A commentary on life as a “gaijin”

By Greg Beck

I am a gaijin. I accept it. I am not trying to create any debate or start a social revolution in Japan, but here is a brief description of my life in Japan, and my thoughts on the concept of the word, “gaijin.

First and foremost, are you aware there is a huge debate over the word “gaijin”? There are two main sides to this argument. Many people feel offended by the word. They believe there is no linguistic relation to the word “gaikokujin”, meaning “a person from a foreign country.” They argue that because the origin of the word means “outsider”, that calling a person gaijin is divisive, condescending, and even hostile! With this group, using the word “gaijin” can cause problems quickly for both parties. The other side of the debate centers on the Japanese shortening of words. Gaijin, to them, is short for gaikokujin. By this definition, if you are from a foreign country, there is nothing wrong with being a gaijin.

I have always tried to stay above the fray. I believe both parties can be right. Your intent matters more than the words you use. However, some people interpret what they hear differently, so someone can still take offense regardless of the speaker’s intentions. But I believe how a word “should” be used and how people actually use it often differ. A third group deserves mentioning; there are people from foreign countries who have become Japanese citizens. These people spent incredible amounts of time and effort to become Japanese citizens and feel both “gaijin” and “gaikokujin” no longer apply to them. But in Japan’s traditionally homogenous society, someone who does not look Japanese is automatically assumed to be a gaijin.

I do not fit into any of these groups. Everyone has the right to say and think what they want. When I first came here in 2004 to study at Konan University, I was oblivious to this issue. As my Japanese improved, I started hearing the word gaijin more and more. I learned it meant “foreigner” and to this day sometimes use the word in that context myself. Since those first months here some of my friends complained of hearing “gaijin” immediately followed by utterance “abunai” (dangerous). Also, on many occasions, a few of my foreign friends and I will go to a restaurant and a Japanese couple will enter and comment on there being “many gaijin” there, as if there is some deeper meaning to their observation. In addition to this I noticed people on trains and buses hesitate or avoid sitting next to me. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it continues to happen, even after living here for years. On a rational level, I don’t care if someone does not want to sit next to me. There are many reasons why they might decide not to. Still though, when I notice it, I can’t help imagining a voice saying, “Gaijin. Abunai.” and feeling a little insulted.

Being asked by total strangers where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Japan is another part of being a gaijin. I understand they are expressing their curiosity and an interest in me, which is nice. Also, because my physical appearance is different, I’m sure I stand out, but sometimes I do not want to act as ambassador of my home country, I just want to be another member of the community I live in. Also, these questions sound cold. When they come without a greeting like “Hello, how are you?” or even, “Nice weather we’re having”, it seems like I am being interrogated.

Let’s assume gaijin means “foreigner”, nothing good or bad, just a basic adjective. Calling me “gaijin” would be, technically, correct. But having grown up in America, with white, black, Asian, and Hispanic friends – all “American” with unique ancestry, I cannot remember one time in my life I’ve ever referred to another person in English as “foreign”. To me, even saying someone is American, or Japanese, does not say anything about whether they are short, tall, friendly, mean, greedy, or generous. So to describe a person as “foreign” seems so vague it is pointless.

As I learned more Japanese and traveled the world, I noticed “gaijin” really does not mean “foreign”. “Foreign” is a relative term. For example, if a Japanese person went to Guam, they would become the “foreign” person. But that same Japanese person could still refer to everyone in Guam as “gaijin”. So gaijin’s meaning is probably better expressed as “not Japanese”, and I do not appreciate being referred to by what I am “not”. I know I am not Japanese, and that suits me just fine. My nationality seems as relevant and important as the color of my shirt. A tourist here for the weekend, or someone fluent in Japanese, and living in Hiroshima for 30 years, being reduced to the same, simple term “gaijin” seems dismissive. It also fails to describe what they are.

I am often asked if I would like to live in Japan for ever. I love Japan, and I feel lucky for each day I spend here. But if I lived here until I was old and gray, people would still probably call me “gaijin” and ask what country I am from. I don’t know if this problem exists in other countries. I don’t know if Japan will change, or if it will, how quickly. But it would not be easy to call this “my home” when people from the same town call me “gaijin”.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
A commentary on life as a "gaijin", 10.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/wideislandview/wideislandview.com/wp-content/plugins/bm-comments-and-trackbacks/bm-trackPing.php on line 37

24 thoughts on “A commentary on life as a “gaijin””

  1. “I cannot remember one time in my life I’ve ever referred to another person in English as “foreign”. To me, even saying someone is American, or Japanese, does not say anything about whether they are short, tall, friendly, mean, greedy, or generous. So to describe a person as “foreign” seems so vague it is pointless.”

    Being from Hawaii an extremely ethnicly rich place. It never even dawned on me to identify people with a word that even resembles gaijin or foreigner. It is as you say…pointless. I will be on my way back to Hawaii in the future and being identified for any other reason besides being really fucking cool is something I will not miss at all.

    I look forward to being called “bruddah” again :)

    Nice post by the way!!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 4.0/5 (1 vote cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  2. “It never even dawned on me to identify people with a word that even resembles gaijin or foreigner.”

    Haole?

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  3. Interesting article!
    I watch out using gakokujin instead of gaijin, because I feel that gaijin is somewhat excluding people from the community, too.
    I think you’re absolutely right, that nationality doesn’t matter to identify people. However, even in countries with many people of foreign origin expressions like foreigner and gaijin keep being in use. And sometimes it’s the foreigners themselves who use these words, since there are also ethnic groups who like to distinguish themselves. It’s a complicated matter anywhere, ‘though in Japan it might be more complicated because there is all this in and out of the group stuff…

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  4. A woman I knew grew up in Japan with a half Dutch friend (but born and raised in Japan). The Dutch genes were the only ones that took as the girl had pale skin, blue eyes and blond hair. She said that for her entire life she had to endure being referred to as gaijin and being complemented on how good her Japanese was.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  5. Great article. You expressed my own thoughts on the “gaijin” debate perfectly. It seems like everyone is one side of the fence or the other…or standing in front of it somewhere not really expressing their opinion. They’re either completely offended, couldn’t care less, or don’t want to get too into the debate.

    I agree that how someone intends the word is often more important than just using the word. I haven’t had the experience of being called a “gaijin” yet, so I don’t know how I’ll really feel until it happens. Until then, I know I’m a gaijin. I just happen to have been born non-Japanese. It doesn’t bother me. When you think about it, though, the context of “gaijin” probably does mean “non-Japanese” especially when it’s used outside of Japan by Japanese people. If that’s the case, then that’s a very limited world-view. It would be like me, as a Southerner, calling everyone else “non-Southerner” even in a foreign country. Like you said, automatically, I’d be addressing what each person “isn’t” instead of what they are.

    More than the word, things like that picture of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired “gaijin-san” toy are more offensive to me. It pains me to watch TV shows where Japanese people dress up as stereotyped foreigners. Then I think, do we in American do differently if its under the guise of humor?

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  6. I agree is not the word itself but the way they use it. I am Argentinean and I’m not happy when my Japanese friend talks on the phone and says “(bla bla bla) I am with my gaijin friend right now (bla bla bla)”. I know he is not trying to insult me, but still. I am Argentinean, call me South American, that won’t bother me, but don`t call me foreigner.

    That’s the difference. The Japanese seem unable to recognize or accept the diversity of backgrounds and nationalities. To them, it is Japan or The rest or the world.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  7. Wow, great comments (I’m just now finally reading). I’m glad my thoughts are resonating with people, and generally, when I explain my opinion to Japanese people they agree as well, and confess that “not Japanese” IS an accurate translation and had never realized before having it pointed out.
    Haole means white person, and if they’re white, you’re still describing something they ARE, rather than what they’re NOT.
    Even I still use “gaijin”, but for foreigners in Japan I think referring to yourself as “not-Japanese” says volumes about how the society alienates you, intentionally or otherwise, but unless you voice those thoughts explicitly, Japanese people are likely to perceive it as validating the haphazard use of the word.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  8. Even gaikokujin is troublesome… during the Olympics I saw on NHK a Japanese commentator in Vancouver referring to “gaikokujin” athletes in Japanese, when in Canada he’s the foreigner. NHK’s English track rendered it as “non-Japanese”. That -koku- in gaikokujin is often interpreted as ‘Japan’, not just any country.

    Of course, the fact that gaijin is used by Japanese speakers when outside Japan means it cannot properly overlap with the meaning of the English word foreigner.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  9. As a non-white person in North America, I’ve had similar experience in reverse.

    So I think it’s a pretty common phenomenon wherever you live.

    I was born in this country, but I still have people coming up to me and telling how great my English is. I had one co-worker tell me (when I corrected him on a grammar point), “Oh my god, I can’t believe your English is better than mine, and you weren’t even born in this country.” I had an acquaintance insists that I have a “Chinese accent” despite the fact I’m not ethnically Chinese. I’ve never been told that I have an accent over the phone, but apparently if you meet me in person, I suddenly have an accent. The latter two incidents happened last year, so it’s not like I’m talking about stuff that happened in the 1950s.

    Seriously though, I have a lot of Asian friends (Made in USA type) and it seems to happen to them too.

    It never happened while I was in school but it seems like once you leave the bubble zone of school, it becomes more common. I grew up in a diverse area though and the type of stuff I mentioned was happening more when I went to places that were 75-90% white, so that might have to do with it.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  10. Hi, I just came back from living in Japan for nearly 3 years. I am Asian-American…born and raised in good old Southern California. While in Japan, I seemed to have a slightly different experience than my non-Asian gaikokujin friends. Some people could not believe that I could speak fluent English (although I was teaching corporate English there), even though I told them I was born and raised in the US. They even sometimes went on to tell me that my English was great! I sometimes felt insulted by all the questions too about my identity, but always quickly realized that it’s mainly a closed society; the “in” or “out” groups. As much as I loved Japan, I must be honest and say, that one of the reasons I moved back was because I seriously couldn’t see myself there forever. Even me being from Asian ancestry – if I became fluent, married a Japanese, lived there til the day I died…I would always be regarded as a foreigner. You’re right Greg, who would want to be called a foreigner in their own “hometown”?

    Great article, I really enjoyed it!!!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  11. Hi Beck, well-written and thought out article. Yeah, like yourself, I don’t subscribe to either group. Gaikokujin and gaijin both have the same meaning to me: not one of us. There’s a tendency here to focus on the differences, so in conversation with a native I try to touch on our similarities. It’s often in vain though. Occasionally I make “friends” who can see pass my “not one of us” ness, and we can have conversations that don’t revolve around or are not disintegrated by the “we” are clearly of a different creed then “you guys” phenomenon that dominates the thinking.
    But, it’s rare.
    Also, I think i should mention that though “gaijin” or “gaikokujin” are used extensively, when it comes to people of African descent like myself “kokujin” (black person)is widely used, almost as often as “gaijin” I’ve found. Which means, to me, that even the concept of “not one of us” has classifications, which can in some cases strip the ‘homogenous therefore discriminating’ explanation (often espoused by natives) of its ‘innocence by virtue of inexperience’ quality. As a couple of the other commenters of Asian descent explained, this variance can be quie intense! (to say the least…)(-:

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing.
    Loco

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  12. Here’s my beef,

    Why do people in the US think that only people in the US are “Americans”? I cannot refer to Brazilians, Mexicans or Canadians that are born and raised on the American continents as Americans because that’ll confuse US Citizens that think only they are “Americans”.

    Seriously, I think each country has it’s own odd use of its own language and how it refers to itself that looks silly under a microscope.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  13. For sure everywhere you go, people are guilty of some form of insensitivity to “others”. That’s a much broader topic. I focused on the word “gaijin” because it’s the case I have the most first-hand experience with.

    I feel absolutely no attachment to the word “American”. If other people want it, they can it. In Japan the common word for USA is “AMERIKA”, but there’s also “BEIKOKU”. I could fire back, don’t we use “Korean” the same way? :p

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  14. “if other people want it, they can have* it”

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  15. I’ve only been studying in Japan for a few months but in that time I have come across discussions on the idea of gaijin. One of the more interesting ways to look at it is to ask a Japanese person what it means to be “nihonjin.” Younger people will generally say citizenship but the older people will give much more ambiguous and arbitrary answers. Americans are accustomed to thinking of being “American” as being an American citizen because our society did not build out of any ethnic identity, it is purely a legal basis. It would not be a stretch to say that Japan has been rather staunchly opposed to ethnic integration over its history and this idea of who is and isn’t part of the group has sustained in the culture.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  16. I’ve been to Tokyo and maybe since I haven’t actually lived in Japan, I have a different opinion.

    We all know that Japanese people are among the most xenophobic in the world. Even Japanese people themselves admit to this. It is a very closed and homogeneous society. So, knowing that, no matter how much you study Japanese, no matter how long you live in Japan, and no matter how much Japanese ancestry you may have, if you don’t look Japanese (preferably if you weren’t born and raised in Japan with 2 Japanese parents) you will NEVER, EVER be considered Japanese. And that’s just a fact.

    So anyone who is non-Japanese who wishes to live in Japan must understand this and simply accept. I don’t know why it bothers people so much because frankly, as a woman, I would not want to be considered part of Japanese culture. Women in Japan are still subjected to a lot of nonsense that women in American don’t have to deal with. Being a foreigner in Japan allows you to reap the benefits of that great country without being under some of the more ridiculous (represseve, offensive, whatever you want to call it) aspects of Japanese culture.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  17. Having finally met you recently, wow. Excellent article. I don’t necessarily agree on all points, but it has got me thinking about the topic again. Just a few thoughts:

    Essentially the debates surrounding gaijin only matter in so far as you care about being accepted into Japanese culture. For American’s and our hodge-podge melting pot background, this becomes an issue very quickly, but only if you let it.

    Gaijin, as a word, I learned from my Japanese friends four years ago. Their strong reaction to another Japanese person referring to the foreigners/non-Japanese in our group spoke volumes. Admittedly, the person who said gaijin was mortified a second later but that only further informed me how rude the word is perceived.

    Additionally, there is a great example of the use of the word gaikokujin in “My Darling is a foreigner.” The female character goes to the US and reacts as such: “mi-nna gaikokujin… Gaikokujin wa watashi ka.” If she had said Gaijin perhaps there wouldn’t have been any rethought. Also if you haven’t, you should check out the movie, I think it gives the Japanese approach to this issue.

    I wonder how this integrates into our understanding of Japanese….

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  18. I personally think the perpetual “Your Japanese is really good!” when you say as much as “Onegai shimasu” at a store or whatever is in a way more insulting than being referred to as a Gaijin. Because both parties know there is no real effort in learning how to say “Thank you”, “Please”, and such, so one could think they are surprised your intelligence is higher than that of an insect.

    But, to get to the bigger issue, I think there is zero insult in being referred to as a Gaijin, whatever your level of blending into the Japanese society is. Why? Because by using the word Gaijin, the Japanese person outs themselves as having a certain mindset, ie. that of a small-minded, often bigoted, often of-mediocre-intellect person who has never bothered to learn a foreign language, never bothered to travel anywhere else than maybe Hawaii, and surely has not had an interesting career that has given them a broader perspective.

    I personally lack the ability to get offended by such people who I, to be perfectly honest, consider to be below me. I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, but please bear with me. I do not mean to say that the Japanese majority is particularly small-minded and bigoted towards foreigners. As I am German, and have lived in the UK, France, and the US, what I have learned is that the majority of people of any country are bigots. They fear the outsider, and they fear their collective being broken up by outside influences, because they have little else to give them a sense of self-importance. This can be studied very well in Germany – the people who are talking the most about “the Turkish” or “the foreigners” are always the least interesting ones who spend their lives watching and discussing Television shows or other such pulp.

    I guess many foreigners to Japan who get the “Gaijin” a lot simply do not have many ties to the educated classes, but move in the lower ranks. To make an extreme example, do you really think Ryuchi Sakamoto, or Haruki Murakami would lower themselves to such levels as to think along the lines of “Japanese / Gaijin” ?

    I always had good results judging (yes, judging) people under the guidance of Mrs Roosevelt who said:

    “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  19. Heya superb website! Does running a blog such as
    this require a lot of work? I have absolutely no knowledge of programming however I had been hoping to start my own
    blog in the near future. Anyhow, should you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners please share.

    I know this is off subject however I simply wanted to ask.

    Kudos!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>