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What Does Gaijin Really Mean?

Are Japanese people being racist by referring to foreigners as gaijin?

By 3 min read 22

I am very careful not to use the word Gaijin around my foreign friends in Japan. They probably could care less about the word but I understand that some foreigners feel offended with a word that to them carries a negative connotation.

I am pretty sensitive to issues of race in general because of my mixed heritage, so is Gaijin really a racist word?

I personally do not feel that most Japanese people mean any harm by using the word Gaijin. To most Japanese people the word Gaijin is just a convenient way of referring to someone who isn’t Japanese. Refer to my article on Uchi-Soto to learn about the importance of in-groups and out-groups in Japan.

What’s the difference between Gaijin and Gaikokujin?

外人: The word consists of two Kanji meaning outside (gai) and person (jin)..so it literally means an outsider.
外国人: The word consists of three Kanji meaning outside (gai), country (koku) and person (jin)

As you can see, these are different words. Gaikokujin is much more formal and than Gaijin, and many people think that Gaijin is a shortened word of Gaikokujin but that is not necessarily the case.

Gaijin is used to describe White people, or Westerners, whereas Gaikokujin is for all foreigners, and that includes other Asian nationals.

I am a Ha-Fu but not the kind of Ha-Fu who automatically receive Japanese people’s attentions and admirations. Japanese people and society love Ha-Fu kids that are a mix of Japanese and Gaijin (Western) parents. These kids are considered beautiful, and some Japanese women say that they would want to marry a white man just to have Ha-Fu kids.

So now you can understand why I have mixed feelings with the word Gaijin? Even though I am technically a Gaijin I am not seen as one. As a child I wished that my friends in school regarded me as a cool Gaijin kid but unfortunately, that did not happen.

So what should we do about it?

I understand that Gaijin is not the best word to refer to foreigners, and although most Japanese really don’t mean any harm by using the word, they should understand some people feel offended and hurt being called Gaijin.

This argument will probably stir more controversy, but it is also important for foreigners to understand that Japanese people often use the word Gaijin without knowing that it is considered a racist word by some foreigners. In a country that is 98% Japanese, the word Gaijin is usually the easiest way to refer to someone who is not Japanese. Many other countries have similar words but in multi-cultural (and politically correct) America it is considered offensive to refer to someone as an outsider.

So both parties need to come together to work on this issue. As Japan faces rapid population decline, it will probably have to start opening doors to immigrants. Despite its technological advancement and the past economical growth, Japan is far from being a modern multicultural society. Japan has been culturally and socially isolated, and it is time to face this issue one step at a time.

This seemingly trivial matter (the word Gaijin to Japanese) is a huge deal for some foreigners, and it is important for Japanese people to be aware of this issue and keep working on it. It’s the first step Japan can take to promote the importance of diversity and cultural inclusion.

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  • Andrew Barrett Ensminger says:

    What happens if you like being an outsider?

  • BoomingEchoes says:

    One of the problems with this is in the past 20 years or so that Japanese culture has been a rising fascination in America, we’ve had a hard time getting exact, to the point, information, even with the rise of the internet. This has lead to an urban myth mentality when it comes to various things pertaining to Japanese culture. The word gaijin is no different.

    All it took was most of us hearing that gaijin is a negative term, with no real reason put behind it or alternate phrase we could be called to tell the difference, so we know what to be called, and we’ve taken it as law, simply because it was said to us once (which is a very psychological thing that happens in society). Even if it’s wrong, we take kt to be right because it’s what we’ve heard. And even reading another comment here it even reaches as high as academia.

    The problem also exists with other words, like Otaku.

    But the other thing all people fail to realize is the fact that words only have as much power as we’re willing to give them. People who take a word like gaijin (or any actually bad word) the wrong way are giving it far too much power. It’s when you stop giving a word power is when it stops hurting you and you take back control.

  • BoomingEchoes says:

    You know why? Because they owned it instead of let them beat them down.

    Words only have as much power as we’re willing to give them.

  • BoomingEchoes says:

    See the thing is we (Americans) have the word “foreigner”, but if that was ever used, it hasn’t been for a long time. We don’t really use a word for people who aren’t from this country. Some would jump to say “immigrant” but that’s not really the case either, especially if the person isn’t attempting to live here (and that itself usually comes with a negative connotation). The only actual alternative we have is the plethora of racial slurs we’ve accumulated over the years, and maybe “illegals”, which is thrown around much more in recent years (and/or when people don’t know if a person is actually living here -because we’re too lazy to check and afraid to ask).. But those are all used in hate, it’s not an all encompassing term that a well meaning person would use.

    But that’s where the divide happens. We hear their word, and find out that it means outsider, and take it to mean that we’re not included; that they hate us. We automatically take it as a slur because that’s all we actually have for people who aren’t American: hate speak. If we’re not specifically calling them by their nationality.

    That’s another thing too. We’re so caught up in being what I call a “something”-American (Italian-american, african america ect) that we just don’t have the need for another word unless we’re going to attack that “something” part. Since we have a very weak sense of cultural identity, we express a weaker sense of identity for others.

    Way I see it with the word gaijin, if it’s not being yelled at me while someones hurting me physically, I don’t really care. They have to call me SOMETHING in their language, and I’m sure there are worse words that actually mean bad things. It’s better then yelling “baka” at me (or worse words that I don’t know). And it is way easier to say gaijin than gaikukojin, so I really can’t blame them for using the easier word.

  • James Paul says:

    It has been my experience in Japan that when Japanese people speak ill of you its almost never to your face… and even the direct speaking nothing is said directly…. Passive Aggressive, to the max. People in America have to understand that most countries in the world have homogenous populations and being a white guy in an Asian country does make you stand out. Dont like it or dont like Japanese words then move the hell out in my opinion. You want to hear a bunch of racist words for everyone go to Hawaii and California, they can make your day….

    • BoomingEchoes says:

      I’ll add New York to that list too. Usually people are uneasy with New Yorkers because they keep to themselves and try to just get from point a to point b with no issues, taking it to mean we’re rude. But when you give us a reason open up that can, watch out! We’ll tell you exactly who you are. Doesn’t even have to devolve into racist comments, but we won’t say it behind your back.

      With that said, Japanese passive-agressiveness is very cultural. They have a culture that doesn’t deal with guilt well and does a lot of saving face when shamed. I expect that confrontation (aka saying mean things to ones face) falls within this sphere.

      Plus we do just stand out, not only do we look very different but we act very different. We have a bad way of expecteting people to act like us, and it’s to our detriment. Heck, at this point even people born in our country who don’t look like they’re from here are being demonized. It’s our perception that’s often superflawed.

  • Elle Juarez says:

    I don’t think it’s a negative word because it’s true. I’m a foreigner by their standards. Even If I live there it still doesn’t t change the fact that I’m not Japanese by heritage and I wasn’t born and raised in Japan. The fact some foreigners are so overly sensitive over that is just dumb. You’re a foreigner and no matter how much you try to assimilate into the culture it still doesn’t change that fact.

    • James Paul says:

      lol yeah….. but if you can sing Japanese folk songs at the local bar with karaoke you will be a hit!

  • Jamming James says:

    I agree a lot with your first paragraph. I think the use of ハーフ can be grating when it is used in the middle of an English sentence. When a person speaks to me and uses ハーフ as part of a Japanese sentence it doesn’t really bother me, because I like to think that while both half and ハーフ sound similar, they both have subtle differences in their own languages and so the meaning and implication is different. It’s when someone talks to me in English and throws ハーフ in there that makes me uncomfortable.

  • nawic says:

    I find the word gaijin offensive when it is used agaisnt my little 3 year old girl and pointing fingers toward her as if she was a weird animal. And kids running away from her when the only thing she wants is to play…

    • Jamming James says:

      That is absolutely heartbreaking. Kids can be so cruel. It is something I am genuinely worried about with raising a child in Japan.

  • nawic says:

    So you don’t want the word gaijin to become synonymous with idiot but when you use the word you just mean that you ARE only a stupid foreigner… humm

    • James Paul says:

      You have to understand in Japan there is a Japanese way to do EVERYTHING and everything else is wrong or the wrong way to do things. I remember the first time I put rice in a miso soup bowl… my ex and her sister literally cringed… unless you know about every little thing you will do things wrong..

  • S. says:

    Agreed, Japanese is all about tone. I can say one word, the same word, in three different tones and they will all carry a different meaning.

    • BoomingEchoes says:

      And that’s where Americans fail to understand. We’re a culture where the word has power based on its meaning before the tone is used, so we automatically flip out when the wrong word is said

      This is also why the Internet causes most of the problems they do here. People can’t judge the tone of something written out too well these days (mostly because we weren’t really taught to in written form) and we tske everything on the meaning of the words

  • Duane Moody says:

    In college where we had a well known Japanese department, we were told the literal meaning was “out people,” which is hardly derogatory. Even if it carries the connotation “whites,” it’s only a term without any inherent figurative properties. The difference between ‘gaijin’ and ‘gaikokujin’ seems to be a degree of politesse which admittedly counts far more in Japanese but whatever. It takes more for a collective noun to be a slur than taking less than 3 syllables to say (in any language).

    • S. says:

      It means foreigner, any way you look at it in Japanese. I feel the author is aiming more at the social stigma Caucasians feel in a country that is as advanced as theirs, but carries much more different traditions and social order. But this is all coming from a “ha-fu” (literally “half” said with a Japanese accent) kid myself who was born and raised in Japan.

  • mariana says:

    Well I really don’t think being called a gaijin is such a huge deal, one should just let it be…

  • しのぶ アンドリュー says:

    What about the “Ha-Fu” black and Japanese kids…how are they perceived? I’ve heard the Ha-fu white and Japanese being seen as cool, but is that the case with Ha-fu black?

  • Jamming James says:

    I personally don’t really find the word ‘gaijin’ offensive. I can see why some people would find it offensive, but at the same time I am sure that when most people refer to me as a gaijin instead of a gaikokujin they aren’t doing it out of malice or ill intent, but rather that is a word they familiar with, have heard used and have no reason to assume is offensive unless they have been told so.

    I don’t find gaijin offensive in the same way that I don’t find ‘Hafu’ offensive. Don’t get me wrong, every time I hear the word said by a Japanese person it makes me a cringe a little, but this is just another case of where the use of ハーフcomes from the English word Half, or Half-caste (Which basically means half-pure in Latin) and while Japan loans English words to use, they don’t keep up with the changes in the acceptability of English word usage. So, a Japanese person who is familiar with the word ‘Hafu’ may not realize there are negative connotations to the use of the word. To that person it may just be the word that have always known and have used, without issue. Think back to a time where the N-word was an acceptable noun used in standard conversation. If a Japanese person saw a westerner using that word, they may not have a reason to assume it is offensive, and without the racial issues present in other countries, they also may not realize that it is no longer an acceptable word to use, without outside intervention. Also, words like Half-caste are still used by some people in western countries, and I have few friends who have mixed race children who get really upset when someone uses it to describe their children, even though they know the person isn’t using it in a harmful way.

    I think another reason is that physical attributes make it easier to identify someone’s race, so even if you didn’t know whether someone was Chinese, Korean or Japanese, you could still identify them as Asian. However, if you look at Americans, British, Australians, Europeans etc. while there are sometimes subtle differences, it is much harder to assume you know whether they are European or American just from appearance, so in cases like this is it easier for Japanese people to just say ‘White-foreigner’ or ‘Gaijin’ to identify that group.

    I am not saying I think it’s OK, but I can understand why Japanese people say gaijin instead of gaikokujin at times. However, in my experience, the only people I hear the word gaijin from regularly are children. In most cases, when adults refer to me they do so a gaikokujin. Now, whether that is because I am white, or where it is simply because I can hear them is another issue all together.

    Iknow that in the UK class issues have had a much bigger role than issues of race, and that race issues have never been given anywhere near the same attention as say in a country like America. But, I can say from experience that in the UK you wouldn’t assume that someone who looks Asian isn’t British, whereas I feel in Japan you have to look Japanese to be considered Japanese, even if you were born and raised here, and only speak Japanese.

  • Frido says:

    I don’t believe that the mere concept of Gaijin and Gaikokujin is bad per se. I am aware of people
    around me in the public whether they belong to my ethnicity or not. May be this is a common trait that is present in every human. I tend to believe that people who have the same appearance share the same traditions and values. This is a basis that entrusts comfort and confidence because the chance to experience bad surprises is seemingly minimized.

    It is evident that a particular outer appearance can be attributed to a certain ethnicity. It is also evident that humans use terms if they want to express the cognition of certain findings.
    So the term “Gaijin” was born out of the need to express the existence of people being different from Japanese people.

    Xenophobia and racism arise when such terms are linked to negative characteristics that result in overgeneralization and prejudice. Interestingly, the term “Gaijin” appears to be associated with
    positive characteristics so that especially the Caucasian of northern European origin became an object of “xenophilia”. Xenophilia in this context is also a matter of overgeneralization and prejudice, however, its impact is at least not negative for the individual.

    In conclusion, we should recognize the fact of different ethnicities and appearances associated
    with them. We should also be aware of the fact that we all are members of a certain ethnicity. If we recognize that we are observers and being observed at the same time, we acknowledge that we may exercise racism but may also incur it.

    My recommendation, lean back and enjoy the differences. Being served the same dish every day is
    boring. If you encounter xenophobia or racism in others or in yourself, beat it!



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