What Does Gaijin Really Mean?
By Yumi Nakata
On October 11, 2014
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.