This is a topic I’ve never wanted to write about but now it seems like the time is right. If you live in Japan, people will call you gaijin. I’ve always accepted it and not cared much about it. I knew it had racial overtones and wasn’t a polite word, but I actually like my outsider status and I’m happy to be a non-Japanese.
The problem is that my kids get called gaijin. This is going to be a problem their whole lives and in a society where bullying is epidemic, it worries me a bit.
So, is the word gaijin a racist word? The answer is: Yes.
Gaijin vs. Gaikokujin
The main argument for why it’s not a bad word is that it’s a shortening of the word gaikokujin, which means extra-national, foreigner, non-Japanese, etc. It means that you’re a person from another country. I’m a gaikokujin and there’s no doubt about it. My kids aren’t.
However, gaijin is not a shortening of gaikokujin as many believe. In old Japanese literature, the term gaijin is used to refer to outsiders and enemies (such as in a war). Throughout the centuries there were a number of other racial slurs used to refer to foreign people. The term gaijin became widely used to describe foreigners only recently during the American occupation. It was used to refer to the historically unprecedented number of foreign people (American troops) now inside the country.
Gaijin is a racial designation for people who are (or look) non-Japanese. It underlies a worldview where the earth is divided into two distinct species – us and them.
Is It a Dirty Word?
Another defense of the word gaijin is that people don’t mean any harm in using it. In other words, it’s not derogatory; it’s just an admission of fact – you’re not Japanese, so you’re gaijin.
I’d counter this by pointing out that it’s one of the few words that can’t be said on television. That seems admission enough that it has negative connotations. I’ve also heard people in conversation catching themselves in mid-word and correcting by changing it to gaikokujin.
The truth is that if a word is racial and it offends people, it’s a slur. The person who says the word doesn’t get to decide whether it’s offensive or not; it’s the group to which they refer. Otherwise, you could justify using any racial slur whatsoever by just saying you didn’t mean it that way. Any smart redneck closet racist will tell you that he doesn’t mean ‘the n-word’ in a bad way; it’s just what he calls black people, so why get so upset? (I’m not comparing ‘the n-word’ to ‘gaijin’; it’s just meant as an analogy).
Whether it’s harmless or nasty, it perpetuates an ‘us and them’ worldview that’s harmful to Japan as a whole. This worldview makes it okay for people to discriminate against those who look differently than them. This messes with your rights and it messes with the heads of your kids.
Changing Minds One at a Time
But don’t worry – I’m not on a crusade to turn Japan into a modern multicultural paradise. It’ll have to evolve on its own. I have friends who say gaijin in conversation and I don’t stop them to give them a lecture on why it’s a bad word each time.
However, I will politely inform folks that call my kids cute little gaijin that they’re not; they’re fully Japanese (and not ‘half’ either). I say it gently and with all due respect towards the person, who obviously doesn’t mean it in a harmful way. It may not make any difference, but just maybe it’ll get some people to think a little about it.