November 28, 1996, just after 11pm

(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Fri, 29 Nov 1996)
(click here to see
previous articles in this series)

A month and a half after the initial snipe at non-Japanese who live in Japan and learn the language ("It's better if foreigners speak broken Japanese"--shikashi, gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hou ga ii), TV Asahi Network aired a segment on News Station that dealt with the issue. That is, as close as it could possibly get to the issue, given the inexorable constraints imposed upon news and topics in the Japanese media.

For the benefit of those who were unable to catch the broadcast, I will describe blow-by-blow, segment-by-segment, the show. I will then offer an analysis and describe the background tugs-of-war that caused the deflection, dilution, and destruction of important parts of this discussion.


In the last third of the broadcast, Kume introduced a series on Japan in the future. The title: "History Special, 'Looking back on the 20th Century--a time when the word "gaijin" still existed:'" Dateline: November 18, 2010. And that set the show's theme of flashback in motion.

The scene opened on a bowl of rice with a huge glob of nattou about to be eaten. The camera zoomed back to show Dave Zoppetti, intrepid News Station reporter (and the first full-time non-Japanese one in TV Asahi), chowing down on it (he in reality inexplicably loves the stuff). He is in his home, surrounded by his family. His wife, a dark-skinned woman of Jamaican (?) features, asks him what he'll be doing on Sunday.

The language used is, of course, Japanese. Wifely Japanese.

His brown-skinned young son, in Japanese as well, calls him on a promise he made to come see his soccer tournament. Daddy Dave admits it's slipped his mind. Then his young-teen daughter, also brown-skinned and a native Japanese speaker, reminds him to help with her homework. He calls foul, says wait and let father finish watching the TV, and on starts the report:

The camera zooms in on the TV program. A voice-over describes Japan in the 20th Century, particularly in the 1990s: a country which became rich, had a go at internationalizing. But back then, people of non-Japanese origin were designated as "gaijin", and the word was in common use. Here's how one gaijin felt about it:


Nichol, who up to then had lived in Japan for 34 years, didn't like the word. As the waves broke on the rocks of the island where he lives, he described how he's forgotten that he's different from the people around him. He's been living amidst them most of his life. Yet some people still call him a gaijin, as though he's an outsider. Doesn't give him a good feeling, he said. What is the need for the designation at all--the division of peoples? Shows narrow-heartedness.

The camera then cuts to a cityscape and we get pie-chart information about a phone survey, taken by TV Asahi of 1000 Japanese people (with a response rate of 65.6%). The results:

"Do you use the word gaijin?" 51% said yes, 49% said no.

"Do you think foreigners would feel uncomfortable with you using the word?" 51% yes, 41% no, 8% don't know.

"Is it a discriminatory word?" Well over half (61%) said no, 34% yes, 5% didn't know.

INTERVIEW WITH TONY LASZLO (11 years' residence)

Then there was talk about ISSHO KIKAKU, with a scene of Tony operating the Japanese ISSHO web page. Tony gave the preliminary results of the "gaijin" survey of non-Japanese (recently announced on Fukuzawa--refer to, which indicated that more respondents 1) felt that the word "gaijin" is discriminatory language, yet that 2) being called the word doesn't bother them.

Tony managed to slip in a qualifier to 2), saying: respondents that "weren't bothered" (heiki) were largely those who had given up (akiramete iru) and decided that things were just this way in Japan. Not that they actually liked being called the word.

Then the report took a historical bent:


Foreigners started coming in after the Meiji Restoration, and to illustrate that period, we saw a recreation from a BBC show showing a knickerbockered Englishman being carried in one of those "wheelless rickshaw boxes" by Japanese porters. What word was used to describe him then? A child in a village cried out with a voice that would rival Paul Revere's: "An ijin (kanji: kotonaru hito l) is coming, an ijin is coming." And all assembled around a disembarking ijin.

So how did the word change from "ijin" (a person of differences) to "gaijin"(a person outside) in a span of 130 years?


Dr Tamamura said that many people think that "gaijin" is just a shortened form of "gaikokujin". Historically, "gaijin", or "guwai jin" in the historical hiragana, meant anybody who was not in your "in-group". Somebody who didn't belong, not from your village, etc. This was before there were any non-Japanese to be seen, so it meant "outsider", and could apply to any Japanese person. However, if we look at this dictionary from Meiji 42 (1910), we see that already there is an entry for "guwai koku jin", which means an extranational, and also "guwai jin", which now suddenly also means "guwai koku jin". So somehow the root meaning of "outsider" got appended only onto a person who came from outside Japan.

His important point is that the root of the word "gaijin" and "gaikokujin" developed separately, and are not simple abbreviations or non-hyphenations of each other.

School was out and it was time for a beer. We followed Dave Zoppetti inside his favorite Tokyo yakitoriya, "Koke kokko", run by a New Zealander.

INTERVIEW WITH GARY COX (6 years' residence)

It was more of an interview of a gaijin-run drinking establishment. Big yakitori and oshibori came flying over the counter, and Gary was too busy to speak his opinion. But the drunks there had plenty to say. Why do you like this place? "Cos the portions are big and the combinations of taste are unusual." Is Gary a gaijin?: "Of course he is. Look at him. Hey, he looks different. He's tall, I'm short." And Gary's place was packed full of people happy to be served his gaijin-style fare.

Then we got political. We went to work the next day and saw somebody working for politician Kosugi Takashi's office, dapper and clean-cut in a suit and tie.

INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN HILL (or Oka Makoto, 5 years' residence)

He didn't like being called a gaijin at first. Hey, after all his efforts to study and fit in. But nowadays, well, he takes no notice of it. End of point.

Then we zipped through a CD shop in Shibuya, where, hey, a blonde disc jockey spoke over the loudspeaker about the latest hit.

INTERVIEW WITH LIESL WILKERSON (?) (23 years' residence)

Tall and platinum blonde with plucked eyebrows and blue nail polish, Liesl has been here since age 5. She told a story of how she went to audition for TV shows, and the producers said that she was too Japanese-ish (nihonjin ppoi). Couldn't she act a bit more like a hen na gaijin (a "strange foreigner", or, really, "a gaijin who knows his or her place")?

Why does she have to act "strange"?, she said. Why is that a job requirement for somebody like her?

Then we cut to another "Japanese side of the story" bit:


He was ready with the standard Japanese "island mentality" (shimaguni konjou) excuse. Hey, Japanese society was shut for hundreds of years. You can't expect these sorts of attitudes to disappear overnight.

He went on to say, well, I've never used the word "gaijin" in a discriminatory manner, as far as he knows. However, if Dave or other people like him are hurt by it, well, maybe we should stop using it.


And Amano's face was on the TV screen, as Dave and family looked on. Dave laughed and said, "Gosh, isn't it great that we weren't living back then?"



After the video, we cut to the live broadcast. Our old friend Kume was at his desk, and Dave Zoppetti, looking sharp and rested despite a terrible cold, was ready to deliver the final words. But Kume got his in first:

"Congratulations on winning the Subaru Award [for a Japanese short story he wrote]. Well done. Even though you're a gaijin." (taishita mon da. gaijin na no ni)

Unfazed Dave fired off his conclusions:

The word "gaijin" to many is awkward because it puts fences between people. He thinks that the current use of gaijin as a word is going to die out. To illustrate, look at the word "gaisha" (foreign car). Ten years ago, in Tokyo, when a gaisha passed by, people pointed at how unusual it was. But nowadays, as foreign autos increase and become a normal part of the background, people notice them less and less and the word has been used less [NB: In Tokyo, at least].

The same will happen with the word gaijin. As more and more gaijin come in and become common, fewer and fewer people will take notice, and the need to distinguish between "Japanese" and "non-Japanese with words will diminish. In the end, the word "gaijin" will be a relic. He hopes.

And Kume added that it'll be more a case of "David Zoppetti" and "Kume Hiroshi" and less a case of "Japanese" and "gaijin". Right? Okay, after the commercial, more news.



The question comes up again: was it worth it? I know, the temptation is to for me to take it personally and be vituperative. Hey, my interview statements got bumped (strike three--LA Times on Tanii, Da Trib on Katakoto, now this; maybe I'm just no damn good at it), and it would be all to easy to fall ill from sour grapes. But I'll try to cast that aside (I made sure to sleep on this, drive, and teach a few classes before typing this up) and give a fair assessment, all things considered.

I think that anyone watching the show in its entirety would be near apoplectic if he had a stake in this issue. Look at the weighting: In ninety minutes (and despite being listed in the newspaper as the main feature), this whole report got a whole eleven minutes and 30 seconds (Yes, I timed it. Call me a beancounter.) Meanwhile, late-breaking news on Japanese baseball (the Giants Kiyohara and Ochiai debacles) got a full five minutes, a segment on Hashimoto's Administrative Reform Council (a very important topic if it actually reforms anything) got 12 minutes, and real news got the ration fifteen. Add in about fifteen minutes for commercials, of course.

But there was some real chaff in there! The longest segment was on Ogura Takashi, striker for J-League Soccer team Nagoya Grampus Eight, who was to represent Japan in the Olympics before a leg injury. The story of his life and brave recovery got the most time of all--a full thirteen minutes--and this was a follow-up to yesterday's *sixteen*-minute segment.

Then we had the weather. Just temperatures and weather maps? Oh no! They chose this night to show us how a barometer works--how flames under glass atop water-laden saucers suck up water inside the glass. How you too can make a barometer out of a PET bottle. They even demonstrated how an egg can be sucked into an Ehrlenmeyer flask if a piece of burning paper is inserted first! Five minutes of this, and my wife had to keep me from bending the spoon as I supped my evening soup.

And how about the report itself? Oddly tucked in after the weather, the last thing many people see before switching off at 11pm, even my wife said, "There was hardly enough time!" As a friend of mine put it, "Last night's Kume show was the worse kind of farce. It took 10 minutes to report that some people find the word Gaijin offensive and some don't? Hide the knives."

Worst of all, absolutely zilch was said about the issue that sparked all of this, even less the anchorman who started it. And to top it all off, that person went ahead and said the "g" word all over again, calling into question whether or not he is even aware of the nuisance he caused.


Okay, chill. I found out some information that adds a spoonful of sugar.


It could have been much worse; in fact, we were lucky we got it aired at all. For example, a reporter got sent overseas for three weeks to do a story on Germany's elections, spending gobs of money on travel and equipment, only to have a late-breaking story on baseball bump it at the last minute. And by the time airtime cleared up, Kohl was re-elected and the story lost its news value. Eventually, despite hundreds of man-hours of collation and zillions of yen expenditure, the report was never aired. That's life in the networks.

It turns out Dave Zoppetti had to cut a full *four* minutes from the "gaijin" report. That meant interviews from four other people, including Kent Gilbert and Glen Fukushima (who addressed the katakoto issue directly) had to be cut, much to many people's consternation. Fortunately, Dave's a reporter with a conscience who takes care of his sources. He called us all to apologise and explain, which matters a lot.


Sports is a sacred cow on Japanese news, because it guarantees an audience. Iit gets a fixed minimum allotment of time on normal news days, even more than normal if somebody is trading horses (over a third of all airtime on our hapless night). That's just the way it is, so tough titties.


Anyone who has worked with the press, particularly the Japanese press, knows that they feel a need to respect the sentiments of the status quo. What with Press Club cartelization of political issues, as well as the deferential tendency evident in non-Communist dissent in Japan, you can't get anything really strongly-worded out into public view. It gets diluted, deflected, if not destroyed. I myself have had a number of angry Doushin Letters to the Editor on the Kobe Earthquake watered down. "Yes, Debito-san, we agree that your sentiments about government incompetence are correct. But you can't say that in public in Japan. It's not the Japanese Way."

I have it on good authority that Dave was trying to get a handle so he could do a report. Fortunately for him, he got one; in addition to our letters, a FAX came in from the US Embassy complaining about Kume's Katakoto comment. Things like that get passed onto Dave these days, and he was able to get one of his ambitious projects--a report on the word "gaijin"--approved by his superiors. But the producer said the katakoto issue and Kume himself were outside the project boundaries.

So the word "gaijin" was all that could pass the censors. I think Dave did his best, given the constraints he faced.


It sounds simply batty, but Kume was joking down to the last stanza of this issue. "Gaijin na no ni" is meant to say, "Gosh, aren't we Japanese obtuse? We know that gaijin is not a nice word, yet we still use it day in and day out, not thinking about it. No matter what evidence is presented to us and by whom. People are just not going to change." I have to do some real mental cartwheels to see it that way, but after a few beers with ole Kume I might.

However, Kume knows about this. He knows what happened. And according to sources, anyone who takes his "katakoto comment" at face value, thinking that he really believes that gaijin ought to be dysfunctional, is just not getting what Kume's getting at.

So they say. But a person--who by definition will never be a gaijin--tosses the statement around like a frisbee in front of the whole nation, plays to the crowd without winking, and lets inane sentiments detract from his highly insightful and important news program, doesn't get any Brownie Points from me for professionality.

Dave Aldwinckle


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