Over on Tofugu.com there is a healthy debate about the use of the word gaijin versus gaikokujin. I wrote a comment there and then, likely due to my ineptitude with Internet things, seemed to lose it completely and now it is floating about somewhere unknown. If you find it let me know. Anyway, I thought I would sum up my feelings here.
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 .