Stop Saying “Gaijin” and “Gaikokujin”

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?”

“Sorry.”

“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.  

The G-Word

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.

73 Replies to “Stop Saying “Gaijin” and “Gaikokujin””

  1. Blisteringly accurate. This makes me want to donate blood as well, and then make sure whoever receives it knows they have a bit of white guy in them—though that knowledge would probably derail their recovery or scar them emotionally for life, they might at minimum break out in hives as their body suddenly fights the invader.

      1. Is this like when I go up to a girl of mixed ethnicity and ask if they have any Filipino in them and if not, would they like some? Sorry all this sheltering-in-place has fried my brain…

      1. Ken is right. My wife does it all the time. I’m starting to do it as well. Certainly not a typoー

        Hey ken, I got a joke for you.

        アルミカンの上にあるみかん

        Edit: Honestly, this captcha is a pain xD Sorry Ken.

  2. Hi Ken, great post! I feel it’s a little like that in China too but in my experience maybe not as much, I wonder why. Are the young people who more sparsely use these distinctions in like their twenties or even younger than that?

    1. Are you really sure about that one, mate? Pretty sure it much, much worse in China. The only difference there being that money speaks louder there, so they might ignore the fact that you are a dirty foreigners, if you have the greens. It is not so much that they might be scared of you, as they might actually think you are a lower being.

      1. Well, I can’t speak for all of China of course and it probably also depends very much on the context (I usually encounter people in university/business settings) but so far I am positively surprised by how self-reflective my acquaintances think about the the topic of race and identity. Probably a mix of luck and naivety on my part 😀 Though I have to say the focus on financial means seems to be extremely pervasive in Chinese society.

        1. That is pretty intense I agree. Although I think/hope that these are only representative of the nationalist/extremist voices present in any society and not the majority of people in China. I have also noticed major discrepancies with how some people behave on Western (e.g. Facebook) vs. Chinese (e.g. WeChat) social media, the latter containing a lot more content and opinions leaning towards the nationalistic. A bit like a split personality. Seems some people still have a long way to go towards a true tolerant and egalitarian perspective. Considering the rapid economic development a certain lag regarding societal evolution seems only natural though. Let’s hope it will be faster than in Japan 😀

    2. I was actually thinking of people under 30. In Japan, that’s young. I’ve got friends here who lived through World War II. God only knows how they think of Americans.

      1. Well if the life expectancy wasn’t so freakishly high the problem would soon be solved 😀 But in all seriousness I think that’s super positive and will maybe drive change quicker than expected.

  3. Hey, did you just confess that you are working in an university now? So you found a new job? Not completely sure if I should congratulate you or be sad that you are at the grinder. Well, you need money for the beer and snacks. And probably your girlfriend (or at least her parents) like the sound of “university teacher”.

    On the topic:
    It is what it is. I understand your frustrations and I am sure I am going to have to face some of it them soon enough, but as the natives say, can’t be helped. It is hard to change what has been working for so long. It is not just the society too, at this point it would be deep into the Japanese DNA and I am not saying this as a joke. People that are likely to manifest this kind of behaviour have been breeding for centuries. And honestly, it is not like it doesn’t have its positives to sometimes be wary of foreigners, even in the 21st century, even if it is more likely to be a false alarm. It is just a method to eliminates another unknown from the equation of life. Anyway, instead of getting upset about it, I think it is better to just accept the situation knowing how it has come to it. In more rather than less humans are no different from other anime. Except if you are not somebody that is going to start the gaijin emancipation revolution, not much point to spend you time and nerves on it. And as we know, while it can be often very ridiculous, it is also often with no real intent of harm. Probably something they never experienced the need to sit down and think about. Sometimes they will be curious about the unknown, sometimes scared of it. But it is not quite the same as thinking you are the dirt on this planet, that is a different thing.
    And I know you are joking and it is just a fun article about some realities, but removing the word itself won’t do much by itself anyway.
    That said a bit of a kanji tip. You might be aware, but others might not be. There is of course 外人、which is “outside” and “person”. Simple enough. But there is also 害人, which is “harm” and “person”. Except both are read as gaijin of course. Dem tricksters, right?

    1. You bring up a lot of good points I agree with. And still, I do believe removing the word would be a great step in the right direction. I wasn’t kidding about that. It’s no different that other racial terms, which are offensive. It’s dangerous to label people, as it reinforces the notion that they’re different from us simply because of their outward appearance. The truth is, you can’t tell much about folks just by looking at them. This Us versus Them thinking, particularly based upon appearance, is harmful and often flat-out wrong.

      And just to clarify that last bit, I’m fine with making a distinction between people based upon their beliefs and actions. If you say you’re a Taoist and I say I’m a Buddhist, then great, we’re just expressing our beliefs. But to say because you look a certain way that you must be a Taoist or Baptist or Sikh, okay, now that’s a problem. And the reality is, a large part of the word “gaijin” (or “gaikokujin”) revolves around how people look. As much as I wish that we could judge books by their covers, experience suggests it’s a pretty unreliable indicator.

      By the way, thanks for the tip about 害人. That’s interesting. Did not know that.

      1. (Me from the future, sorry for long defeatist ramblings of a silly European.)
        I think it is naive to believe that removing the word will change anything. It is literally just a word that means “outside person” or “outside country person” (in the case of gaikokujin), not much different from “foreigner”. What are you going to change it with? 異邦人 (ihoujin – different home person), 異国人 (ikokujin – different country person)? How is that going to help? Or maybe we should think more radical and go with フォリナー ?
        Was removing the so horrible n-word really the thing that saved America? I know I am just a silly European, a non-Western European even, but that whole situation looks silly to me. Ironically in my own native language we have the word “negar” (негър). It is the default way to describe a black person. Really has no connotations of any way. Just a basic descriptor of people with (genetic) African descent. Now if somebody has certain ideas about what a black person is and does, that is not something the word itself teaches him to think. Meanwhile saying “black person” in my native language would basically be weird and probably insulting. But then again nowadays “black person” is often not good enough in the West and “person of color” is preferred, even though “colored person” is another no-no. It is just an endless word-salad that has no effect if a person has any positive, neutral or negative opinions of that book’s cover. In one of my lectures in university there was this girl that had a section in her presentation about black people in Japan. So she says “negar”, but because spends a lot of time with American media she suddenly realizes this a no-no, excuses herself and then freezes trying to think of another word to say, but there is no better alternative in our language so while sweating she explains how sadly she doesn’t know what else to say and continues on using the word. Thinking bad of it, considering everybody there knew Japanese she could have just used “kokujin”, but I think that would have been cringy in its own ways.
        If we publicly outlaw gaijin today how many years before people want to do the same with the next word?
        At least they have some “positive” stereotypes about white people. That cooking thing was a nod at the idea that Japanese men are lazy/unhelpful and the white guy is a Brad Pitt-looking gentleman. Untrue, but at least positive, at least until they find the stereotype is untrue and get massively disappointed. Trying to explain to people that both their negatively charged and positively charged stereotypes can be wrong would be almost paradoxical for many to grasp. In nature snap decisions are a matter of life or death. How are you going to explain to that antelope, that you see, not all lions are the same. In fact this lion here wants to tell about how great a vegan diet is. What are we going to do with their stereotypes towards other Asians? Are there even any positively charged stereotypes of them in Japan? Just cheap factory labour.
        And again, this behaviour is an expression of genetics that are deep into the Japanese genetic pool, because they have done some useful job for that island to remain as Japanese as it has managed to remain, even today under the heavy influence of USA and the West. I know it is something people don’t like to think of as true, but our behaviour dependants heavily on our genetics. Even what we think of as environmental element in the equation – society itself and the rules of behaviour it teaches are really just an expression of the common phenotype in the area.
        You can introduce laws that you can’t deny servers based on skin color, relgion or whatever, but people will just use the loophole of saying “I denied it because of this other thing”. You could have TV programs trying to teach people that “some foreigners good, some bad, just like some Japanese good, some bad”, but this is going to have a limited effect on personal level. A nuance message is hard to push anyway. You might have more luck with “foreigners are saints”, at least among people with the correct genetics that make them likely to come to an agreement with such a message, but then we are getting into another problem of well, not being truthful. But biologically speaking black or white statements are easier for the human body to get its mind around.
        I am sorry, I am rambling too much and being a defeatist. Also probably a horrible gaijin that himself wants a limited amount of gaijin of any sorts in Japan, despite being a gaijin himself. But I am the “old world”. Americans too like to think of Europeans as “Europeans” or that place with all the “white people that get along”, except it is full of people that never got along and still don’t. So I am already living in a society where at least up to a certain level is similar to Japan in that aspect. As a “modern” and “rational” personal I might realize stereotypes are stereotypes and just like they might sometimes turn to be true, also very often can be very untrue, the Japanese is still likely to go with “better safe than sorry” except when a Japanese woman gets disappointed that the nerdy skinny white guy is not Brad Pitt. But I am getting distracted and rambling again.

  4. Sounds very Apartheid.

    If someone here in Australia (or America I assume) tried to deny you access to property or services based on race, they’d be dragged before the courts for breaching racial discrimination laws (or age, or gender, or religion etc.) and crucified by public opinion.

    I guess the concept of equal rights doesn’t exist in Japanese law?

    1. “Sounds very Apartheid.”

      Now that you mention it, that’s actually pretty accurate. In many aspects of Japan—the workplace, housing, drinking establishments—there exist parallel systems, one limited to “Japanese” people and one for, well, eva-body else. There isn’t any physical violence towards foreigners, however, which is good, although it does make the issue somewhat more subtle and harder to address. Nobody’s rioting over a parking place.

  5. Take that, Motherfucker – Shown them who is boss while you ask for another beer in an Izakaya nearby. At least your ability for alcohol intake is above the Japanese.

  6. Next topic: Stop Saying “Weeaboo”. Especially after reading this scathing commentary on Japanese racial profiling. I’m (almost) ready to sell my Honda & Toyota vehicles in protest but definitely not my Perfume music collection. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

    1. Don’t forget the word “some.” Some Japanese people are horribly racist. But some, actually a lot, have foreign parents, relatives, partners, and children. And even some of them are racist. But it’s not everybody. Some Japanese people don’t even notice or care what race you are. Wish it were more, sure, but I wouldn’t sell your Honda over it.

      Mostly it’s just a societal problem, where it’s still okay to openly discriminate against people who look different, the way it was okay to make fun of “gays” just a few years ago. (Not saying things are perfect in that arena either, but at least there’s been some progress.) We’ve made words like “faggot” pretty much off-limits, which is a good thing. It’s time to do the same with “gaijin” and “gaikokujin.” Attitudes and language change together; it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

      As for “weeaboo,” yeah, we can throw that in the can too, although I’ve literally never heard it said once in real life, in Japan or abroad. I only learned of the word a few years ago by reading it online. People sure love to find ways to insult each other, I’ll say that.

  7. Ken.
    2 cracking pieces in like 2 weeks or thereabouts,looking forward to your 3rd shortly.
    Keeping Seeroi couped up with the veil of Corona appears to have an upside.
    Stay well brother.

    1. Thanks man. Yeah, this combination of no job and sheltering in place is like writer’s bootcamp. You too. Stay in, stay healthy, and start digging the bunker.

  8. Great article, I can only relate. During my exchange year in Osaka I had a lot of the thoughts you described in your post.

    I really liked the point you made about “foreigners” using Gaijin to describe themselves.
    I find that often it’s the “Gaijin” who based on a few bad experiences think that whole Japan is against them. I myself used to think like that. But in reality there are only a few people who lack the experience of talking with a “Gaijin” and thus have prejudices against foreigners.

    1. It’s been my experience that the percentages stay the same, regardless of country. Take whatever percentage of people are kind, thoughtful, and open-minded in your home country, and expect to find about the same amount in Japan. And whatever percentage of people are mean, rude, and self-centered, you’ll find about the same here in Japan. The details differ, but the end result’s the same.

      Of course, this isn’t apparent at first, or even for a long time, depending on how much of a bubble one lives in. Now if I could just remember where I placed my rose-colored glasses . . .

      1. I call this “difference of degree” (to my Japanese friends I always say: 程度の違い).

        As in: Yes, Japanese tend to be very diligent, bordering on perfectionism at work – but that doesn’t mean that every Japanese is always working on perfecting his work or even working diligently. (I absolutely had my share of completely useless Japanese which I had to work with.)

        In this example I would contend, that, yes, there is a specific Japanese work ethic, but it’s not like only Japanese can work diligently or strive for perfection. …. so it’s a difference of degree.

  9. The captcha ate my first attempt – next try:-)

    I am thankful you mentioned the importance of not having physical violence against foreigners in Japan.

    Yes.

    I live in Hanau, where two weeks ago 11 citizens were massacred and shot to death by a right-wing criminal because they were foreigners.

    I was asked very agressively in a bus about my religion by some old guy because I am not blonde and blue- eyed, altough German- bred catholic.

    And yes, language does play a part in leading to actions.

    On lighter note:

    30 years ago I studied Icelandic and went to Iceland often. Icelandic is difficult to learn, not only because of grammar, but because one has to get the pronounciation exactly right, otherwise, you will not be understood.

    My day of triumph:

    I went to the Blue Lagoon and got the cheaper ticket on which was printed ” Icelandic person” – the more expensive ones had ” foreigner” printed on them.

    It had never registered with me, but on this day I saw it.

    It might have changed -this was a long time ago.

    I knew much about Icelandic history and the then situation – and on this day I thought not about discrimination as a bad thing, but my thought was:

    ” Yes. You go Iceland! Milk them foreigners!”:-)))))

    I hope we will see less, not more racism in the world.

    Greetings to Japan:-)

  10. tidbit:

    in Iceland discrimination was and is not along looks but along language, even between themselves. Very special, different to Japan, but still discrimination.

    1. Funny you should say that, because Japan also does a lot of discrimination between Japanese folks as well, based upon both language and region. I’ve met folks who wouldn’t rent anyone who wasn’t born in the prefecture. Honestly, I don’t how this country manages to function.

  11. I am sorry to post so much, but right now the theme of racism is weighing on my heart.

    Many of the people killed here were not even foreign—born. They were born here in my local hospital, had German citizenship.

    They looked foreign. Their parents were born in some other country.

    So you are right, Ken, even the concept of „foreign“ is fluid, and even then it can have deadly consequences.

  12. Over the years I’ve come to realize that many Japanese people just like stereotypes. They want to have some “box” to put people in. Which itself is a stereotype, but here we are.

    Putting aside the whole foreigner vs. Japanese thing for a minute, you don’t need to look hard to find stereotypes Japanese have of other people. 関西人 vs 関東人. 文系 vs 理系. 巨人ファン vs 阪神ファン. A型 vs B型. 埼玉生まれ vs 東京生まれ. 帰国子女 vs 普通の学生. 管理職 vs 総合職 vs 一般職. You get the idea.

    Seems to me that no matter where you go in Japan, people from all walks of life actually endeavor to put other people into boxes.

    Even if they look the same and have similar backgrounds, they’ll find some way to make a distinction. Oh you’re born in the same town as me, you’re the same age, and went to the same school? But I was on the baseball team, and you were in the judo club.

    Perhaps a phenomenon not specific to Japan, but it does seem to be a bigger deal here. If you listen to a conversation between two Japanese people meeting for the first time, they’ll try and find common ground to connect on. But they’ll also manage to find some way to make a fence.

    To me 外人 vs 日本人 is just another box. Being placed in that box has both advantages and disadvantages alongside certain expectations. In my case my identity is clear, so I’ve gotten used to–and sometimes even enjoy!–being put in the gaijin box. Frankly I don’t care what label is on that box, gaijin or gaikokujin or hakujin or Amerikajin. I expect the treatment would remain the same.

    1. “Perhaps a phenomenon not specific to Japan, but it does seem to be a bigger deal here.” Right on the money.

      You’re right that things will stay the same, right up to the point when they don’t. We’re getting pretty nice and racially mixed here, to the extent that the number of boxes is expanding to capture absurdly nuanced differences. I for one long ago gave up trying to determine who was what, and now just endeavor to treat everyone the same, as best possible.

      1. ““Perhaps a phenomenon not specific to Japan, but it does seem to be a bigger deal here.” Right on the money.”

        What you’ve done right there is recognise that some traits are more common in some groups of people than others. It’s a useful concept sometimes isn’t it?

        Like most stereotypes, the idea that group think and “in-group/out-group thinking” is more common in Japanese culture almost certainly has some real world statistical grounding. Which is why, despite the fact that there will obviously be many examples that don’t match the stereotype, it won’t be going away any time soon. Just like most other stereotypes.

        1. “. . . some traits are more common in some groups of people than others. It’s a useful concept sometimes isn’t it?”

          Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Overlapping-bell-curves-san.

  13. Thanks Ken, raising points like this is the only way for change to start. Such discrimination isn’t fixed, it usually grows more deeply rooted and divisive through group osmosis and affirmed by politically motivated them-vs-us exploitation. Unless challenged enough.
    I have no idea why the (au) term “poofter” became pejorative between my generation, when it was the gentlest description of a gay, and my daughter’s, who find it a horrible insult. But since she called me out on it I haven’t used it since.
    Enough complaints and public discussion of harm done could change behaviour, look at how such linguistic bullying is being stomped on in other areas of life.
    Anyway two points on gaijin looks. First is my Japanese ex could only tell a Chinese person in public from a Japanese by their (“shabby” lol) clothes — there being so little distinguishing features. I wonder if the gaijin treatment is held back for them until they speak?
    The other point relates to your commenter about WW2. I was looked at with obvious hate and walked away from, in a rural Chiba farmer’s market, when a little old lady was told I was Australian. Perhaps a personal issue, but I wondered if there was any general Western resentment from war stuff still left over, say like there is about their Chinese war history and the fire bombing of Tokyo.

    1. Generally speaking, I’ve found that Japanese folks don’t hold much resentment about the war. I think there’s a recognition that Japan itself was a pretty messed up place during that time, and that despite the atrocities of battle, at least some good came out of the resultant connection with America. I’ve heard more than a few folks say that if America hadn’t conquered Japan, the country would’ve been eventually taken over by China.

  14. As every other obvious “Non-Japanese” in Japan I’ve had to grapple with these issues of course. And I have actually been interested in the ideology of patriotism, nationalism and racism and consider myself as somewhat of an expert. I even wrote a few papers on this back in university.
    Anyway, I remember an interesting discussion about what makes a national identity. There are several possible definitions: You could go bureaucratic – whoever has a passport is a citizen. Or you could go “heritage” – everyone who was born “here” and who has parents, grandparents w/e here is a citizen. Or you could go racist – everyone who looks like me is a citizen.

    Japan on paper handles citizenship bureaucratically, i.e. you can become a Japanese citizen through an application process. However the everyday definition is racist. Your genes are Kaukasian? No, you’re not Japanese, no matter what your passport says. Sadly, that’s just how it is in Japan. (Poor Debito!)
    And that’s one of the reasons I was never tempted to naturalize.

    But you probably know all that already.

    Also …
    “You look American—you must like guns.”
    It is a source of perpetual amazement for – not only – Japanese that as a German I don’t drink beer, don’t like soccer and don’t eat sausage if I don’t have too. I have also never been to Neuschwanstein, don’t generally go to the opera or hang out in art museums.
    I do listen to classic music from time to time 🙂

    1. Clearly, trying to determine “who’s what” is a maddening problem. As you know, Japan’s citizenship is based upon blood, not soil, which is opposite to the U.S. In other words, being born in Japan doesn’t make you “Japanese,” unless you have Japanese parents. Although one could apply to become a citizen of the country in which one was born, somewhat ironically.

      I read a sad story in the Japanese news a few years ago about an elderly guy who’d been born in Japan and lived his whole life here, although he was, by blood, “Chinese.” I don’t remember the details, but for some reason he ended getting deported to China, where he’d never been and didn’t speak the language. Now that’s messed up.

      Interestingly enough, I know a ton of Taiwanese, Korean, and Chinese people here who’ve naturalized and changed their names to be Japanese, and now pass as “regular” Japanese folk. This isn’t a new phenomenon either. A similarly high number of Japanese people have confided in me that their parents or grandparents came from other Asian countries. I don’t think it’s obvious at all who’s Japanese or non-Japanese. I mean, look at this guy.

      1. You may have heard what has been called the Windrush Scandal, where British citizens came to Britain from overseas British territories decades ago. Then the overseas territories became independant. Sometime in the last decade the UK government *threw* *away* their entry documents, resulting in many of them being deported for “being foreigners” with no entry visa – even though they were full British citizens when they came here with every right to be here as any other British citizen.

        1. No, I hadn’t heard of that. That’s disturbing, but not surprising.

          Colonization—which Japan also did plenty of—adds a particularly interesting wrinkle to what it means to be of a certain nation. Like, you’re not Japanese, oh, but now you are, uh oh, but now you’re not again.

  15. China is exactly the same with the term “laowai”. Even when overseas, such as in the US, they refer to non-Chinese as “laowai”.

  16. I have a half-baked theory that there is a kind of path Japanese people can take to realizing everybody outside Japan is also a normal human being. But it goes through a phase of them actually becoming -more- annoying to deal with. Like the uncanny valley. For example, once I had a work colleague who had spent a little bit of time abroad, and was keen to find a way of relating everything a foreigner said back to their foreignness and differences. Me after a unusually hot week, having been living in Japan for five years: “It’s pretty hot at the moment right?” Her, constantly parsing everything I say in the context of me being a strange freak from another planet: “Oh, right, because you are from the southern hemisphere and right now it would be cold.” Me: “Uhhh… ” Thing is, she was a nice person, and excited for any moment of interaction. My challenge was to find a way to not hate her guts or react negatively, because ultimately she just needed a bit more time and exposure to move out of that uncanny valley and realize we are all human beings.

    1. Yeah, being viewed through the lens of “foreigner” is maddening. I must’ve had a hundred conversations that went:

      “Would you like wasabi?” “Yes, please.” “Ah, you foreigners like spicy foods. We Japanese prefer a more balanced taste.”

      “Would you like wasabi?” “No, thanks.” “Ah, you foreigners can’t handle spicy foods. We Japanese are used to it.”

      Literally, no matter what you do, it’s seen as “that’s the way foreigners are.” Anyway, that’s great if your colleague finally worked up to thinking of you as a normal person. One down and 126 million left to go.

        1. I’m just impressed you were able to combine “Japanese,” “laid back,” and “carefree” into a sentence without your head exploding.

  17. Good article. I 100% understand your point of view.

    Semi-related, Is there any truth that the Japanese constitution does not protect non-citizen from discrimination, however if you are citizen you can not be discriminated against because of race? The example I heard was a permanent resident suing because of housing discrimination. The court side with the landlord, however it ruled that if the renter had citizenship they would of had a case. I don’t recall where I read this story. Sound legit?

    I had one apartment decline me because of being foreign however in Tokyo I feel generally am treated with respect, perhaps more than I deserve!

    1. Hmmm, how much respect do you deserve? Because I certainly wouldn’t want to give you any more than was minimally necessary.

      Sorry, just funning. Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of similar stories, and they sound legit. Based upon what I’ve read, what you described is accurate: foreigners in Japan can be (and are) discriminated against, but nationals can, in theory, take up the matter with the courts. Seems a lot of work for a parking place though.

  18. An interesting read, thank you.

    It reminds me of a story my friend told me. His class of HS students had just come back from Australia and were writing about it. So many of them were writing things like “the foreigners were…” in reference to Australian people. Instead of saying “Australians” they were translating “gaikokujin”.

    Obviously there’s a lot wrong with that. And not just from an English language perspective. For one, if they went to Australia, then they would be the foreigner. It definitely emphasises your point about “us vs them”.

    1. There’s no shortage of such stories, for sure.

      Although I’ve never been able to determine what exactly “gaikokujin” means, one thing it typically includes is “person who doesn’t look traditionally Japanese” (among other things). In that sense, yeah, a lot of Australians don’t look like a lot of Japanese people. So if that’s part of the definition, as opposed to simply “foreigner,” then the students were accurate. A bit racist, but accurate.

  19. I completely understand where you’re coming from when you’re offended by the term and I don’t endorse people turning you down based on your being foreign, or even just based on appearing foreign. However, I can’t really agree with the sentiment to a lot of this, namely, who decides what is alright to say.

    Strictly speaking, you can complain but if the overwhelmingly ethnically and culturally homogenous Japanese decide it’s okay to say Gaijin, what can or should stop them? If the overwhelming majority of Japanese use the term to define anyone who lacks one of what they consider Japanese traits, so what? There’s no universal good in not using labels, they do exist for a reason. You used the example of a fat person to describe the way people are spoken to and of, then go on to say you can’t make judgements based on peoples outward appearances. Fat people, the vast majority of the time, are fat because of their habits and lifestyle. Very rarely is this not the case, and any normal person is aware of this, allowing them to make judgements that, granted, may be wrong but this exception and not the rule. If you can make a split second decision that is right 90% of the time with no further thought, you will, and most human beings however intelligent are exactly this callous. Every Japanese person who ever handed you the English menu had ten more white guys walk in who knew no Japanese and were happy to get one. Should they all make the effort to make sure they don’t offend someone who exists in the extreme minority? The guy who denied you a parking space made the wrong decision in my opinion, but he made the decision to avoid trouble in the future based on previous experience, and in the end that’s his choice. Just to have these conversations about Japanese behaviour, we always paint in broad strokes.

    I can appreciate your point of view Ken and I don’t mean any offense, but I don’t really understand this comparing of Japan and America. They don’t have to be the same, or even adhere to the same idea of right and wrong. You seem to know Japan really well from your articles so surely the choice to reside there so long has been informed by the knowledge that Japanese people behave like this. If there’s a Mcdonalds on the corner or not, there’s no need to pick any side. I don’t get residing somewhere other than home and complaining the locals don’t think or speak the way you like.

    1. I appreciate your opinion. Thanks for taking the time to write a measured response. From my point of view, calling people names, and lumping them into groups, leads to negative outcomes. The widespread discrimination in Japan is holding this society back, and ignores the reality that a significant percentage of “Japanese” people are already non-traditional in appearance, ethnicity, upbringing, etc.

      Is there harm in giving someone an English menu? One instance is minimal, but compounded hundreds of times a year, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue. Heh, try giving a group of Japanese folks a Chinese menu and see how well that works out. Nobody likes being labeled, particularly as part of a group they don’t include themselves in.

      If I said, “You’re gay,” and you weren’t, would you care? Maybe not. But if I said it every time we met, I’m fairly certain you’d hate that. In fact, even if you were gay, you might hate being constantly called “the gay guy.”

      So it doesn’t even matter whether you are something or not, it’s the incessant labeling that’s problematic. And it’s not just words, because those words lead to actual harm. “Foreign” people exist in a separate society here, denied access to jobs, housing, and services. And based upon what? Eye color? Accent? Clothing? Or just some vague notion that “they” are different from “us.”

      So I am at home, thanks. In fact, right now I’m drinking a cup of Wop Roast I bought from the Japs at my local Starbucks, flown in from those homosexuals in Seattle. No problem with using labels. Who decides what is alright to say?

      You decide.

    2. This post appears to say it is Ok for Japanese to behave as they do, stop making a big deal about it Ken and it is OK if Japanese refer to non-japanese in racist and bigoted terms, and the term “Nigger” is Ok.

      1. @David Edwards
        You’re looking at this in terms of absolutes and ignoring what I’m trying to say. The only point of view you explore and propagate is the same view that’s been drilled into you. You don’t question it, you never try put yourself into other people’s shoes and every time you pitch your point you never display any self-awareness. You talk about bigotry, but anyone who isn’t screaming bigot is an intolerant racist.

        I’m not saying you’re completely wrong, I’m saying you’re in no position to tell an entire nation and culture how to police its language. This is not because doing this is inherently doomed to failure, but because you can’t acknowledge such a plethora of situations, feelings, outcomes and world-views to presume to tell all these people they are racist bigots and they should change.

        I’m not saying using that word is okay. I’m saying you have an unspoken pact with the society you are a part of. If you engage with a group of people who agree something is okay here that isn’t okay somewhere else then who are you to say they are wrong? You were brought up somewhere else to think something else, what relevance does your idea of bigotry and racism have to do with these people? They know their own home and culture in a way you never will. It’s up to them to decide what is right, not for you to jump in and force your ideas upon them. You don’t hold a monopoly on truth or on righteousness. Even if you believe something backed up by empirical fact, it’s the right of free people to determine they don’t give a shit and do something else anyway.

    1. Wow!! This article in the Independant reports some unbelievable quotes from the illustrious Ms Sono. When I say “unbelievable” I mean from a Western point of view. I imagine many Japanese may well agree with her. Some may even think she does not go far enough! And of course her quote “It is next to impossible to attain an understanding of foreigners by living alongside them,” makes perfect sense to her and possibly a lot of Japanese. Of course anyone who has Peru’s fugitive president, Alberto Fujimori, to stay in her Tokyo house is clearly mentally unbalanced and possibly insane. I may be wrong here but I imagine a majority of Japanese would prefer a policy of “Japan for Japanese only”, if this is the case the problem is wider than simply “don’t call me Gajin”.

  20. An email from my Japanese boss (apparently even the body temperature of the locals is different to us big noses):

    “If your temperature is not normal (for Japanese, this is between 36 and 37 in average) or higher by 0.5 degree normal , or you don’t feel good, aboid to come to the office.”

      1. My father-in-law gave me his old golf clubs that have “Japanese flex”…dunno what that means, but I absolutely CRUSH my drives with it!

  21. Trying again with this post.

    This all could have been extracted verbatim from one of my journals.

    I think the problem is one of empathy. Most Japanese consider foreigners to be a completely different animal completely outside the scope of Japanese social order, so all of the rules that apply between Japanese don’t really apply to interactions with foreigners.

    With the exception of probably your relationship with your Japanese wife (for most of us), most Japanese will tend to view you as a one-dimensional walking caricature of all of the societal stereotypes that attach to westerners. You can try to carve out a unique identity for yourself, but this won’t change things. Most Japanese just don’t really see foreigners as people they can have deep friendships with. There are some socially-acceptable exceptions – English teacher, foreign boss, foreign husband, etc. – but anything outside of this range is almost incomprehensible for most Japanese. Simply doesn’t compute.

    The immutability of your position in Japanese society is the slow-burning acid that, over time, seeps into your bones and really starts to hurt. You can become a fluent Japanese speaker and a responsible, tax-paying member of Japanese society and even seem to make some in-roads in intercultural relationships at your local izakaya, but you will always be reminded of your intractable position outside of the Japanese social structure. You may think you are having a simple disagreement with your interloquitor, but to them, the problem is that you just don’t understand the Japanese and never will and they will let you know as much.

    Japanese regularly play the “gaijin card” (yes, the Japanese can do it, too) to put ware ware gaijin in our place. And they don’t really care how it may impact us psychologically or emotionally. This is the disconnect between interpersonal relationships between Japanese and those with foreigners. Japanese will often times treat foreigners in ways they would never treat other Japanese simply because they do not see us as similar beings that they can empathize with. You must view yourself as essentially the same as someone to empathize with them. The Japanese do not see us as similar beings at all, so ergo, they cannot and do not empathize with us. There is no sense of guilt when they exclude or otherwise mistreat or marginalize foreigners or their sense of personal identity, and most Japanese will offer no apologies for othering you. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.

    You can see the lack of empathy most starkly in public situations. If a minority is being mistreated openly in the west, bystanders tend to step in and address the injustice because they internalize the suffering and pain of the victim. This doesn’t really happen in Japan. In Japan, other Japanese do not feel a moral need to intervene because they do not have empathy and connect with the victim on a personal level.

    This is why there is no outrage when a Japanese shop owner posts a notice that no foreigners are allowed and, on a smaller scale, why no one stands up for you when you are characterized as just another one of those foreigners who likes to cook at a dinner party. No one, including Japanese, likes being othered. If the Japanese truly had empathy for foreigners, they would be speaking out about each instance where these things happen. Instead, these acts are almost always met with a deafening, approving silence.

    1. Yeah, empathy isn’t exactly high on the list of typical Japanese traits. I literally can’t watch an episode of Star Trek without thinking, every time, that Mr. Spock’s character was modeled after the Japanese.

    2. Again, a post complaining about Japanese stereotyping Westerners, whilst being littered with “Japanese do x, the Japanese do y, Japanese don’t care about z”

  22. I encountered similar issues with my Hong Kong relatives, but in Cantonese the equivalent word Gweilo is a clear truncation of mogwailo – demonic person – and there’s more realisation of the implications in the word.
    I moved very quickly to “uncle” and yejung – “mother’s younger sister’s husband”.

  23. I would really like to understand what you are saying but I can’t. After re-reading a few times it seems one of you major points is “However, I can’t really agree with the sentiment to a lot of this, namely, who decides what is alright to say.” And that people should be able to express “their own” opinions without being castigated. i.e. Ken stop complaining about being called Gajin, they have a right to say it!. As you say “They know their own home and culture in a way you never will. It’s up to them to decide what is right, not for you to jump in and force your ideas upon them.” So I think your post is about any distinct people having the right to say and do whatever without being criticized by foreigners. But I could be wrong!

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