If you’ve been in Japan for even a few weeks, you’ll start to hear the word “gaijin”. For some foreigners living in Japan for the long-term, this word carries strong negative connotations with it, and many consider it an offensive racial slur.
The kanji, 外人 (read “gaijin”) has often been interpreted literally as 外 “outside” and 人 “person” = outsider, but the origin of this term is unknown to most foreigners as well as many Japanese. Many take offence at being referred to as a gaijin or outsider, and would prefer the more formal “gaikokujin” 外国人 generally interpreted as foreign national. Is this interpretation warranted and do Japanese people intentionally use this word as an offensive racist term?
Etymology: where does the word “gaijin” come from?
Funnily enough, the word gaijin doesn’t have the same origin, nor is it derived from or a shortening of the word gaikokujin. Thanks to this well sourced article, we can see that the first instance in writing of the use of gaijin can be found in Heike Monogatari*:
Prepare weapons even where there are no gaijin.
Here the word is used to mean enemies. Another example is in Renri Hishō, where a servant rejects the appearance of a travelling monk:
A gaijin doesn’t belong here, where children of the Genji and Heike families are playing.
Basically the original uses of the term suggest that foreigners are not to be trusted, especially around the children. The word gaikokujin was not used until introduced by the Meiji government in the late 1800s to refer to foreign nationals in a polite and respectful way. So, you might be thinking that this is pretty damning evidence that the word gaijin is in fact racist. Let’s hold off on judgement and think a little deeper.
Language changes over time
Not all racial slurs are as obvious as the ones currently frowned upon in the west. Let’s take some examples from English that you are probably familiar with.
Have you ever referred to something intellectual and civilized as high brow? How about a vulgar or ignorant comedian as low brow? Congratulations, you used a racial slur.
The Encyclopaedia Of Words And Phrase Origins points out that in the 1800s the white aristocracy believed that a protrusion in the forehead was the result of greater intellect, a falsehood that wasn’t concluded by any science, but more of a racial bias to dehumanise the people of Africa, who had a lower brow bone. This basically makes the terms “high-brow” and “low-brow” racial slurs.
In this old newspaper clipping high-brow refers to intellectual art, but low-brow…
Now if you have used this term before, don’t be horrified. It isn’t your fault. Language changes over time and original meanings are replaced by more up to date meanings that may have completely different interpretations in modern society. This is how it can be that in English speaking countries, mansion means a big family estate, but in Japan a word derived from the same source マンション (manshon) can mean an apartment block with typically small rooms.
Context is everything
It goes without saying that context is not only important in Japanese but in every language, and the word gaijin is no exception. With popular websites and blogs using the term gaijin lovingly (GaijinPot being most well known amongst them), it can raise the question as to why we get offended in some cases rather than others. Of course, in context this is a different matter. Many of us have experienced the distance at which some Japanese people (often older generations) regard foreigners living here, and hearing someone muttering “gaijin” under their breath on the train or in line at the ward office can be confusing and upsetting.
This is why in the interest of remaining sane you might want to separate the intention of what is said from the word itself. If a waitress at a restaurant uses the word gaijin in an innocuous way, it might be worth letting that water run under the bridge. But if you sit down on a train and the person sitting next to you says something about gaijin then gets up and stands halfway across the train carriage, then there is something less benign happening.
What are the real intentions?
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the philosophy of action, and one of the theories would say that whether somebody is being racist in their use of the term gaijin is completely down to twio things:
- The intention and
- The governance (understanding) of the person using it.
Donald Davidson championed this theory, and in this instance we could interpret the intention and governance like this:
A Japanese man uses the term gaijin intending to insult a foreigner in public and within earshot of other Japanese people who understand him, and observable by the foreigner to whom it is intended, whether or not they know if the foreigner can understand him.
This could be classed as a racist action because of the combination of the intention being to insult or harm, and the governance (understanding) that this is rude or insulting behaviour, yet choosing to do so anyway.
A 6 year old leaving school sees a foreigner on the other side of the street. They haven’t seen many foreigners in real life but have seen a few on TV and have heard a bit about them (this is a very common example in the countryside in Japan). They yell and point “外人だ!” (there’s a gaijin!) to their friends and they all start shouting “hello” at the top of their voices.
Could this be classed as racist? Action philosophy would say no because of a lack of intention to insult or harm, and a lack of governance by not knowing the connotations of the word gaijin.
Is ignorance an excuse?
A lot of people reading this might be thinking:
“We just need to teach kids not to use that word because it is racist.”
The thing is, that this is also a matter of debate for Japanese as well as foreigners. Many Japanese people use gaijin in a friendly way with their close foreign friends and without thinking that there is anything wrong with the term. If you ask Japanese people if they think it is racist, it might be confusing to them as many just think that this is the casual way to say foreigner. If natives of the Japanese language do not think that the word gaijin is racist, is it really right for non-native speakers (or even people who can’t speak Japanese at all) to feel insulted by it? Is this just a bad interpretation that has somehow spread through the expat community?
The most clear and compelling reason why you might still think that the word gaijin is racist is because it separates groups and creates an “us” and a “them”. You are a gaijin, a visitor or a guest in this country, and you will someday (soon) go back to where you came from. This can be especially upsetting for foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time, are married to a Japanese person and/or have half-Japanese (who are called ハーフ) children here. For foreign-looking or half-Japanese people born in Japan, getting mistaken for foreigners and treated differently because of this is a daily struggle. Imagine back home in America if people always asked you “where are you from” and said “wow, your English is so great” on a daily basis, even if you grew up there and English was your native language…
A friend of mine used to work in a travel agent and would regularly talk to clients on the phone. She was half-Japanese but grew up in Japan, and speaks Japanese like a native. When she would go to meet Japanese clients, for example to give them their tickets or travel documents, they would be shocked that she didn’t look Japanese as over the phone they assumed from her voice that she would be ethnically Japanese as well. For people who identify themselves as Japanese or who have a close affinity to this country, this can be a real problem. Ariana Miyamoto was the winner of Miss Universe Japan in 2015, but she struggled growing up as a half Japanese girl in Nagasaki. She said that in Japan people often assume that she is a gaijin, when in fact Japan is her homeland.
This word can become a kind of barrier for people who want to assimilate into their Japanese community, and it can really hurt to be considered an outsider in the country where you grew up or have lived and contributed to for a great deal of your life.
Do Japanese people decide how the word is received?
Maybe it isn’t (only) Japanese peoples’ word to use anymore. Foreigners living in Japan have been referring to themselves as gaijin for a long time, but it seems like a lot of people living here are very upset and hurt by this word. Do Japanese people get to argue that the word isn’t racist when foreigners feel like it is?
Nobody really owns a language. Even English isn’t actually owned by the English people, and as it has spread throughout the world there are versions of English that a person from modern day England might struggle to understand. Language and culture are not mechanistic, they are organic and evolve with the people who use them. So really, foreigners in Japan might as well own the word gaijin just as much as Japanese people, because the language we use belongs to all of us.
Martin’s Experience as a Fluent Speaker of Japanese
Culture shock is not what the word implies. It rarely hits you like a bolt of lightning. It creeps up on you slowly. It is the anxiety you feel before you are about to try to do something in a culture you do not know well. It is the the annoyances that creep up on you as day in and day out you get looks, stares and you hear people talk about you in front of your face as though you don’t understand.
Let’s not pretend these things only happen in Japan. It is a reality around the world, but if you are from the US or another western country you may not be used to being on the receiving end of that sort of treatment. As a Japanese speaker I certainly wasn’t.
Being a gaijin comes with its perks too
One day you are treated like a celebrity just for being from “somewhere else”. I have been interviewed on TV at least three times just for being the only foreigner in the area. My flat mate, Marco and I (the same Marco I talked to about getting a massive salary boost using the Grandpa Method) were once walking in Roppongi while it was snowing out. Amazed that we would dare leave our houses during the snowstorm, a film crew interviewed us on the spot. There were many other Japanese around that they could have interviewed. The film crew wanted our perspective especially because we were the Gaijin. My friends even spotted me on TV so I know we made it on NHK.
Once I attended a Toastmasters meeting (In Japanese), and I introduced myself to the room as was the custom and the entire room broke into applause. All I did was say who I was and I made a few brief comments about a few of the speeches. If I were a Japanese saying those things, I doubt anyone would have paid that much attention.
At other times, it can get to you. I mean, what if just about everyday in regular conversations you have, someone asks you, “Can you understand what I am saying? Can you read this? Can you understand that? Do you know what this word means..?” I was quite privileged with an education in Japanese, so my Nihongo wasn’t bad for most of my time in Japan.
People are constantly testing me in conversations in Japanese, with Japanese. They would often tell me how difficult Japanese is and that it is impossible for foreigners to speak it well. For those Japanese I would speak to, I can imagine that it was an eye opening experience for them to hear a foreigner able to talk about anything in Nihongo. For me though, it was just my everyday regular life. At first you might enjoy all the praise and attention, but after a few months and then years, you just want to be able to have regular conversations without all the excitement.
Let me give you a few examples of what I mean:
Coffee or tea?
While studying abroad in Japan, I lived in a prefecture just north of Tokyo called, Saitama. I invited my girlfriend at the time to visit Kawagoe. She was from Osaka and had never been to that side of the country. After 6 months in the area, I felt somewhat like an expert and here I was showing here around the Kanto area. While in Kawagoe, we strolled into a cafe. I said to the lady at the counter, “お茶はありますか” Ocha wa arimasu ka (Do you have tea?). The lady literally would not even look at my face. She looked to my girlfriend and put her hand over her mouth as to keep me from hearing and said, “コーヒーってことですよね？” Ko-hii te koto desu yo ne? (he means coffee right?).
I was pretty infuriated that she assumed just because I was a western gaijin I would think ocha and coffee are the same thing. I held in my anger and tried to politely order again. The lady never once made eye contact with me. I’m sure this has happened to you too, no matter how well you spoke Japanese.
I used to get kinda annoyed about ordering food with my Japanese friends with me. Many times the Japanese servers would ignore me or if I spoke, only respond to my friends. One time my friend just said to a waitress, “He’s right here. Just ask him.” Finally, she reluctantly did. Charlie’s girlfriend does the same thing on a regular basis.
Getting stared at… for long awkward periods of time (even in Tokyo)
What is also interesting is it took many of my very close friends years to believe some of the things that happened to me. I used to always complain in the beginning that I got stared at every day and often for long awkward periods even in Tokyo, and especially on the trains. My friend Kenji (not his real name) and his sister would always tell me how Japanese are polite and they would know better. Until we all took a trip together by train. They later told me how embarrassed they felt as Japanese for the behavior of the other people, but yet couldn’t deny that I got stared at literally everywhere we went. Ironically, by this time I was almost immune to it. After that Kenji and his sister noticed more than I did.
The same thing happened when Charlie and his girlfriend would go out in the countryside where she was living near Nagoya. People would stare at them, almost in an aggressive way, and while Charlie had gotten used to it by now having been in Japan for three years, his girlfriend was surprised.
Koreans and Chinese aren’t considered gaijin here
In a Facebook picture I was tagged in, there were several Chinese also tagged in the picture. A Chinese person commented on the picture in Mandarin and said:
“Hey Xiao (girl in the picture), I thought you didn’t like 外国人.”
I responded (shouldn’t have done it but did it anyway) saying that SHE is a gaikokujin here too because the picture is in Tokyo. A whole bunch of people basically then responded to me to tell me that Chinese are not Gaikokujin, they are 中国人 Chuugokujin (Chinese)… duh.
After many conversations with Japanese and other East Asians, I learned that this is just how things are in the view of most people. Maybe that is fair because the Chinese, Koreans and the Japanese have such a long shared mutual history, but western influence has been limited to the past few hundred years.
Japanese people are often afraid to speak to gaijin
Long long ago, I used to let my hair grow out. I don’t know if you have ever been to a Japanese barber shop, but it is amazing. They take the American barber shop experience to the next level and you even get a facial and a massage at the end, all included in the price. The minute I walked in the barber shop, I could see the shoulders of the barbers all rise. A tense look of fear came over their faces. They looked at each other and started saying:
“It’s a gaijin! Gaijin. Gaijin… I can’t speak English… someone else go talk to him.”
They weren’t shouting or anything, and they weren’t trying to make me feel unwelcome. They were just shocked that a gaijin would come to their shop.
I then spoke Japanese and literally, all their shoulders fell by three inches. Once the barber knew I could speak Japanese, he had a million questions for me. While I do not mind answering about my country and questions like “Do you like sushi? Can you eat Natto? What do you find difficult about life in Japan?” I don’t want to have those sorts of conversations every day of my life. The better you get at Japanese, the more people want to ask you these questions because I guess, they have always wondered and never had a chance to ask other foreigners because of the language barrier. The barber had one hilarious question:
あのさ、外国で。。。何を食べるんですか？ Ano sa, gaikoku de… nani wo taberundesu ka? (What do people eat in foreign countries?)
What a question! How do I speak for the entire world in one sentence?
The more Japanese you speak and the more you get out, the more bizarre questions like that you will get asked, but obviously these are not malicious at all. They are just questions people wonder about and I can’t blame them for that. Often people have heard lots of things about other countries in their education and in the media. They just want to hear if it is true from a real perspective (something we could all learn a lot from).
The more experiences like this we have or hear about, the more we realise that it doesn’t matter whether it is a racial slur or not, it is just upsetting for some people (though of course not everyone – some opinions here in this Japan Times article). The thing is that we cannot really change it easily and especially not without being able to speak Japanese.
I am a Martian
I also learned, some Japanese WILL NOT talk to you at all until you tell them where you are from. I got sort of tired of explaining in every single conversation where Michigan was (my home state). So, when people would ask me where I was from, I started to try to say something fun so I could have a few more interesting conversations. I would respond like this:
Sato-san (common name in Japan): What kind of person are you?
Me: I am an earthling (Chikyū-jin).
Sometimes I would really spice things up and say, 火星人です Kaseijin desu (I am a Martian). Actually a lot of Japanese would laugh at that joke. Some people even got the hint and just talked to me about normal stuff for a few minutes. Sometimes though, it didn’t go so well. I actually had one man get mad at me. He said I had to tell him. He got red in the face. I just walked away. It’s not like I have to explain where I am from to every single person I meet, especially when people randomly walk up to you while you in an actually interesting conversation about something than the countries of the world and interrupts you just to ask you where you are from. I ignored those people a lot.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I always have a great time in Japan. That is why I lived there for so many years. And I had and still have awesome conversations with Japanese. I and other gaijin friends would often tell our Japanese friend Kenji (again, not his real name) to not ask where someone was from when he first met them. We tried to encourage him to ask other questions. It took him about a year, but he later remarked he finally could do it, but it was really hard because the whole time they were talking, he was wondering where the other person was from.
I remember going with Kenji to a hostel in Nara. 90% of the people staying there were gaijin. He was bursting at the seams with curiosity about where everyone was from. But he did a really good job by just talking with people and letting them ask him questions before he asked them what their nationality was. This may seem really small, but for foreigners living in Japan this is a much nicer way to have a conversation that isn’t prefixed with the separation of nationality. I always enjoy meeting Japanese people that I can have a “normal” conversation with.
When in Rome…
No matter what your opinion on discrimination, we have to be aware that this is Japan. Many Japanese are not expecting to have to cohabit with us. Japan has only really opened up to foreigners in the last hundred or so years after centuries of being closed. You can say that this is no excuse, and it isn’t, but it is an important cultural observation that goes some way to explaining the Japanese mindset.
They expect to see us at the Shibuya crosswalk or Harajuku and places like Disney Sea, famous shrines or Mt. Fuji. They are usually not expecting to see us in their apartment buildings. While they are polite and will rarely say anything at all, it can really get on their nerves when we do things that seem just fine to us. The Japanese have a phrase very similar to one we have in the west. 郷に入れば郷に従え Gou ni ireba Gou ni shitagae. When in the nation of Gou (a feudal Chinese state of antiquity) adhere to the laws and customs of Gou. No better way I know to upset Japanese than to not follow the rules that they all live by, in their country. I’m looking at you Logan Paul. Here are some examples:
- Mixing up the trash incorrectly: If you put the trash in the wrong bin or out on the wrong day, know that you basically just committed a sin in Japan. People can get very angry about that as they have pride on how they keep order in their neighborhoods.
- Speaking loudly in public, especially on the trains: Some level of noise is tolerated at nights after many come back home from a night out at the izakaya (Japanese bar). But if you talk on the phone on the train, people will not be happy. If you sit in the priority seat area, don’t even text on your phone. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen Japanese (mostly elderly people) become visibly upset by foreigners doing that. Even I get a little 恥ずかしい hazukashii embarrassed when I see other foreigners doing stuff like that.
- Wearing outdoor shoes inside: It seems obvious but not to some people; just don’t do it. What you may not realize is that this is almost a spiritual thing for Japanese. In the past people believed that you carry the worries of the world on the soles of your feet, and that taking this into your house or your workplace brings that with you. It might sound odd, but this is the culture and it is important to respect it as a guest here.
- Pretending to not speak any Japanese at all the moment you are confronted about something. I have read many books and even pamphlets at city wards in Japanese and English that talk about this. Apparently a lot of foreigners do this whenever they get in trouble or Japanese just approach them about a rule. Japanese people aren’t stupid, and pretending you don’t speak Japanese when you have broken a rule is disrespectful and it just frustrates Japanese people.
This video by a Japanese teacher explains more in depth about certain types of gaijin that annoy Japanese.
Should You Learn to Tolerate The Word “Gaijin”?
While I don’t have an easy solution for whether the word gaijin should or shouldn’t be used, I do have a way that I have been using to deal with it and not let it bother me (as much). The idea that bad stuff happens isn’t new, and goes back to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, the fathers of Stoicism. Rather than despair that terrible things will befall you, if you know that it is a fact of the universe that bad things will happen, then you can come to expect it and thereby deal with it emotionally before it happens.
Let me give you a less controversial example. Imagine if you are looking for a phone provider and you settle on one that tells you:
“We have an entry deal for you. Join us and leave your other provider, and we’ll give you ¥1000 off your bill every month for the first year.”
The rep explains that you will have a rate of ¥5000 per month for the first year, then ¥6000 for the second year. You weigh the options and decide that this is a good deal. A year goes past and you get an email saying “from next month your bill will go up to ¥6000 per month as we agreed when you signed your contract.”
You might grumble a bit because you forgot about the 20% price hike, and nobody likes paying more for the same thing all of a sudden, but in the end you will pay it and not be too bothered because you knew this going in.
Now imagine that the rep never mentioned the ¥1000 price hike after the first year, and all of a sudden out of the blue you get an email informing you that your price is going up. You would rightly be angry, frustrated. You may even change carrier.
In these cases the actuality of what happened is the same, but the difference is your expectation, and that expectation causes a massive difference to you. So apply this to the word gaijin and your interpretation of it. Are you expecting to hear the word gaijin used around you and about you in Japan? For almost all of us the answer is “yes”, so you can really drastically improve your happiness and your contentment living here by adjusting your expectations as opposed to expecting that your environment will just change itself to match your needs. I’m not saying that this will be easy, and I still sometimes get frustrated at receiving the “gaijin” treatment, but it honestly does make it a lot easier to live here when you expect it.
For me, I expect to be called “gaijin”, overwhelmingly in an innocuous way but rarely in a rude way. I used to get annoyed by it all the time, but over time I’ve realised that it just isn’t worth getting upset about anymore. Living in Japan is the first time I have faced real and institutional discrimination in my life, and the word gaijin just isn’t worth getting upset over when there are bigger problems that I can actually deal with, like reaching my income target this year or achieving my long term goals for 2018 and beyond. There are a lot of great things about living in Japan, but being called gaijin and treated differently is a definite drawback. You just have to decide for yourself if the trade-off is worth it to live here.