A deep dive into the meaning & evolution of the sometimes-derogatory term ‘Gaijin’ in Japan. This culturally “mixed bag” expat embraces the outsider, Gaijin identity in his worldwide search for self.
- Busting Clickbaity Myths: What ‘Gaijin’ Really Means (to me)
- Lost in Translation: Tokyo Train ‘Dirty’ Gaijin Showdown
- Gaijin by Nature, Curious by Choice: Human Without Borders
Sweeping Generalizations: About as Useful as a Chocolate Teapot!
Before I get into the meaning of the term Gaijin, what the word means in my universe, and in the context of my media feed, I need to debunk a little of the nonsense surrounding the word and its use. As this instalment of the Curious Gaijin Chronicles reveals, the fact is Gaijin is not a dirty word!
I’m mainly referring to those idiot YouTubers, so-called influencers, and content creators who use sweeping generalizations to describe entire races of people. I will say from the outset that the term Gaijin is not regarded as a derogatory these days. Sure, it can be used negatively, but mostly it’s not.
You see, one of the main problems with making broad generalizations about a people group or race is that it often leads to stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions about individuals within that group. And it’s easy to pinpoint cases in which generalizations have contributed to discrimination and prejudice.
Ignoring the individuality within a group prevents us from getting to know people within that group as individuals.
If there were peer-reviewed academic studies about a people group or race that revealed an overwhelming majority of the group to be of a particular type – let’s say for example: 99.7 percent of people on a particular island have blue eyes. You could safely say “the people on that island are a blue-eyed people”.
Unfortunately, many amateur content creators don’t present any properly researched results. Many do make sweeping generalizations however, presenting basically their own subjective opinions. And those are often based on limited exposure to proper data and a few random “vox pops” with people on the street.
Busting Clickbaity Myths: What ‘Gaijin’ Really Means
I don’t expect the amateur content creator to conduct, or even make use of academic research, but if you’re going to put yourself up as someone who knows about something worth sharing with the universe, at least make an educated presentation of facts based on real experiences or verifiable knowledge.
You don’t have to search too hard on the internet to find content with ridiculous clickbaity titles such as:
“Why Japanese People Hate Foreigners?”
“Reasons You’ll Hate Living in Japan”
“The Gaijin Seat: Why Japanese People Avoid Sitting Next to Foreigners on the Train”
My own definition of Gaijin comes from asking Mr. Google (Scholar) about it: outsider, alien, foreigner, he/she who doesn’t belong. My understanding about what it means also comes from various dictionary definitions, Wikipedia and various other writings.
It may surprise you to learn that I actually like the description.
I am quite happy to be recognized as a Gaijin, and not just in Japan. As will become obvious though my various media content channels – especially The Curious Gaijin Chronicles on my website – I have always felt like I’ve been the Gaijin, wherever I’ve lived in the world. And it’s all good. I’m happy with that!
The Ultimate ‘Outsider’ Badge: From Trash Talk to Term of Endearment
So, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of it.
‘Gaijin’ is a Japanese word that literally translates to ‘foreign person.’
It is commonly used to refer to non-Japanese people or those of non-Japanese descent, regardless of their country of origin. However, the word has a somewhat complicated history, and its usage has evolved over time.
In the past, the term Gaijin was often used in a derogatory manner to refer to foreigners, particularly Westerners. It was often used by Japanese people who felt a sense of superiority over those who were not from Japan.
This attitude was particularly prevalent during the 19th century, when Japan was in the midst of rapid modernization and began to open its doors to the outside world after centuries of isolation.
However, as Japan continued to open up and interact with other countries, the meaning of Gaijin began to change. It became less associated with a sense of superiority and more with a simple recognition of difference. In this sense, ‘Gaijin’ could be seen as a neutral term that simply acknowledges that a person is not from Japan.
These days, the label is used in a variety of contexts. It is often used by Japanese people to refer to non-Japanese people in a casual, colloquial manner.
It can also be used by non-Japanese people living in Japan to refer to themselves.
In some cases, the term may still carry a negative connotation, particularly if it is used in a derogatory or condescending manner.
Lost in Translation: Tokyo Train ‘Dirty Gaijin’ Showdown
I can say that I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being called kitanai – dirty – gaijin! (きたないがいじん / 汚い外人) during my time in Japan.
Luckily it happened at a time that I had become fluent in the language, and I was able to engage the somewhat inebriated deliverer of this profound attack on my person with my own response in clear, polite but direct Japanese. It happened on a packed train in Tokyo fairly late in the evening.
Most Japanese people are way too polite to express, out loud, what this one particular salaryman did.
High Drama on the “No-tte”, Tokyo’s “Loop Line”
So, I was on a Yamanote Line train seated and the end of a bench, closest to the doors. A Japanese salaryman staggered onto the train and leaned on the steal framework right inside the doors and where I was seated.
I was working in radio and television in Tokyo in those days and I was also suited up, having just been to a TV shoot. It was a panel show with six of us Gaijin discussing world affairs – “Jingai Kisha Club”.
Jingai was a play on the word ‘Gaijin,’ and the show title translates to ‘Foreign Press Club.’ In my capacity as the Director of News Operations for Tokyo’s newest commercial radio station, 76.1 InterFM, my professional analysis, often accompanied by my usual witty and sarcastic take on things, was highly sought after.
Salaryman “Robot” Malfunction: Time for the Takedown!
Back to the pissant breathing over me on the train. It wasn’t long before the feller spotted me and started whinging about not having a seat. Mumbling turned to clearly enunciated words and he was soon complaining that I was seated at all.
His view was that Gaijin should give up their seats for Japanese people on the train. Wow!
I remained silent but I did clock the horror on the faces of the passengers around me.
At this point nobody knew I was fluent in Japanese. I let the young gentleman dig a deeper hole for himself. As he became louder and angrier, complaining turned to ordering me to stand up for him!
Now, the passengers around me couldn’t remain silent and started telling him to stop talking in a loud and aggressive manner. “You’re disturbing this passenger (me) and all of the passengers”. His response:
“This dirty gaijin should stand up for me because this is my country!” Then he yelled in my face, “stand up for me, you dirty gaijin!”
Train Trouble Turnaround: My ‘Gaijin’ Not-So-Diplomatic Dismount
I stood slowly and offered my abuser my seat. I towered above him, and in the packed train we were in very close proximity.
He sobered up fast, eyes darting everywhere in search of an escape route. We were just pulling away from the station and he checked which one it was. His whimpering response to my invitation for him to be seated was something along the lines of “Umm… no, no, that’s fine. I’m getting off at the next stop.”
No way was I letting him get off at the next stop. I repeated in a way that clearly wasn’t an invitation. “Sit down”!
He remained frozen.
I grabbed the ragdoll by the shoulder pads of his cheap salaryman suit and forced him into the seat he had been so desperate for.
All eyes, including my prisoner’s, were on me as he landed heavily in the seat, head jerking back, smacking hard against the window behind him.
Apologies and Applause: Aussie Gaijin 1 – Drunk Salaryman 0
In fluent, polite Japanese I explained, since he was drunk, I would not call the police, but I would like to explain some important facts.
“From my point of view, you are the Gaikokujin” (a polite way to refer to Gaijin). “Further, Tanaka-san – I see your name and company right there on your name tag. I could raise a complaint with your employer about the discriminatory way you’ve assaulted me here tonight, but I won’t do that.”
I went on to explain how, even though he may have an ill-informed opinion about non-Japanese people from meaningless banter among his equally uneducated mates, not all people are the same.
“Just like all of the people in this train carriage here tonight. They are behaving normally, just trying to get home after a long day – except you.”
Using some fairly ‘colourful’ descriptive words in Japanese, I explained that he’d behaved like an ass!
I pushed on, clarifying that with his horrible behaviour he should be ashamed. How could he have so embarrassed himself, his family, his company, all of his fellow commuters with us on the train, and – worst of all – his country?!
There were tears (not mine), and much low bowing in apology from the transgressor. There was a round of applause and a smattering of apology from the audience for what had happened to me, and I left the train at my usual stop. My attacker unfortunately didn’t make his usual stop, but left the train – the last train in service that night – at my station, four stops down the line. That would have meant a very expensive taxi ride back to his, after at least a 45-minute wait for a cab!
Gaijin by Nature, Curious by Choice: Human Without Borders
The train adventure I just shared with you happened in the 1990s at a time non-Japanese Westerners were still a little rare on the streets of Tokyo. It was a time when Japanese people would constantly approach, hoping to get a picture. Businessmen would sidle up at a café or pub and ask if it would be okay to speak some (usually hard-to-understand Katakana) English.
Throughout my life, I’ve mostly felt like the Gaijin or outsider, regardless of where I’ve lived or visited. Even in Australia, my home country, I often sensed that I didn’t quite fit in or belong. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic upbringing in the Land Downunder. But, I always knew there was a distant heritage waiting to be explored.
I came to see that as an opportunity for unique and enriching experiences. Living in various places was the perfect way to learn about different cultures and ways of life, and to see the world from a different perspective. Being the Gaijin has allowed me to embrace my individuality, to learn and grow.
As an Expat living in Japan, I’ve often been referred to as Gaijin-san by locals. It’s meant in a friendly, polite way when I haven’t shared my name yet, or the topic of conversation is non-Japanese people in general.
No, ‘Gaijin’ is Not a Dirty Word. And it’s from my perspective as a Gaijin, outsider that I explore the millions of things I’m curious about. And you’re invited to join me on that journey.
What say you?!
Enjoyed This Premium Content? Why Not “Post-Pay” The Author/Creator For It!