Gaijin. It seems we hear the word every day. For some, it’s merely harmless shorthand for “gaikokujin” (foreigner). Even Wikipedia (that online wall for intellectual graffiti artists) had a section on “political correctness” that claimed illiterate and oversensitive Westerners had misunderstood the Japanese word.
I take a different view: Gaijin is not merely a word; it is an epithet — about the billions of people who are not Japanese. It makes assumptions about them that go beyond nationality.
Let’s deal with the basic counterarguments: Calling gaijin a mere contraction of gaikokujin is not historically accurate. According to ancient texts and prewar dictionaries, gaijin (or “guwaijin” in the contemporary rendering) once referred to Japanese people too. Anyone not from your village, in-group etc., was one. It was a way of showing you don’t belong here — even (according to my 1978 Kojien, Japan’s premier dictionary) “regarded as an enemy” (“tekishi”). Back then there were other (even more unsavory) words for foreigners anyway, so gaijin has a separate etymology from words specifically meaning “extra-national.”
Even if one argues that modern usage renders the two terms indistinguishable, gaijin is still a loaded word, easily abused. Consider two nasty side effects:
1) “Gaijin” strips the world of diversity. Japan’s proportion of the world’s population is a little under 2 percent. In the gaijin binary worldview, you either are a Japanese or you’re not — an “ichi-ro” or a “ze-ro.” Thus you suggest that the remaining 98 percent of the world are outsiders.
2) . . . And always will be. A gaijin is a gaijin any time, any place. The word is even used overseas by traveling/resident Japanese to describe non-Japanese, or rather “foreigners in their own country,” often without any apparent sense of irony or contradiction. Logically, Japanese outside of Japan must be foreigners somewhere, right? Not when everyone else is a gaijin.
Left unchallenged, this rubric encourages dreadful social science, ultimately creating a constellation of “us and them” differences (as opposed to possible similarities) for the ichiro culture vultures to guide their ideological sextants by.
For those hung up on gaijin’s apparently harmless kanji (“outside person”), even that is indicative. The “koku” in gaikokujin refers specifically to country — a legal status you can change. The epithet doesn’t, effectively making classification a matter of birth status, physical appearance, race. All of this means that once you get relegated to the gaijin group, you never get out.
Allow me to illustrate that with a joke from the American South.
Question: “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D. in neurobiology from Harvard who works as a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, earns seven figures a year, and runs one of the world’s largest philanthropies?”
Hardy har. Now let’s rephrase.
Question: “What do you call a white man with degrees from top-tier schools who has lived in Japan for more than two decades, contributes to Japanese society as a university educator, is fluent in Japanese, and has Japanese citizenship?”
Nobody who knows I’m a naturalized Japanese citizen calls me a gaikokujin anymore — it’s factually incorrect. But there are plenty of people (especially foreigners) who don’t hesitate to call me a gaijin, often pejoratively.
Thus gaijin is a caste. No matter how hard you try to acculturate yourself, become literate and lingual, even make yourself legally inseparable from the putative “naikokujin” (the “inside people,” whoever they are), you’re still “not one of us.”
Moreover, factor in Japan’s increasing number of children of international marriages. Based upon whether or not they look like their foreign parent (again, “gaijin-ppoi”), there are cases where they get treated differently, even adversely, by society. Thus the rubric of gaijin even encourages discrimination against Japan’s own citizens.
This must be acknowledged. Even though trying to get people to stop using gaijin overnight would be like swatting flies, people should know of the word’s potential abuses. At least people should stop arguing that it means the same as gaikokujin.
For gaijin is essentially “n–ger” and should be likewise obsolesced.
Fortunately our media is helping out, long since adding gaijin to the list of “hoso kinshi yogo” (words unfit for broadcast).
So can we. Apply Japan’s slogan against undesirable social actions: “Shinai, sasenai” (“I won’t use it, I won’t let it be used.”).
Debito Arudou is a coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. An expanded version of this article can be found at www.debito.org/kumegaijinissue.html