I’m constantly being reminded that the comments section of Tofugu (or any site, for that matter) can really take on a life of its own. My post a few weeks ago about weird ramen took an unexpected turn in the comments as people began to discuss my usage of the word “gaijin.”

Gaijin (外人, short for 外国人), or “foreigner” in Japanese, is a complicated word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Some people take the word lightly; when the Tofugu team was in Japan and a roller coaster we were riding unexpectedly malfunctioned, we joked that it was because the ride wasn’t designed to hold the weight of our giant gaijin bodies.

But for some people in Japan, “gaijin” can be a hurtful and alienating word. It can mean refusal of service at businesses, a barrier to entry for housing, or even threats of harassment or violence.


Photo by w00kie

I thought that I’d reach out to some bloggers living in Japan to see what their thoughts on the word “gaijin” were. I got a lot of great, varied, and nuanced responses.

Many people take no issue with the word and even embrace it to some extent. Lots of websites aimed at expatriates in Japan, like GaijinPot and countless other community sites and blogs, have absolutely no problem with using the word “gaijin.”

Hikosaemon, a man who’s lived and worked in Japan for over a decade, sometimes sees “gaijin” used in inappropriate contexts, but doesn’t believe that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the word itself:

To me, the word “gaijin” is slang for someone who looks like a non-Japanese. Because it is slang, it is not appropriate for formal contexts, but as slang, the appropriateness of its casual use is contextual—99% of the time, I think the way it is used is fine. It is the 1% of used with malice that causes most of the controversy. I do not subscribe to the view that its limited malicious use means the term should be made taboo. The term gets a lot of focus by people new to Japanese culture who become aware of the exclusivity of Japanese social circles and struggle with the feeling of isolation the culture can give new arrivals (just as it gives migrant Japanese within Japan).

The composition of the term as “outsider” and the feeling that this reinforces exclusion heightens sensitivity about the psychology behind the term and its use to many foreigners, as indeed it did myself in my early years in Japan. However, reactions to the term I think tend to show more about the person reacting than any psychology on the part of the speaker. Those with the greatest sensitivity to the term often seem to be bringing their own complexes to the table about perception of race in their home countries, and their own level of adjustment and language ability in Japan. It’s a convenient slang term that I use myself, and generally have no issue with others using unless the usage is in an inappropriate context—which is a problem you can’t fix by changing the word. We will just go from “Bloody gaijin” to “Bloody Gaikoku No Kata”, the term here is not the issue. It reminds me to periodic adjustments of politically correct terms for intellectually disabled people.

Hikosaemon touches on an the important issue of formality; for some, the informal 外人 is inappropriate in certain situations, but the more formal 外国人 or even the honorific 外国の方 are perfectly acceptable.

And while Hikosaemon wasn’t necessarily offended or alienated by the term, he and everybody I talked to recognized that “gaijin” is a word that can have a powerful effect on people.

I was lucky to talk with the Gakuranman who actually did a lengthy write-up about the word a few years back. He also thinks that the formality of the word makes a difference:

The word ‘gaijin’ (literally ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’) evokes a multitude of differing responses depending on who you ask. Although for most Japanese people the term is akin to saying ‘gaisha’ (foreign car) or ‘gaika’ (foreign currency) and no harm is meant, the word itself has picked up a lot of baggage over the years through repeated misinterpretation and reinforcement among foreigners who have visited Japan. Expats in Japan are often surprised and offended at being labelled as outsiders, especially if the term is used towards them despite their repeated efforts to assimilate. Some will even go as far as to think it a racist term because of the way it appears to ignore cultural diversity.

Those who have spent the better part of their life living in Japan generally come to accept the word and learn to distinguish between the negative, neutral and positive uses it can have in different contexts. Personally, I think it to be a clumsy expression to use within increasingly multicultural communities and feel it is better off avoided where possible because of the tendency to unwittingly alienate and offend people. If you absolutely must make the distinction between non-Japanese and Japanese when describing somebody in Japanese, use the word in full—‘gaikokujin.’ Otherwise I suggest sticking to personalized information about the individual.

Some people might not get personally get offended at “gaijin,” but are sympathetic to those that are. Eryk from This Japanese Life seems more or less indifferent to the word, but is understanding to those who attach negative connotation to “gaijin.”

Before I talk about the word “gaijin” I should mention that I am white. As a white American guy, my race has never been a liability. When Japanese natives on a train mutter “gaijin” to each other, I’m not offended.

White people have this superpower where we don’t think we’re actually a race, so we can laugh it off when we’re attacked for being white. But our Kryptonite is our corresponding need for victimization. When white, highly educated Americans from wealthy families spend a year abroad and get outraged by some overheard “gaijin” remark, I feel like it’s just the daily opportunity for outrage. I don’t care.

I have never been threatened by the kids with shaved eyebrows and pink tracksuits who call me “gaijin” just loud enough for their friends to hear it. There is no long, complicated history of shame that comes from being a white dude. The word “gaijin” does not register, for me, as a synonym for disgust and contempt.

“Gaijin,” though, is not like the words cast at minorities in English. Some expats seem to think that if they aren’t offended by it, they’re entitled to say mean, dumb things about other people. But there are words that are implicitly attached to threats of violence, words that carry the real resonance of hatred, words that tell a person, deliberately, that you think of them as nothing more than their race, or gender, or sexuality.

Someone reading this might have been traumatized by violence, or threats of violence, tied to being “gaijin.” If that’s happened to you, you have every right to hate that word. For foreigners who come to Japan with a history of oppression, “gaijin” on the lips of the nationalist parades marching through Osaka might be an ugly reminder of that kind of logic. But the word, perhaps stupidly, is nothing I’ve ever been afraid of.

I was happy that Ashley of Surviving in Japan had a bit of a unique perspective on the matter.

In our discussion, Ashley mentioned that her husband is a white American who was born and raised in Japan. It seemed clear to me that his situation influenced her opinion on the split between feeling Japanese and being considered as Japanese.

When I first arrived in Japan, I frequently heard that “gaijin” was a derogatory term—this is how some expats described it, anyway. But they also often referred to themselves as “gaijin” instead of “gaikokujin”. In my experience it’s often used this way in jest, as those of us who are unfamiliar with Japan repeatedly commit faux pas. There’s a steep learning curve to understanding Japan, its people and culture, and it’s difficult to ever truly fit into society. Even some Japanese who don’t meet social expectations are at risk of being ostracized.

I don’t believe “gaijin” in and of itself is derogatory, but it can be used that way. I didn’t experience this much other than kids stopping in their tracks, pointing at me and saying “gaijin!” I suppose one could say it would be equivalent to an American child who points at someone they “think” isn’t American and yelling “foreigner!” It’s rude.

That brings us to the point that anyone who doesn’t “look” Japanese in Japan is typically considered an outsider, which shows an underlying preference that being Japanese means that they have to “look it.” But what if you’re of another Asian ethnicity? What if you’re Japanese-American? Or what if you’re not Japanese at all, but were born and grew up in Japan? Depending on how you were raised, you might grow up feeling like you are “Japanese”, but then are constantly reminded that you won’t ever truly fit in because you don’t “look” the part. Bi-racial children (half-Japanese in particular) may, and often do, face similar obstacles.

So I don’t believe “gaijin” is always an issue, although it is attached to a set of stereotypes (which also vary, depending on your skin color and nationality). The main issue is this pervasive attitude of who can and can’t be truly accepted into society; and in many cases, gaijin can’t.

I would like to note that I’ve met many Japanese people who don’t have or agree with this attitude.

Other people I talked with had a staunchly negative view of the word. Jasmine of Zooming Japan is understanding of some of the contextual uses of “gaijin,” but on the whole feels that the word is very alienating, a constant reminder that complete assimiliation is next to impossible.

For the word “gaijin” it depends on who says it and in what context, but in general I consider it as rather negative.

Even though I know that most Japanese people don’t mean any harm, by using the word “gaijin” they make me feel like an outsider, like someone who doesn’t and will never belong here.

Based on my daily experience here in Japan the word “gaijin” is not equal to “foreigner”, but to “you ≠ we”. I often see that when Japanese people travel abroad and say: “Look! So many gaijin everywhere!”

They don’t even realize that they have become the gaijin for the time being.

That’s why the strongest association I have with the word “gaijin” is “outsider” or “somebody who is different.”

Being different can be something good or bad in the eyes of a Japanese person. For some, foreigners are beautiful, passionate and exotic, others think all foreigners are criminals. Based on that, the word “gaijin” can mean something good or bad.

Most of the time I hear people say “gaijin” and not “gaikokujin” or “gaikoku no kata” which I would prefer because it sounds more polite and doesn’t have such a strong connotation of “outsider”.

In the end it’s not the word itself, but the whole mindset that stands behind it:

If you live in Japan and people stare at you on a daily basis or kids point at you and scream “Gaijin!!!!”, then you will feel awkward.

You are not only different, but you also do not belong there. You are not Japanese. You are only a visitor, a tourist or a short-term resident. You will leave and go back to your own country. The idea that you might have been born in Japan and could be part of the “we” doesn’t even exist. And that’s very sad.

One of the most fascinating things I learned during this discussion was that Japanese use the word “gaijin” even in contexts where they’re the foreigner. And I thought it was especially interesting that not on did Jasmine point this out, but also Leah from The Lobster Dance.


Photo by JD Lasica

Like Jasmine, Leah also has quite a strong opinion against “gaijin,” feeling that it’s a limiting, alienating word.

I used to be of the mindset that gaijin could only be used BY foreigners. I even wrote a cooking section of my blog that used to be called “The Gaijin Chef.” Yet in the past few years, I’ve begun to understand betters the social implications of linguistics.

Why does this word make me so uncomfortable now? Part of it is the lack of respect, especially toward people in my generation who were born and raised in Japan but are not ethnically Japanese. They are not foreigners. If your Japanese parents immigrated to the US and raised you there, you would probably consider yourself American or Japanese American, depending on your view of the terminology as it relates to your personal experience. However, a child born to two non-Japanese parents in Japan and who has lived their whole life in Japan will not be considered Japanese. There’s a very strong link between race and nationality in Japan, and one of the ways it is supported is linguistically. Gaijin lumps tourists, immigrants, permanent residents, and citizens all together that appear to be a very limited concept of “foreign,” both in terms of appearance (white, sometimes black) and of experience.

Likewise, part of the reason I hate that word is the cavalier manner it induces when used. For instance, when Japanese people go abroad, they continue to use gaijin to refer to the native population. “There are so many gaijin in America!” No, you are the foreigner in this situation, but the attitude is that “Japanese people can’t be gaijin/foreigners.” I feel that the term just encourages a xenophobic and rude mindset, and getting people to understand why it is linguistically problematic will be a step in the right direction.

As for those who use it to refer to themselves, I think a lot of people go through a phase where they think, “Well, I am an outsider and it doesn’t bother me.” I’m reminded of several incidents in which some acquaintances who did not speak Japanese well claimed that to have never experienced racism in Japan over the course of the 3-6 months they had lived here. In a short period of time, that might be true, and without listening skills, it’s quite easy to miss. But as with sexism, everyday racism is not usually blatant or violent; microaggressions are easier to ignore or excuse, especially by the perpetrators. When you are not The Other, it requires imagination and often experience to even understand a fraction of what it is like to live as The Other. I understand the line of thinking “I’m foreign, so I will use gaijin,” but there’s a lot of cultural baggage associated with the term, and I don’t think we can reclaim it.

I was surprised at the diversity of opinions on “gaijin,” and am grateful to everybody who shared their views on this sometimes divisive and controversial topic. It’s clear from the variety of responses I got that there’s a lot of thoughtful dialogue about this word, and that there’s no one clear position on it from the expat community living in Japan.

What do you think of the word “gaijin?” Please share your story about your experiences in the comments.

  • Loviatar

    Well, I don’t see the word gaijin as a negative word on its own. Becuse, as a Finnish person, I think I see where it comes from (at least partially). This is because it seems Finns use the word “foreigner” in quite similar way to how the Japanese use the word “gaijin”, as a term describing the persons ethnicity. For a Finn, foreigner simply means non-Finn (aka non-white-as-a-sheet). Whether it has negative or positive meaning depends on the person using it and the situation. A skinhead using the word foreigner with cuss-words added before and after it, obviously uses it in negative way. If a regular, so-called “real” Finn describes a foreign-looking person (even if he had Finnish nationality), he is going to use terms
    that define the “non-white-Finn” as having roots elsewhere. These terms or the Finnish word for foreigner just don’t
    necessarily have any kind of negative or positive tone. Mind you, I DON’T think the “us vs them” separation words like “gaijin” or the Finnish counterpart creates is good, but that is exactly how I use the word “foreigner” myself. If I don’t know the non-Finnish person and / or his nationality, he is foreigner. If I know him, he still is a foreigner (but a foreigner I know). If he has the Finnish nationality, he is foreigner with Finnish nationality. Is this ignorant? Maybe. Is it backwards? Hell yeah! But is it racist?…No, not necessarily. If this is racist, then whole Finland including me is racist, which I don’t think really is the case.

    Where does this kind of separative words come from then? A partial reason at least is a non-multicultural history. That is an aspect Finland and Japan have in common. I saw my first black-person outside TV when I was in high school, and it felt strange. Why was it like that? It’s because most people around me here look exactly like me; pale, a bit pinkish (read: easily sunburn) complexion, high cheekbones and small noses. They behave just as I do: eye-contacts are just short glances at best, and our face is quite emotionless in public. If you haven’t gotten used to people looking and behaving differently around you, it IS scary when some of them do. Someone from a multicultural background won’t probably understand this. Does it make me racist that a group of Ethiopian men standing around on a street corner, creepily staring at me, scares the shit out of me? I’m hoping not, since I try to see people as equal individuals rather than mere ethnic groups. But I’m sure for someone this is terrible bigotry. I apologize is that is the case.

  • PostColonial

    “we should also compare it to other cultures and their terms”

    I think this is absolutely correct. There is no objective measure by which we can judge culture – and no single culture has a monopoly on truth or morality. The only real way to judge a culture is to compare it to others – look at how they are similar, how they are different; look at how they approach similar problems.

    I think one thing that people like Mescale above fail to comprehend is that NO ONE here is saying that Japan is the ONLY country that faces issues with racism and prejudice. We’re just saying that, compared to the other places we’ve been, we feel they could be handling it better. Other countries have figured this out – other countries (my own home of the US, for example) are still wrestling desperately with it – Japan can, too.

  • PostColonial

    “I once had a student try to use “gaijin” as a category and was asking
    all kinds of questions about “us”. Well, we’re all different…”
    My own stepson once said, after I had kissed my wife, “Jesus, gaijin love to kiss in front of people, don’t they?” I explained that, no, actually, in many countries kissing in public is considered extremely rude, and could very well get a person hurt – or killed. In other countries, light kisses could be casual greetings – in fact, if he goes to play soccer in Europe, he’d very likely have to kiss a man at some point.

    “People from MY country are ok with kissing in front of children. However, there are about 200 OTHER countries out there.” He got the point.

  • Toranosuke

    I used to be one of those people who thought little of the word gaijin, and who in fact used it plenty to talk about myself and my compatriots; I suppose I still am, the general feeling being that it all depends on the intention with which it is used.

    My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so my family, and my father in particular, has always been sensitive to the spectre of anti-Semitism. I’ve heard from various people that I should be offended at being called “a Jew,” rather than being called Jewish, or of the Jewish faith, or whatever. But, you know what, Jews and gentiles alike use the word Jew all the time with no negative meaning intended, and though I’ve never really been called kike, yid, or heeb, words are just words – being called a Jew is not the same as being called a “filthy Jew,” nor is it the same as someone explicitly saying horribly negative things about how the Jews control the media or whatever. In short, it’s all about context, and intention.

    In just the same way, being called a “gaijin” is not the same as being called a “stupid gaijin” or a “filthy gaijin.” Is it connected to a deeper, broader, more insidious and problematic notion of xenophobia and exclusion of the multiethnic? Absolutely. And I have taken ethnic studies seminars, in particular ones on indigenous issues and racism, and I’ve lived in places like Hawaii, where, too, whites are not only the minority, but are considered “foreigners” (or, not “locals”) no matter how long they’ve lived there. So, I’m well aware of the power of discourse, and the problematic conceptions and attitudes underlying the use of the word “gaijin.”

    But, I think that far more important than worrying about the word itself, we should focus on being offended by actual acts of discrimination, and systemic institutional forms of discrimination. I’m more offended by people assuming I don’t speak Japanese, or assuming I’m a tourist, or giving me trouble with this or that administrative procedure. I’m offended that I can’t get a cellphone without having a resident alien card (or whatever it is they’re calling them these days) because of certain ideas that foreigners are going to use them to commit crimes or something. I’m offended at the general discourse that foreigners are the cause of crime. I’m offended at the difficulty of finding an apartment that’s willing to rent to me. I’m offended at the difficulty of opening a bank account. I’m offended that no matter how good my Japanese may be, no matter how long I may live in Japan, no matter how acclimated I may become to the culture, and even if I were to become a Japanese citizen, I might always only be eligible for certain types of jobs (e.g. visiting professor) rather than other types of jobs (e.g. the Japanese equivalent of tenure track full professor). And, indeed, for Zainichi, for whites (or people of other ethnic/racial backgrounds) born and raised in Japan, for those of mixed ethnic background, I think it extremely problematic that people’s assumptions and attitudes, and various systemic things throughout Japanese businesses and institutions, are so focused on a monolithic, ethnically homogenous conception of Japan as a singular “us” that does not and cannot include “them.”

    The word “gaijin” only contains the connotations of all of those attitudes and discriminatory practices if it does so in the mind of the speaker, and/or in the mind of the person(s) being referred to. I have no doubt that discriminatory attitudes are prevalent in Japan, but I’d be very curious to go ask some of my Japanese friends – or random Japanese people on the street – if they consciously think of the word gaijin as meaning “outsider”, as meaning “soto no hito,” or what they think of the meaning and use of the word… Actually, now that I think about it, I feel like RocketNews24 did a post of precisely that sort of thing, interviewing Japanese as to their thoughts on the word. I can’t seem to find that post right now, though…

  • Christian

    外人登録証 is what “alien registration cards” are called all over Japan; it’s not just your (rural) municipality. In this instance, for me it seems more similar to the English “alien” or “registered alien.” Not offensive, just factual.

  • Hashi

    I can’t say that I’ve personally had enough experience with the word to form a strong opinion, but after this, I will be much more thoughtful about using it in Tofugu articles.

  • Hashi

    Do you happen to have a link to that long-forgotten blog post? I’d love to read it.

  • Luna Carya

    Reading the bloggers’ opinions on “gaijin”, I found interesting that the females have the strongest negative impressions of that word, while the males remain neutral or base it on context.
    I can’t really say I have an opinion on “gaijin”, as I’ve never been to Japan. My Japanese teacher, who is a blonde, green-eyed Mexican, told me after a trip to Japan that she was even spitted towards while being called “gaijin” or “American” by Japanese older people. If/when she could point out that she wasn’t “American”, those people warmed up a little towards her, and even apologized.
    I’m left with the idea that there are serious problems with some Japanese people about (selective) xenophobia and machismo. I can’t wait to visit Japan, so as to form a stronger opinion for myself.

  • Scott Lavigne

    Yeah, weird right?

  • MIJ

    How different is it to say Chinese gangs or Korean gangs, compared to the way US TV shows say Italian mobster or Mexican gangs? It is a generalization but is it necessarily racist? I am ethnically Chinese, and I do really believe there are a lot of crimes committed by Chinese thieving gangs, and moreover, they tend to be likely to involve murder or heinous acts than those committed by Japanese criminals.

  • Rurousha

    It always strikes me how often people refer to gai(koku)jin’s meaning as “outsider” or “outside person”, as though the word in
    itself labels you and reinforces its negative application.

    Ever wondered about the origin of the English word foreigner? It is derived from the 13th-century word ferren, foreyne “out of doors”; from Old French forain “strange, foreign; outer, external, outdoor; remote, out-of-the-way”; from Medieval Latin foranus “on
    the outside, exterior”; from Latin foris “outside”, literally “out of doors”. The Etymology Dictionary says it replaced the native word fremd, and that the meaning of “not in one’s own land” is first attested in the late 14th century.

    So, whatever the sociolinguistic applications/implications of the word gaijin, whenever you use the word foreigner, you’re also labelling others as “outside people”.

  • Jen

    I’ve never heard anybody make comments about Chinese or Korean gangs, but I have heard lots of general negative comments about Chinese and Korean people. Where did you get the talk about gangs from? Assuming that crimes are coming from gangs is one thing, assuming that anybody of a certain ethnicity is a criminal, or has poor hygiene, bad manners and is an unproductive member of society is another.

  • 21tigermike

    The bottom three characters 取次店.. mean Agency.. It’s an International Travel Agency or Relocation Agency of some sort. *shrug*

  • 21tigermike

    Confucianism. Yup.

  • zoomingjapan

    I read that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the agency’s name. If it really is their name like you say, then it’s a very bad choice. Don’t you think so, too? :)

  • Admiral Awesome

    I have no idea what you’re talking about or heard the usage of “bro”. It’s turned into a hip word that people use to meet each other. Just Google “bro” and see the stereotypical model. It’s not a black person, it’s a white person with a polo and his collar popped up with shades and a beer. I’ve never even heard it us negatively. Maybe that was a while back but I doubt anyone uses the term bro as a derogatory term anymore.

  • Flora

    Unfortunately not :( I found a lot of interesting nuggets here or there on Google, but I could never find them again. They were all really old posts (2006 or earlier) & from what looked like abandoned blogs, so they’ve probably been deleted by now.

    If it helps, I found it in the first place by Googling “Black in Japan”.

  • Locohama

    I forget sometimes that a lot of people on these japan related blogs are not native English speakers. “Evolved” means changed, as in ‘bro’ used to mean one thing, or was used in one way, but now it means and is used in another. And ai saw that college humor video. Hilarious and brilliant bit of satire (-:

  • goodandbadjapan

    There is nothing wrong with the word gaijin in and of itself. It is all down to appropriateness of use. It doesn’t matter that it literally means ‘outside person’. You could look into the etymology of countless words in countless languages and find examples that seem to show otherness, but very often it is not the actual word that causes offence, rather it is the manner in which it is used. If an old Japanese chap tells me I can’t use chopsticks or understand nature or hope to learn his language because I am a ‘gaikokujin’ I will be far more offended than I will be by a chap who tells me he thinks it’s stupid when all ‘gaijin’ are lumped together as one group. The first fellow is using the ‘polite’ word in a foolish manner, the second is using the ‘bad’ word to make a reasonable statement. I know which one I would be more uppity about.

    Of course, there are some words which reach such a level of abhorrence that their use in any context at all is frowned upon, but I think to suggest gaijin has reached that status is, at the very least, premature. Often, the word gaijin is used in inappropriate contexts in Japan, but then again so is gaikokujin and the choice of word doesn’t always make the expressed view more acceptable. Appropriateness and context are key .

  • PostColonial

    MIJ, I’m not talking about organized crime. I agree that the Chinese mafia are a formidable force.

    But I’m talking about scapegoating regular Koreans for regular crimes. Some people I know claim that ALL crime in Japan is rooted in the ethnic Korean community (it’s not).

    As for depravity, open any Japanese newspaper, and you’ll find at least one news story per day about a person murdering a family member, their own children – or a man murdering his girlfriend. In terms of depravity, I personally find little more sickening than what I read. Those crimes are NOT done by some foreign element introduced to Japan from the outside. That’s what Japanese criminals do to other Japanese people.

    I don’t mean to suggest that Japan is a crime-ridden nation – it’s not. It’s very safe, in fact. But it’s not as if being a safe nation makes Japan immune to some pretty fucked up crimes. Crimes committed by Japanese people against Japanese people. When you say, ” they [the Chinese] tend to be likely to involve murder or heinous acts than those committed by Japanese criminals,” I can tell that the myth of Japanese innocence has been spread far and wide. It is a powerful idea here and abroad that the Japanese don’t commit crimes. In fact, the scapegoating of Koreans isn’t even all that insidiously racist – Japanese people just have this underlying feeling that Japanese people don’t commit crimes, so it must be someone else doing it.

    But, no. The most depraved crimes that I’VE read about in this country were not done by foreigners of any kind. I personally see no reason whatsoever to give any credence to the idea that crimes in Japan are done by foreigners, not even the Chinese mafia.

  • Lauren

    What’s funny is that out of all my negative experiences in Japan, none of them have involved the word “gaijin.” Most have simply included people who have decided (for whatever reason) that they don’t like me.

    As others have said, it’s not “外人” vs “外国人” so much as it is the stereotyping and negative implications that often come along with it that are offensive…

    As a rule I don’t like nor use the word 外人, but what bothers me more are the foreigners that use it to categorize themselves into a group where its okay not to know Japanese or have proper social etiquette because after all, we’re gaijin (e.g. “Gaijin Style”). After all the work we’ve gone to to become linguistically and culturally competent, why pigeonhole ourselves?

  • PostColonial

    “Gaijin” is wrong because it is a massive double-standard: foreign ideas? Foreign sports? Foreign items, things, objects? Those absolutely can become fully Japanese, accepted 100% as essential parts of Japanese society. Foreign people? Human beings? We’re “gaijin,” forever and always. “It’s ok for them to point out how foreign you are because you ARE foreign!” Weird, because I’ve NEVER heard a Japanese person marvel at how wonderful and amazing that foreign baseball is – or how great it is to be having foreign food for dinner: curry and rice. No one bothers the ramen cook to find out how he mastered such an exotic foreign cuisine.

    So why do they do it when they see me?

    The problem with “gaijin” isn’t its dictionary definition. It’s the
    two-faced way it’s used. Japan is not just for the Japanese. Japan is
    not a homogenous nation, untouched by foreign ideas. Does anything
    truly, 100% Japanese even exist anymore? Is anything in this land
    untouched by foreign influence? They have no problem adopting baseball as their national sport – but an
    actual American? “Gaijin.” Oh, curry and rice – they can eat that every
    day. But an Indian person? “Gaijin.” Ramen – can’t drink beer without a
    bowl of ramen. A Chinese person? “Gaijin.” Oh, a randoseru. Every kid
    needs a randoseru. An actual Dutch person? “Gaijin.”

    This idea that foreigners can never fully be accepted in Japanese culture is the reason that “gaijin” is not ok. Who ever said that the Japanese have trouble adopting foreign ideas and adapting foreign concepts to their society? When have the Japanese EVER had trouble accepting new, foreign items into their culture? Yet, whenever we talk about being foreign in Japan, people always dismiss it as, “Oh, but you ARE foreign! Of course they point it out! It’s not racist because it’s TRUE.” Huh, weird. Because NO ONE here bothers to point out all the OTHER foreign stuff that they’re buried in. Just the people.

    When you look at the word “gaijin” in the context of how Japanese people interact with foreign objects and foreign foods, you can see that they purposefully single out foreign PEOPLE in a way that they NEVER single out foreign objects. That’s what gives away the fact that “gaijin” IS a racist term specifically reserved to give special treatment to certain types of human being that the Japanese don’t do with ANY OTHER thing in their lives. “Sorry, gaijin. Get out. But leave the blue jeans and the baseball.”

  • 21tigermike

    It’s pretty safe to ‘assume’ that businesses put their names in big bold letters. Is it a stupid name? Of course it is. It’s Japan man. Marketing is weird over there.

  • 21tigermike

    “just listen to people’s tone of voice.” Exactly. As I’ve said before, the word itself is a zero. It’s not until your Chinese/Japanese/Korean language ability picks up that you might hear people use this word in a mocking/hurtful way (eg. on the subway, bus, etc) and you will be very shocked to hear that, in some contexts, the word is an insult. The word it’s fine, the people who use it to mock, or sneer at tourists/visitors.. are the real problem.

  • Woman

    This post just made me think for a moment and realize that…

    I don’t think I’ve never heard a Japanese say “gaijin” in my presence. They always say “gaikokujin”. Even my boyfriend who is as informal as it gets always says gaikokujin and never gaijin. The only people I hear say “gaijin” are …. fellow gaijin!

  • Locohama

    You’re contradicting yourself. First you say you’ve numbed yourself to microagressions and then You say they’re bullocks. I understand the desire to be liked and that could be the reasons you’ve chosen to refer to them as bullocks. No one in their right mind is talking about being treated as a Japanese, id like to think though i could be wrong about that. Personally I’d just like for people to reserve or reduce their presumptions about who I am and what I am capable of, and recognize the truth: they actually know nothing about me. I’m a blank slate they need not fill in without actually talking and getting to know me. But people have this tendency to fill in that blank with tons of misinformation. I think this is the source of the microagressions here and everywhere. And as a writer, I can tell you for a fact, words, and microagressions as well, have power, whether we, ourselves, give it to them or not. Act like you know. What we do have power over is our response to these microagressions. You’ve chosen to call them bullocks. That’s cool. Everybody has to cope somehow and if your way of doing so works for you, more power to you. But let’s not denigrate those who choose to deal with this very serious issue in other ways.

  • Locohama

    That establishment feeling the need to post such a sign speaks volumes doesn’t it?

  • Locohama


  • Hector Franco

    I can’t really say that it bothers me. I’ve always been something of an outsider in any country I’ve been to including my home country of the United States. Although I feel that certain things like the refusal of entry to a foreigner at an onsen or bar is a little too much, I do feel that Japan is country very far from every being completely assimilated with the outside world. It’s just something I’ve chosen to ignore personally I suppose. Maybe it’ll be different in another 50 years.

  • Gaijin420

    Im a white man with the word Gaijin (in English) tattood on my wrist, and deal with many Japanese people in my day to day work life. ALL of them, have either laughed hysterically or told me they loved it. Now of course I’m sure my take on the word would be differenti if I lived n Japan, but I like to think it can have a positive connotation if embraced.

  • Mescale

    Your view is naive, just because the UN exists, doesn’t mean countries have to abide by it, what will the UN do if they don’t, invade? Just because a law exists doesn’t mean its enforced or respected.

    Japan doesn’t have the greatest record of human rights for its own citizens, let alone foreigners.

    So your solution is to use a utterly toothless organisation known as the UN to enforce your own ideas over other countries.

    It makes no difference whether its your own ideas or ideas of a non-country based independent body, (which just happens to have the same views as your country) you are still trying to force you ideas of what is right onto someone else.

    Really what gives the UN the right to decide on what is right and wrong? Just that more than one country came together to decide some rules.

    Maybe if this is such a big issue you should write to the UN.

    Wahh, wahh, some japs called me a gaijin. Invade their asses.

    Words only have power if you allow them to, the fact that you have imbued gaijin with such fantastical powers is your problem.

    Its pretty selfish to get all uppity about being called a gaijin when there are so many other serious problems in Japan. Get some perspective.

    You have still missed the point, the point is the fact that you are being judgmental here, you are judging the Japanese, just as you are claiming they judge you,

    You are as guilty as them at what you are saying they are guilty of, but here you are trying to take the high ground. And you’re using every damn excuse to say its ok, i’m right, because I say so, the UN says so, my dad could beat up your dad.

    Thats the real problem, the hypocrisy, and the fact you can’t even see it.

    The same reason I give your ideas no importance is the same reason Japanese people give your ideas about ‘gaijin’ no importance, you come along preaching high ideas whilst simultaneous ignoring them when it suits you, your actions undermine your words.

    Why should Japanese people have to do what you say when you can’t do it yourself.

    The old do what I say, not what I do, isn’t compelling.

    You want to really inspire people to become better, then live by your words, act as you say others should. That will show people the truth of your words, the value of your actions.

    Listen to this all Americans (except hashi of course) this is why no one likes you, you are all about liberty freedom and the pursuit of happiness, until it doesn’t suit you, then you’re the cruelest, meanest, nastiest, most unpleasant people imaginable. The only reason people tolerate you is because you have lots of guns, lots of people to shoot them, and you’ve shown the lack of ethics or morality required to use them ruthlessly.
    We’ll (everyone else) pretend to like you, because to not like you means really bad things for us. But ultimately we don’t respect you, and we don’t want to listen to your one sided rhetoric and your selfish ambitions. And we are prideful people that even if you ever did come up with something worthwhile to say, we’d ignore you anyway on principle, because of who you are.

    So every time you get a stick up your lower ileum about some minor thing, then you start demanding we change, to suit your thinking, we’ll most likely do the opposite or resist as much as we can, because you are all nothing but a big bunch of poopy heads, you don’t care about us, about who we are, our history, or feelings, you only care about you.

    And that is why you are a bunch of filthy gaijins.

    Hey we were all thinking it, I’m just saying it.

  • PostColonial

    “So your solution is to use a utterly toothless organisation known as the UN to enforce your own ideas over other countries.”

    No, you moron, my point is that the UN represents some consensus that the world has ALREADY COME TO. We don’t need the UN to enforce it – the mere fact that the UN exists indicates that there is some agreement – if not actual agreement, it indicates that countries are willing to come together and find common ground.

    “Really what gives the UN the right to decide on what is right and wrong?”

    What gives ANYONE the right to decide what is right and wrong? I mentioned the UN simply to point to the fact that there is ALREADY an international body that attempts to find common ground between nations – and Japan is part of it, which means that Japan has indicated, as a country, that it is willing to meet on common ground, change, and grow according to international standards. I never said it was infallible or even the only international body – it’s ONE EXAMPLE of many places that the world has come together to find a moral consensus.

    Wow. You are seriously dumb, aren’t you? You spent ALL THAT TIME ranting about a complete misreading of what I was saying. I gave the UN as ONE EXAMPLE, it wasn’t my whole argument. Wow. Good job.

  • BuildingMyBento

    And then there’s this sign I saw outside of a Shenzhen, China bar. A bit anachronistic, as it mentions Koizumi Junichiro and alludes to his Yasukuni visits.

  • Ken Seeroi

    Boy, what a hornet’s nest. Where do I stick my hand?

    So okay, as a white writer in Japan (or “whiter” as it usually comes out after a few beers), I’ll just add a small point. And then you can all tear it to pieces.

    That is, how much this word bothers you is pretty closely related to how much of a Japanese person you feel you are. Do you speak the language, eat the food, and do all the same things everybody else does? Well, then this word probably doesn’t make you feel too fantastic. After all, who’s really Japanese? ( ) You tell me.

    On the other hand, if you’re just hanging out with your gaijin buddies at the local Irish bar speaking English all the time, then you probably don’t sweat it too much. That’s because you’re a gaijin, ya gaijin.

    I’ve generally found that people will treat you any way you let them. If you’re okay with being called a gaijin and treated as such, then go with it. If you don’t like it, don’t stand for it, and tell people why in Japanese. Write a newspaper article in Japanese. Give a speech. Nobody gives you rights. If you want to be treated with equality, take a stand. Das what I think, bro.

  • PostColonial

    You moron, I mentioned the UN as an EXAMPLE of international cooperation. The UN doesn’t NEED to come into Japan and change things: Japan has ALREADY JOINED THE UN and agreed to many of their precepts and policies. I’m not talking about using outside force to change Japan – I’m pointing out that Japan has ALREADY made a declaration that they want to join the international community and, in fact, they already HAVE joined the international community.

    Wow, you are just seriously stupid, aren’t you?

  • HalfNote5

    It stands to reason, regardless of race, religion, creed, nationality or ethnic background that the worst crimes of any country will be perpetrated, by and large, by its own peoples, because a criminal will be a criminal wherever he/she lives. They will not travel abroad for the purpose of doing so. Hence, for example, most crimes in Canada are committed by Canadians, most crimes in Ireland are committed by Irish, most crimes in the USA by Americans, and, of course, most of the crimes in Japan will be committed by Japanese.

  • HalfNote5


  • Francine Soto

    Personally I find the word a bit offensive. When I was abroad studying, I only had one racist lady keep on referring to be as “gaikin daigakusei” . Every time something wasn’t right in the cafeteria or dorm she would point at me or other foreign students blaming the gaijin. Many times we had nothing to do with the incident. It made me really dislike the use of the term. Where as before I didn’t have much of a problem with it. But I do gotta say it kinda bugs me how in your posts here at tofugu you keep writing things like “baka gaijin” over and over. Some blog writers more than others. But I know you mean it with a light heartedness. :P

  • Aurelas

    LOL I think I might be able to sympathize a bit! I am part Native American, Muskogee to be precise. Unfortunately, I have enough Welsh and English blood to make me have very pale skin and the result is that no one can tell what on earth I am or where I am from. It has become a sort of game for me to see how many odd suggestions people will make. It is always strange to me that people I have never seen feel that they have the right to guess my ethnicity and even tell me that I am wrong, that I must be Philippino or Vietnamese or Jewish or Hawaiian or Egyptian or whatever and that my parents have not told me the truth!

    Most guess that I am Chinese, though, and when I used to be a substitute teacher, there would always be at least one kid who would follow me around saying “Ching chang chong. Tell me what I said,” and then refuse to believe me when I would tell them that I was not of Asian descent and, as far as I knew, they had just said “ching chang chong.” I gave plenty of lectures about racism and stereotypes and was then usually treated to a child pulling his eyes up to a slant and making more random “Chinese” sounds. I would want to just bang my head on the desk.

    The craziest of all was when a lady told me to get back over the border, that I was taking up a good American job. I guess she thought I was the world’s palest illegal immigrant from Mexico? The hilarious thing: she said this as she was ranting and reporting me to my superior as a racist for asking to see her id when she used her credit card (store policy).

  • Kiko Okua

    Korea and Japan have a huge disagreement. After Korea was colonized by Japan, lots of anti-Japanese (on the Korean side) and lots of Anti-Korean sentiment remained as a by product. It’s very sad. I want to go to Korea (as an adoptee) and perhaps Japan, but my parents have always warned me, Japan and Korea might not like me if I like both cultures. Especially since I don’t know the language. If you need evidence, look at Dokdo Island or the prostitution disguised as jobs scandal. Many people in Korea and Japan, when dealing in foreign relations with the other, have many problems as there is a fine line with labeling. I think that labeling is needed for certain things (immigration, passports, etc.), but you have to be very careful with how you label. No one is particularly better than the other. Korea has its own word for foreigner, its romanization being “wehguken” or something like that.

  • shiro

    Don’t worry, regardless of all of the racism against Koreans in Japan (which is very real), most Japanese won’t care that you like both cultures. K-pop is ridiculously popular in Japan for example, and many Japanese casually study Korean, so lots of Japanese and foreigners in Japan enjoy both cultures.

    Besides, it’s not like you’ll be walking around wearing an “I LOVE JAPAN” shirt in Korea, and vice versa, right?

  • Jun

    Gaijin is a Japanese word, so let the Japanese decide whether it’s a derogatory word. People around the world are still using the word ‘Jap’ but the Japanese don’t really care because they don’t give a damn about English. Same for Chinks and other slangs. If you can eliminate the use of these words in your own country then you can tell the Japanese to do the same.

  • Midnight Tea

    I’m generally of the mind that acceptance isn’t given. It isn’t either, it just emerges. And to some degree, no, no outsider can ever fully integrate into Japanese culture. From what I can tell, Japanese culture is very much about shared the experiences from growing up together within it. If you can accept that, though… and show modesty, dignity and maybe even warmth towards people who otherwise marginalize you, then maybe you can help prove that there doesn’t need to be a distinction.

  • Yun Kang

    “For instance, when Japanese people go abroad, they continue to use gaijin to refer to the native population. “There are so many gaijin in America!” ”

    Eh? Never in my life have I encountered Japanese people that have said this, or even thought this way to be honest. Where are you getting your info, because that’s simply not true. If you ask a Japanese in France for example if they consider themselves a gaijin, they will say yes, and probably tell you that “gaikokujin” is a more polite term.

  • ruby

    it doesn’t really bother me, except for one time i went out in Sapporo and heard 「外人だらけ!」 i mean really, だらけ? いっぱいいる would’ve sufficed

  • Topika

    I used to get stared at every morning on my commute to work. Many Japan apologist will say, its nothing more than a curosity, but that annoying generalization quickly wears off. There was a guy who rode my train that was bald, with salaryman shirt and sported a miniskirt, hose with pumps for his lower attire. Umm, well, I guess its a sort of cosplay. But dude never got stared at, and I who sat next to him would be the object of 7 pairs of eyes. I would talk to myself or point at dude then at the staring hitobito and shrug “why”?
    I think its a way to vent or express your frustrations, just like dude who was a public crossdresser. What a weird place.

  • Cali Pellegrini

    I’d love to read a native Japanese-looking Japanese person share his or her views on this topic.