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”.

24 comments

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  • Walter

    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.”

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