I recently looked for a new apartment in Japan. The very first realtor I called stated flatly, “We don’t do business with foreigners.” I was like, Ohh . . . kayyy . . . This pattern has played out enough during my years here that I’m pretty used to it. I’ll go get my shoe shine box now.
But eventually, I secured a room from someone brave enough to rent to a white guy, then set about getting a parking place. Fortunately, there was a dirt lot full of weeds just down the street advertising open spots, so I dialed the number.
“Sorry, we had past trouble with a foreigner,” said the man on the other end.
“In a dirt lot?” I started, “what could possibly . . .” but then a different thought popped into mind. “What kind of foreigner?”
“I’m sorry,” he replied, in a way that didn’t sound sorry at all.
Now, I normally just let this go, since we all know how it’s going to end, but since I’d just polished off a grande Starbucks, I was feeling plenty hyped. “Young, old, unemployed, male, female? Like Iraqi, American, Russian, Tibetan, Icelandic? You do realize the six billion people of the world outside of Japan aren’t all the same, right?”
“There’s really nothing . . .”
“So I speak Japanese, am a Japanese permanent resident, and will pay you six months in advance. I work at the University, and teach your children. Is that not enough for a parking place?”
“Well then I shall say good day to you sir.” I said, and hung up. But I pushed the End-call button hard. Take that, motherfucker.
What does “Gaijin” mean?
In Japanese, people who appear racially different are routinely referred to as “gaijin” or “gaikokujin.” And it’s worth noting that there are 2.93 million of them here. That’s not nothing. Now, I’ve heard a few folks blithely state that these words simply denote a “foreign person” or “foreign nation’s person.” Sorry, but you’ve missed the short boat on that one. That’s like saying “Spick” is just an abbreviation for “Hispanic.” Defining a word doesn’t make it all right to say.
The fact is, it’s hard to arrive at any reasonable definition of “gaijin” or “gaikokujin.” Are we talking about birthplace, appearance, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, culture, ancestry? Or just whatever combination you feel like using at the time?
I know people born and raised in Japan, who’ve never left, but who don’t look typically Japanese, and are considered some form of gaijin. Alternately, I know two guys who were born in Brazil, recently moved here, but who look “Japanese” and are somehow magically considered such. Oh right, bloodlines. That’s why it gives me great pleasure to participate in every blood drive Japan has to offer.
There are dozens of variations on this theme, and Japanese folks struggle mightily to reconcile the inconsistencies. There’s “Looks gaijin but is really Japanese,” “Looks Japanese but is really gaijin,” “Japanese but went to international school,” “Japanese raised abroad and doesn’t speak Japanese.” “Gaijin but is a Japanese citizen,” “Born in Japan but isn’t Japanese,” and my favorites, “Half Japanese” and “Quarter Japanese.”
A coworker of mine, white guy, has two daughters with his Japanese wife. The one daughter has almond-shaped eyes and black hair, looks typically Japanese, and passes for such, while her sister, with rounder eyes and whispy brown hair, is constantly bullied for looking like a gaijin. The weird irony of Japan is that Japanese kids all learn about Martin Luther King and the racial segregation of America, yet never make the connection to what goes on in their own country. Now that’s typically Japanese.
What Does “Gaijin” Mean?
So we’d gathered at my girlfriend’s family home for dinner, with all the siblings, aunts, and uncles, and a couple of the women got up to start cooking. “I’ll do the broccoli” I said. I like to volunteer for the easy tasks early, so I don’t have to do the dishes later. And my girlfriend’s mother, whom I’ve known for years and has never heard me speak anything but Japanese, promptly says, “Gaijin love to cook.”
I was like, Cook? I mean, steaming broccoli is pretty far from cooking, and anyway how is this related to my race and/or nationality? But what I said was, “Well, they do like to boil water.” Which is true.
And that right there—that’s the problem with “gaijin” and “gaikokujin.” It’s not just that they’re labels; sure, lumping people under a label isn’t great, but at least there’s some logic behind it. The real issue is using it as shorthand for behaviors and beliefs you imagine others to have. You look French—well, you must like bread. No? Cheese? Wine? You look American—you must like guns. No? Christianity? Trump? You look African—here, just have some watermelon and a basketball.
Look, if you want to call me white, no problem. I get that my skin, nose, and eyes are different from yours. They’re also different from other “gaijin” too, by the way, but whatever. And you can say I was born in the U.S., that’s true and accurate. We don’t need to be all P.C. If you want to rib me about being a “gaijin,” hey good fun, I can take a joke. We can sit around tossing back pints of Asahi and calling each other Japs, Wops, Gooks, Spooks, and Gaijin and have a right time of it. But better check yourself before you start throwing those terms around too casually, or using them with people you just met.
I know it’s a tempting shorthand. When we describe people in Japan, often the first question is “Are they Japanese or gaijin?” I do it too. But it’s a reductionist way of thinking. And labeling people by appearance presents its own problems. I mean, I don’t call you “the fat girl” because it’s the easiest description. No, I call you “the woman with the horrible acne.” I’m sensitive like that.
But on the real, I would never call somebody “fat” unless I wanted to start a fight. Nor would I try to dance around the issue with words like “heavy-set” or “big-boned.” I’d simply find another way to describe that person. After all, wouldn’t want to get my ass kicked by a fatty. Same thing with “gaijin” and “gaikokujin.” Those are words that need to be retired. Fortunately, I’ve noticed a lot of younger Japanese folks avoiding saying “gaijin,” “foreigner,” and the like. It’s time for, dare I say, gaijin to follow suit. Just as black people kept the n-word alive far too long by using it in-group, foreign people are perpetuating the use of the g-word. Call it racist, nationalist, or just divisive, but it’s rarely accurate and frequently negative, and it’s time for it to die. Gaijin and gaikokujin must die. I mean that in the best possible way.
What are Gaijin Like?
I’ve heard thousands of sentences start off with “Gaijin are . . .,” “Gaijin like . . .,” “Gaijin think . . .” Japan needs serious practice with the use of the word “some.” As in, “Some gaijin do this, but some Japanese folks do it too.” Probably not gonna happen any time soon, though.
Because once you go down that road, you’ve wrecked the whole premise. Since what this is really about, the whole “gaijin” thing, is Us versus Them. The word “gaijin” splits the world neatly into two groups: Japanese and Everybody else. All Japanese people (assuming you could even begin defining who that is) act, believe, and think the same way, which is somehow different from Everybody else. It allows the people of this nation to imagine they’re distinct, special, better, a race apart. Yeah, good luck with that.
The weird thing is, Japan’s been involved in cultural appropriation of everything Western for decades, from Levi’s to McDonald’s to rockabilly. Which is fine, but I mean, hey, pick a side. It’s kind of weird to order a large pepperoni from Japanese Pizza Hut on your iPhone and then not let the delivery driver park in your lot because your dirt’s too good for him. Walk it from the curb, Cracker. Ah well, someday, in it’s glorious shining future, Japan’ll be ready to enter the 20th century. But apparently not today.