The Community Page received a large number of responses to Debito Arudou’s last Just Be Cause column on the use of the word “gaijin.” Following is a selection of readers’ views.
Not an epithet
That Arudou and others dislike the word “gaijin” and would prefer its retirement, I can understand. What I cannot understand (and I doubt Arudou really believes it either) is the insistence that the word is also an “epithet” comparable to “n–ger,” and that Japanese willfully use the term toward (mostly) non-ethnic Japanese in order to berate, abuse or express hostility towards the listener (what “epithet” means).
“N–ger” carries all kinds of baggage and was used to define second-class human beings. I cannot — and I am certain Arudou cannot either — imagine being part of a race who were abducted from their homes, transported like cattle across the Atlantic Ocean, forced to work as slaves for centuries, only then to be “freed” into a country that informed them they could not share the same public facilities, restaurants or schools with “whites.” Decades of institutionalized poverty, discrimination, and abuse followed. To suggest a meaningful comparison between the word “n–ger” and “gaijin” on any level exists strikes me as being in very poor taste. Indeed, it starts to trivialize history.
Postwar dictionaries, both English and Japanese, simply define gaijin as a neutral variation of “gaikokujin.” Even Kojien (which Arudou calls “Japan’s premier dictionary”) informs its readers that the contemporary usage (definition three) is a variation of gaikokujin. These same dictionaries do not label the term as derogatory, unlike other Japanese words.
And what about foreign language words that also mean “outside + person” — words like “Auslander” (German), “straniero” (Italian) and the English “foreigner” itself, which derives from the Latin “foras,” meaning “outside”? Should we to ban these words, too, because they encourage “us vs. them” differences? Of course not.
Gaijin might have become offensive to some listeners for reasons both real and imagined in recent years, but it is certainly not an epithet. To make automatically negative assumptions about what the speaker must be thinking and feeling when Japanese use the word says more about the listener than it does about the Japanese speaker.
Paul J. Scalise,
Visiting research fellow, Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Temple University
Thanks for the heads-up
I very much appreciated this article. I have lived with Japanese roommates for the past two years, and have thus naturally made a strong circle of Japanese acquaintances. (I can never be sure who is a friend.) This experience has opened my world and now I can read “kana,” some “kanji,” and speak a smattering of basic Japanese that has begun to improve rapidly due to my recent decision to study seriously. This December I will travel to Japan to scout ahead and decide if I will take an offered position in teaching at an elementary school.
It has always been interesting to me that even in my so-called native country (I have also lived in Europe for extended periods) I am referred to as a “gaijin” by these acquaintances, without abandon. I have always been aware of the connotations. I have three friends who were born in Ibaraki Prefecture and have lived there their entire lives, and yet they are still called “gaijin.”
You article helps me to gain some perspective before I venture out to Japan, and I thank you for your wit and clarity.
Bradley J. Collier,
Get over it and move on
Were Mr. Arudou to come to Austria, he would be called “Auslander.” Auslander translates as “foreigner” but it literally means “someone from the outside lands,” in contrast to the “Inlander” (the native population). The German language has no politically correct term like “gaikokujin” (yet give it time and our useless politicians will come up with one).
In my opinion it’s not the terms “gaijin” or “Auslander” that cause the problems; it’s who uses them and how. I’ve been called “gaijin” by friends in Japan, and their families, and I have no problem with that. First of all, they know that I’m not politically correct. For example, I still use the German word “Neger” when referring to black Africans and so-called Afro-Americans (and no, it’s not like the English N-word). I’m with Charlton Heston on this issue: Political correctness is a dictatorship with manners.
Secondly, I like to communicate fast, without holding things up too much (and “gaijin” is undeniably faster than “gaikokujin” — what a mouthful!).
In German you can use “Auslander” in a very bad way. Neo-Nazi groups do that all the time (example: “Deutschland den Deutschen, Auslander raus” — Germany to the Germans, out with the foreigners). That, however, doesn’t prompt anyone to scream for a new term. We simply get over it and move on.
Japanese falls short on slang?
I understand the author’s perspective, but other countries and cultures have similar words in their vocabularies. Don’t the Jews call all non-Jews “gentiles?” Aren’t there plenty of Americans who call Asian people “Orientals?” Perhaps the Japanese just aren’t sophisticated when it comes to slang for other peoples/cultures; all they have is “gaijin.” Lets see what we can come up with in the English language: n–ger, wop, jap, chink, cracker, whitey, spick, etc.
The author may have Japanese citizenship but he isn’t ethnic Japanese so the typical Japanese will never consider him to be Japanese. Though Japan does have more foreign residents than in the past, it isn’t a melting pot like America. There are greater injustices taking place in the world . . . lighten up!
Like watching pro wrestling
I would like to commend you on the article “Once a ‘gaijin,’ always a ‘gaijin.’ ” In spite of its being grammatically and logically obtuse, overly simplistic and naive, and hyperbolic to a fault, it was very enlightening and entertaining. Reading it was comparable to watching professional wrestling on TV. Was it supposed to be serious?
Aside from the mangled, convoluted and inarticulate English that weakens the article, the equating of the plight of the foreigner in Japan to the African-American’s fight for equality and freedom is sad and callous. I am not African-American so I am reluctant to speak for them; however, as one who grew up in the segregated South, I can assure the reader and the author that they are not comparable. The author of the article may have gotten this idea from the movie “Mr. Baseball,” which facetiously alludes to the comparison.
Since I am partly of Italian-American descent, I am used to the pejoratives “dago,” “wop,” “guinea” and “Mafiosa.” If my immigrant Italian grandfather who was spat on every night at his factory job were alive, he would laugh at the writer’s article and remark, “What’s the problem?”
“Gaijin” is not essentially “n–ger.” The more we use “gaijin,” the less effective it will be and it will eventually burn itself out like the pejorative “j-p.”
Language has alternatives
After recently returning to Japan after a 12-year absence, I was wondering if I had missed any debate over the use of the G-word. Glad I can throw my two cents in. Whilst many may be able to shrug it off as one of the lesser annoyances, the word is loaded and it is well within the Japanese language for alternatives to be used.
Yes, “gaikokujin” should complete the appropriate processes to acquire Japanese residence or citizenship, “nyujirandojin” shouldn’t drink as much as they do, and “hakujin” should wear higher SPF sunscreen. Just please don’t call me “gaijin.”
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