought i was part of THIS particular group that we had worked and played and drank together and i find out i am nothing but the gaijin. i would much prefer being the “american member” than the gaijin.

  • Betty Boop,

    Betty Boop Says:
    ” … i have a bone to pick with you. you say that ‘language tends to be fixed.’ i do not believe that to be the case … ”

    Point taken. I should have said: Changes in language don’t necessarily synchronize with changes in the society.

    Thank you for your genuine interest in this issue, and I sincerely agree with what you said in your last comment. It seems to me that you and I are talking about almost the same thing, but different sides of it. For my opinions in detail, please read my previous comments. I believe you will find some of them at least agreeable. Be warned, though, that some of my comments are way too lengthy. Please be patient.

  • Betty Boop,
    Thanks for your reply.
    You didn’t answer my question directly, but I can see what you mean.
    Correct me if I am wrong. You are saying that you don’t like the usage of “gaijin”, but if other words are used in the same context, you would be upset as well.
    So I suppose this is a matter of the context, not the meaning.

    You say “non-japanese” is OK, but also say ” don`t lump all non-japanese into one group and japanese into another.”
    Well, in this sentence, isn’t the word “non-Japanese” lumping “all non-japanese”?

  • fuchikoma – yes yes yes, you are right – it is lumping all non-japanese together but i did say it was OK – not the best solution. as i said in my post above – i use and prefer “people from other countries” and that gives it a more non-lumping quality. and with the “lumping together” i meant it had more to do with the japanese view on cultural issues than what to actually what call someone from another country. again – i repeat – a person (or group of people) from a different country should be referred to by their nationality just as the japanese insist upon. if you have ever had the experience of being called a gaijin, gently correcting that person that you are a _____-jin and they refuse to refer to you as that, you would know what i mean.

  • Somebody (the “editor”?) added a comment to a recent post:
    > – I don’t know how much more of this self-serving and long-winded kiben I can take…

    As a long-term, and genereally sympathetic, reader of this blog and the associated website(s) I permit myself the comment that this is an inappropriate comment in several respects. I don’t know who the “I” is that added that comment, but I will address that person as “you” in this message. 🙂

    1) The detailed explanations offered by thew guy living in Australia are useful both on linguistic and sociological grounds (disagreement is part of educated debate, and it is not required or to be assumed that I agree with everything he writes).
    2) From some of the responses it was obvious that there were fundamental misapprehensions that needed to be cleared out, otherwise major points of the explanation would be lost completely – thus the repition of some information.
    3) Some people use language in sophisticated ways, and if you don’t understand it, please ask us who do what the writer might mean – some among us can translate if necessary. 😉 Belittling another person’s sophistication only shows ignorance – it certainly does not add anything constructive to the discussion
    4) If you disagree with the writer’s opinions or what he alleges to be certain facts, let us hear what you specifially disagree with, instead of attaching a snide remark.

    I hope you will delete the comment and thus return to the same level of civility that the other participants in the discusion have been showing.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!



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