Gaijin

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 .

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7 Responses to Gaijin

  1. mattkeighley says:

    I had one of these moments very briefly the other day when I heard a student say, “gaijin-san” as she left the class. How the hell do I categorise that?! Generally I just don’t care.

    Couldn’t agree more regarding the ‘impossibility of learning Japanese’ comments. Not for my own struggling efforts, but rather because I repeatedly come across the insinuation that genuinely fluent Japanese English speakers are somehow less proficient in their own native tongue. As if fluency in one renders the other stunted in some fashion. Plays far more into concepts of US and THEM than any rendering of gaijin does in my book.

    • I’ve heard that comment about Japanese English speakers quite a bit too. Also hear lots of older folk saying starting English education early is a bad idea because then they somehow won’t learn Japanese properly!

      • mattkeighley says:

        Worryingly I hear it from people who would be considered advanced speakers of English and in particular connection to bilingual journalists bypassing interpreters.

  2. One of my best Japanese friends will often say “外人さん” and I’ve never taken offense, but in that case we were talking in Japanese and she wasn’t talking about me, so it was almost like it didn’t apply,,. Under nearly any other circumstance though, I find it offensive. Not just because the “国” is missing, but because it emphasizes a sense of “otherness” and that it pretty much means “white person.” While I appreciate perfectly well the fact that I’m not Japanese, being clumped like that just takes away any individuality I have ignores all of the work I’ve done to achieve fluency and cultural competency.

    While it does happen, n America if you were to say “Are you Chinese?” or “Wow, you’re really good at using a knife and fork” to a Japanese person it would be considered *extremely* rude and incredible inappropriate, but in Japan this kind of stereotyping is just normal. Old ladies have asked me if I’m Russian, I get “日本語お上手ですね” nearly ever time I open my mouth… Getting off topic a little bit, but I think more than 外人 vs 外国人 it’s an “we vs you” dichotomy that’s at the heart of the issue. My most negative experiences in Japan have included people who for whatever reason decided they do not like me, and none of those instances involved the word “外人.”

    As a rule, I don’t use 外人 because I don’t like the word, but I especially don’t like it when foreigners freely use it to lump themselves into a group where it’s ok not to know Japanese or proper social etiquette because we’re “gaijin;” it just reinforces all of the negative stereotypes that already exist. Why pigeonhole yourself?

    • I completely agree with the fact that it is used unnecessarily to pigeonhole and compartmentalise, and that is what I mean by appropriateness. Using gaijin to differentiate and accentuate otherness when it is irrelevant or not necessary is pointless and wrong, but that is not down to the use of the word itself. Rather it is the implication behind the word and that implication can be there whether the word is gaijin or gaikokujin. If I am called gaijin-san in a shop where everybody else is o-kyakusama, the shop staff are unnecessarily differentiating but it wouldn’t be any better even if they called me gaikokujin o-kyakusama or whatever because the differentiation simply isn’t necessary in that context. So yes, it is as you say not a gaijin vs gaikokujin issue, it is an us vs them issue. The word itself hardly matters.

  3. Freddie says:

    I’ve had plenty of discussion with my wife (日本人)about the use of the term 外人 versus 外国人. She couldn’t understand how 外人 could possibly cause offence. In her mind, 外人 was simply an abbreviation of 外国人. My response (at the time we were living outside of Japan) was along the lines “that’s fine with me, I take your point, therefore you won’t mind if I refer to you as 外人 now that you’re no longer living in Japan and you’re in my country…” No comment from her….! Then I deliberately started to refer to her as 外人 whenever the opportunity presented itself in conversation, all done in a non-confrontational and friendly manner. After a while, in a very Japanese way, she suggested maybe it was better to use the term 外国人 and has since never been heard to utter 外人! All this to say, I have no problems being referred to as 外人 providing I can also refer to that person as 外人 when they’re in my country.

    • And that kind of brings us back round to the otherness angle. Although we translate gaijin as foreigner, I’m not sure it’s just that to a Japanese person. What I mean is that, yes, it means foreign to them in that it means non-Japoanese, but as they will never be non-Japanese it seems strange to refer to themselves as gaijin even when abroad. After all they are still Japanese and gaijin are (to them) people who are non-Japanese. Hence they can no more be a ‘gaijin’ than I can cease being British merely by changing location. I don’t know if this is how the thinking goes, and it is pretty hard to speak for 130 million or so people, but I think that might be one explanation for why it seems so odd for Japanese to find themselves being referred to as gaijin. But who knows what the reason is? I should probably ask some Japanese people!

      P.S. Just asked my wife and she said she hadn’t really given it much thought, but she would think of herself as a gaijin when abroad. So maybe what I’ve just speculated about is rubbish!

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