(originally posted to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Wed, 23 Oct 1996, modified slightly 30 Aug, 2002, with addition made April 21, 2007)

This is an essay about the above words and the issues involved, not about the TV Asahi Anchorman Kume Hiroshi's "Foreigners should not be fluent in Japanese" Gaffe so much anymore. I reiterate my previous point that:

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

However, irksome is the fact that people try to say that "gaijin" is a simple truncation of the word "gaikokujin", and then imply that this whole thing is a non-issue. Wrong. And I will argue that in this post.


[NB: your browser might not receive the Japanese characters in parentheses]

Yes, from the original kanji, gaijin (ŠOl) comes out in English as a foreigner, and a gaikokujin (ŠO‘l) an extranational. But is that all they mean?

I agree, also, that there is a linguistic tendency for Japanese speakers to shorten long strings of kanji or kana into easy to understand buzzwords--Tsuushou Sangyou Shou (’ʏ¤ŽY‹ÆÈE becomes "Tsuusanshou" (’ÊŽYÈE, Kimura Takuya becomes "Kimutaku" etc. So isn't the removal of "koku" just a language breathing?

No. If so, why does the nightly news call North Korea "Chousen Minshu Shugi Jinmin Kyouwakoku" (’©‘N–¯ŽåŽå‹`l–¯‹¤˜a‘) instead of the much more convenient Kita Chousen (–k’©‘N)? Because of politics--these are words representing a people, and powerful people complain if they are not said right.

(Historically, it turns out, the words are separate too. Read writeup of Nov 28, 1996 TV Asahi broadcast on this subject here.)

Those critics out there in cyberspace who would say it's merely "a matter of linguistic preference, so forget about it" are ignoring an important facet of the issue:

Both gaijin and its more classy equivalent are not just words. They are epithets. About a group of people. And because of that, should the responsibility for their interpretation lie on the speaker or the people being addressed? The people being addressed, of course. In the rest of the OECD, as well in Japan as for many minority groups, this is the case. And that is how it should be, even in this omoi yari noshakai (society which thinks about others) that Japan claims to be.

But I digress. Let's go beyond topicality--the literal meanings of the kanji--and look at the context in which the epithet is often used. Is it generally a satisfactory situation for the people being referred to?

It is not. This word is part and parcel of the general reinforcement of Japan's uniqueness--the wareware Nipponjin caste system--which relegates the rest of the world to second-class status in the eyes of beholders here.



Why is gaijin such a problem word?


A friend of mine (American) was at one of those ubiquitous internationalizing (kokusaika) types of symposiums, he was introduced as the "foreign" speaker (made into "gaikokujin" for politeness' sake).

Not as a person from America with Americanized views. Foreign.

As if those views were so easily embodied and encapsulatable behind one person and, more to the point, one word. Japan has about 5% of the world's population. So my friend had been given the enviable task of speaking for the remaining 95%. Calling him an "American" might have come closer--double the percentage of the world, and far fewer people people to speak on behalf of.

But the fallacy of this style of thinking is left unexplored if the use of the word and the idea behind it is left unchallenged.


When I was in Venice this summer, Japanese tourists were everywhere. When a group of some youngsters were getting their pictures taken, one of the burikko there said, "Wait a minute until some of the gaijin come into the frame. The picture will look more exotic then." My wife even reacted to that.

Or take the time I was invited to the Sapporo International Communication Plaza a couple of years ago, to sit on the panel of one of their receptions for their homestays returning from America. One bureaucrat who just had to offer words on these momentous pushes for kokusaika recalled his visit to London. And how when he couldn't flag a taxi, a very helpful gaijin-san got one for him and gosh aren't gaijin-sans friendly?

After the homestays finished their comments, I as a panelist got a turn to address the homestays. I said:

"Y'know, it's nice that not one of you students, anyway, used the word 'gaijin' to describe your hosts. You just saw them as folks. After all, when you are in another country, YOU are the gaijin, not us."

And one stone unturned in the Kume debate was this: "Is it possible for an Indian in his own country to be called a foreigner?"

In English, it's not. But in Japanese, sure. Anybody not Japanese is a gaijin, so the meanings are NOT equivalent or completely comparable. "Gaijin" expresses a binary view of the world. You become either a 1, an "ichi-ro", or a "ze-ro".

So the bottom line is: do we as the people being represented by these sentiments just sit here and let it happen?

No harm done, right?



I talked this over with my Hokudai students again on Monday (love those guys!) and an interesting point came up.

"Gaijin is not meant as a bad word. It is just a word to show distinction between us and you. It is a natural fact that Japan is different from the rest of the world. Different language, different culture, long history, island country with hardly any outside contact. So why does 'distinction' (kubetsu) become 'discrimination' (sabetsu)?"

That gave me a good mental workout. Distinction in itself isn't always bad, despite the tendency to stereotype, and drawing generalizations is often a useful exercise. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that in many areas Japan is really quite different.

But there is a difference in reasoning between "Americans tend to stand on their rights more than Japanese" and "Japanese have longer intestines". The latter reasoning involves physical differences which are inherent to a group of people, and don't allow for exceptions (in, say, individual personality). This is the tack that many arguments in Japan about "we Japanese" and "you gaijin" take, even in terms of ideology.

How often have you heard about "Japanese thinking", said by pompous know-it-all-Japanese (and then told that if some Japanese don't agree, they haven't been "Japanized" enough)? Issues like these are not debated hotly enough in this society, partly out of politeness and deference, but more often than not because people here don't have the perception of those affected. So it is our obligation to let them know.

Still, generalizing is not in itself discrimination until it reaches the next stage--policy.

Once an epithetical idea is taken as a truism, even put into the equation that Japanese often use to define themselves, the walls of separation become all too clear. Then decisions are made about treatment of those in the shadow. It is very clear (we've discussed this countless times on Fukuzawa) that systems here actively discriminate against non-Japanese. Foreigners, and that includes Japan-born "Koreans" and "Chinese", cannot be hired on promotional tracks in the Japanese bureaucracy. Foreign academics are being fired from all strata of Japanese universities through national mandate. Japanese companies, even those overseas, lay off their "foreign workers" first and give promotional preference to the "natives". Lots more.

Clearly there is a discriminatory apparatus at work here, and if you don't believe that the shoots of discrimination lie in epithets accepted as "truth", I ask you to refamiliarize yourself with the arguments made by the Dixiecrats ("separate but equal") used to defend segregation in the American South. Drawing lines between whole people and having them left unchallenged makes for easy imbalances and abuses.

Okay, that being said, we've opened the sluice gates of "well, life is unfair for everybody", and "well, other countries do it too, so...". Leave it out. My point is that people adversely affected ANYWHERE can and should take measures to point out abuses--and do something about it like minorities everywhere can and should.

One way is to complain where appropriate. The other is to fit into the culture and national makeup. After all you are in this country, Romans and all that. Become Japanese if you have a beef about how you are treated as a foreigner.

Good luck.


Nope. You are either born it or not, which makes this whole package a caste system. This is where the element of racism floods in. Even if you were born in Japan, BY LAW you are not Japanese unless you have Japanese blood. Untainted, that is, to many--some have even argued that my children are not "nihonjin".

And even if you so choose to naturalize (I am considering it, believe it or not--if it means my job), you will still not be a nihonjin (Japanese person). I would have to advertise myself as a nihon kokumin (Japanese national), which is fine by me, but it says a lot about my ability to fit in.

And it also says a lot about our ability to play the game as Japanese tell us is proper. There is no proper channel for us defined by this society. So we have to make our own.

The first step is to acknowledge the image we are being given and deal with it.


I watched a penetrating PBS show called "Doubles" some time ago, about people of both American and Japanese descent who grew up in the US and Japan as children of Postwar relationships. One segment featured a "double" (as opposed to haafu, from the word "half", which is the word commonly in use for half-castes here) college kid talking about his life in America, and how he was fed up of being told that he must like sushi because he is half-Japanese, etc.

His point: "We should not let other people tell us what we are. We should be the ones telling you who we are."

And so should we.

(NB: That segment was not shown on the longer, Japanese-language version shown on NHK.)

Some of us are not guests here any more. Gone are the days when GIs would take their brides home and English teachers were only temporary workers profiting in their English-language bubbles.

People like me are here for the long term. I am a landowner in this country as of a month ago, with a thirty-year loan. My wife and kids are Japanese citizens with Japanese as their native tongue. I pay taxes and ten percent of my salary into this country's groaning social security system. A permanent resident, I make a contribution to this society the same as any other Japanese, if not more so at times. But I am not entirely co-opted into this system, and will not be.

Yet people out there in Fukuzawaland, who are not in the same situation at all, go and posture disrespectfully that Japan has always been this way so shut up. If you were in the same position, your viewpoint just might change.

So I am not going to sit here and let people tell me that I should just sit back and adopt a "guest mentality", and let Japanese nationals around me say whatever they damn well please in Japanese because it's their language. Language and ideas are products of a country but they are not property, immune to criticism by "nonmembers of the club". A sentiment that somebody finds objectionable should be noted as such. Especially when it is spoken to the whole country on a news broadcast by the anchorman, no less.

I say it again. We gaijin are a minority because we are pushed into it, and cannot escape it. And we have a disadvantage--being a group so uniquely pluralist it is hard to agree on much. However, that should not preclude trying.

We might not be able to make certain words go the way of Little Black Sambo, but towards certain epithets and attitudes, well, we do what we can, when appropriate.

But those who would blithely say forget it, that there is nothing discriminatory or racist to the word "gaijin" etc have, I daresay, either not felt the full spectrum of its use, or have too few eggs put into their basket over here to care.

Those who don't want to make inroads for our rights here care too little about who they are, and are all too willing to be told who they ought to be.

And if you don't want to fight for your rights, get out of our way. We have a lot of work to do.

Dave Aldwinckle


Well, well, well...  look what I found when going through a stack of old newspapers:
Seems people (especially the ethnic minorities overseas) don't like the word "Jap" all that much.  Even though to some pundits it's just a shortened form of "Japanese". Just like "gaijin" is just a shortened form of "gaikokujin" to others.

Note how an ethnic minority (the one targeted by that word) stands up and say so. Much like the ethnic minorities in Japan might do the same, ahem.

Except if we do that, we're often dismissed as "oversensitive", "guests" or some such (often by the ones targeted by the word too, ironically).

Don't mind the word?  Fine.  Kindly step out of our way as we who do try to do something about it.  It's a perfectly natural process when you live in a society, especially as a minority.

(click here to go on to another article on this subject which appeared in the English-language Daily Yomiuri)

(click here to read the conclusion to this issue--TV Asahi's broadcast on this very subject on Nov 28, 1996)

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