Gaijin -- just a word or racial epithet with sinister implications?
Gaijin. To most foreigners and Japanese that I know, it’s just a word. It means foreigner, and as non-Japanese living in Japan, we take it with a sense of humor that it is what we are.
But to a number of expats, it is more than just a word. It is a stinging racial epithet with sinister implications deep below the surface.
In an effort to get some insight into the word, I decided to contact a number of linguists and specialists in the Japanese Language. The observations of one professor impacted me profoundly, however.
Kevin M Doak is a Professor and Nippon Foundation Endowed Chair in Japanese Studies Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University. He’s the author of “Xavier’s Legacy: Catholics In Modern Japanese Culture” and “A History of Nationalism in Modern Japan.” He has translated numerous volumes, written op-ed pieces for the Sankei Shimbun, Sekai Nippo and is even cited by former Prime Minister Abe in his book “Utsukushii kuni E” (2006).
Professor Doak explains, “Gaijin” is a contraction of ‘Gai-koku-jin,’ or person from a foreign county. Some foreigners in Japan believe it should be interpreted literally, ‘non-human’ (when the middle term ‘kuni’ [country] is dropped) but I don’t think many Japanese use it in this way. For them it means ‘foreigner,’ or ‘non-Japanese.’ It certainly has no inherent racist denotation. A Gaijin can be a person of any race, including Japanese-American or Japanese-Brazilian, of whom there are many residing in Japan.
“However, during and after the American occupation, the term was popularly used as a reference for the many non-Asians, largely white people, who came to Japan. Since these people were immediately distinguishable from the vast majority of the Japanese people, the term ‘Gaijin’ was often used to say something like, ‘Look there, there’s somebody different!’ Many non-Japanese in Japan have had the experience of a school child pointing to them and exclaiming ‘gaijin da!’ These kids are not hostile to the ‘gaijin’ but fascinated by them and often run right up to the ‘gaijin’ and try to talk to the foreigner, or giggle and run away in embarrassment. I don’t believe there are grounds for taking offense in such situations. During the early postwar period, the term often took on an informal connotation of a white person, especially an American.
“So, that usage, which has both a racial and a national tinge, is superimposed by some on the term, but for others the term simply refers to foreigners, regardless of race or nationality. And some Japanese who dislike foreigners may use it with a critical tone; others who are more PC (politically correct) will insist on using the awkward, more formal term ‘gai-koku-jin.’ But there are much more negative words Japanese can use for foreigners (‘banjin,’ ‘eibei kichiku,’ ‘sankokujin,’ etc), all of which are fortunately quite rare, and of course there are racial epithets in Japanese, of which Gai-jin is not really one.”
The professor then offered his personal opinion: “My own sense is that some foreign residents of Japan who take offense at any use of the term ‘gaijin’ belong to a well-established phenomenon of foreigners (usually white men) who want to become completely Japanese (culturally, biologically, socially)—cf. Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysantheme, Blackthorne in Clavell’s novel ‘Shogun,’ or James Bond, in ‘You Only Live Twice.’ For these Japanophiles, any indication that they’ve not succeeded in becoming Japanese is taken as a personal insult, and I think much of the offense at the term ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) stems from this anxiety they bring to the situation.”
Indeed, as the professor described upon first arriving in Japan, and doing my first home stay in Kawagoe, some school children saw and pointed to me in amazement on my first day. “Gaijin! Gaijin!” they said. In fact, in years since, not being pointed at in Japan has surprised me more than the few occasions when I am. Even I notice foreigners on trains and follow them from the corners of my eyes. I seem to notice everyone. I’ve even listened in on them in restaurants and cafes just as I suspect some Japanese do of me. What language are they speaking? Where are they from? Why are they here?”
But as those children pointed me out on my first day, I recalled the picturesque middle class neighborhood I grew up in where if a black or Spanish person was seen walking down the street, we knew that either they worked for someone or didn’t belong and would peek out from behind the curtains curiously. Such a visit may have even become the adult conversation of the day, in the playground, at meals and via phone relay.
I also remembered my own career as a jazz musician, working in black neighborhoods and wondering as I walked down the streets if I too was being watched as well by people wondering what I was doing in their neighborhood, also wondering if the stares were real or imaginary. (The love I received from the audiences I played for was indescribable.) At the same time, I also thought of a primary difference between Philadelphia and Japan: In many places in America the place that you belong and seemingly don’t are often merely a few blocks apart, sometimes divided by a highway or a train track… in Japan there’s a huge ocean, so me being here is a big deal; though in recent years there are more and more people like me (statistically speaking, roughly 1.5%, with about three-quarters being Asian.)
In living in Japan, I’ve also reflected upon the privileged status I’ve had as a foreigner. Though not every day, complete strangers have picked up my izakaya tab, sometimes in mere reward for making an effort to speak Japanese. Years ago, one drunk even took me home and introduced me to his wife around about midnight… and later when sober, his college age daughter (presuming I’d teach her Japanese.) In fact, some Japanese parents have befriended me so I’d play with their kids. (Imagine a Japanese person befriending a strange Japanese male to trust around the kids, or an American simply handing their kids over to a random foreigner!) Japanese have also paid relatively large sums of money to sit in rooms with me and practice English, even without asking for my credentials, yet addressing me honorifically as “sensei.”
Stories of “foreign privilege” where I’ve benefited as a result of a type of superficial yet positive stereotyping are too numerous to list. Sometimes it’s bothered me. I want to be accepted for who I am, not what I look like. In fact, when my ethnicity is discovered, I’m further praised for the gifts of “my people.” While such behavior is considered bad manners in the West, it is genuinely meant as a compliment in Japan.
Despite this privileged status, it would be untrue to say that I’ve never felt the butt of prejudice. The police checks, for instance, when for simply walking and not looking Japanese, one is pulled aside and questioned. First the cordial nervous icebreakers, then—Where are you coming from? Where are you going? The inevitable trip-up question. Finally, Where are you from? (The same question everyone else seems to ask as well – sometimes on an almost daily basis. Taxi drivers especially.) “America,” I say. アメリカ人… the officer inevitably says looking at my ID card, politely handing it back to me. Free to go. American.
Of the many times this has happened to me, I’ve thought back to my high school years in Philadelphia when mostly white police offers would arbitrarily stop and sometimes even round up black people “on suspicion,” and the stories of police brutality I heard of, especially in the generation before I was born. By the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, I remembered Rodney King, the LA riots and tunes on the radio expressing outrage toward 911 and the police. I’d think of the rage, the anger, the resentment, blacks being pulled over on the New Jersey turnpike and how lucky I was to have been born white. I’d also remember that all of those memories were from another time /another country… perhaps a type of culturally induced trauma.
Because of this, barely a day goes by where I don’t think: “This is Japan, and I am a Gaijin…” and wonder, “But what does it mean?” I’ve thought of it on days when Japanese people speak perfectly ungraded colloquial working class Japanese to me because they don’t quite get I’m a foreigner who happens to be totally clueless to what they’re saying ... and days I’ve spoken Japanese to Japanese people only to have them respond to everything I say in English or say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English.” (But I’m speaking Japanese!)
I’ve had clerks, bank tellers and hospital attendants go significantly out of their way to help me with things any normal adult (sometimes child) Japanese customer would know how to do… and on the flip side, have dealt with a less than patient customer service reps. “This is Japan,” I imagine the person thinking, “Why can’t this foreigner learn to speak our language intelligibly?” “This is Japan,” I think. For God’s sake, she studied English in Jr. HS. I’m trying to speak Japanese…why can’t she cut me some slack?”
Ultimately, I’ve concluded that what it means to be Gaijin depends upon which day you ask me. In the end, I’m a person whose skin is a different color, whose ancestral stock is different, who was raised in a different school system – yet also a person who has lived here a long long time, and in the end would have difficulty imagining myself anywhere else.