"Gaijin" What does this word really mean?

    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 ( 外人がいじん, short for gaikokujin 外国人がいこくじん ), 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.

    A copy of Gaijin Crime File, a magazine in Japan
    Source: wookie

    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.

    A large group of Japanese tourists in Italy
    Source: 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 on Twitter.