What Does the “Gaijin” in “Curious Gaijin” Actually Mean?

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 bullshit surrounding the word and its use. My own definition is: outside, alien, foreigner, doesn’t belong.

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Key Points

  •      “Gaijin”is often used by Japanese people to refer to non-Japanese people in a casual manner
  •      I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being called “kitanai – dirty -gaijin!” (きたないがいじん / 汚い外人)
  •      I’ve always felt like the “gaijin” or outsider, no matter where in the world I’ve lived or visited



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What does the Gaijin in Curious Gaijin actually mean?



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 bullshit surrounding the word and its use.


I’m mainly referring to 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 in the 2020s. 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. Generalizations can contribute to discrimination and prejudice. Additionally, they ignore the diversity and individuality within a group, and can prevent us from getting to know people within the 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 on YouTube and other social media platforms don’t present any properly researched results. Many do make sweeping generalizations though (kinda like I’m doing now – I suppose), presenting their own subjective opinions, sometimes based on a limited number “vox pops” with people on the street.


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 clickbaity titles such as: “Why Japanese People Hate Foreigners?”, “Reasons You’ll Hate Living in Japan”, and “The Gaijin Seat: Why Japanese People Avoid Sitting Next to Foreigners on the Train”.


My own definition of GAIJIN comes from a simple google search: outsider, alien, foreigner, he who doesn’t belong. My meaning for Gaijin 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 happily to be recognized as a gaijin, and not just in Japan. As will become obvious though my various media content channels, I have always felt like I’ve been the Gaijin, wherever I’ve lived in the world, throughout my entire life. And I’m happy with that!


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, “gaijin” 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.


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. Well, it did happen on a packed train in Tokyo fairly late in the evening. Most Japanese people are way too polite to express, out loud, what this particular salaryman did.


So, we’re on the train and I was sat in the seat at the end, closest to the doors. A Japanese salaryman staggers onto the train and leans 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 wasn’t long before this 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. And I let this wanker 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 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!”


I stood slowly and offered my abuser my seat. I towered above him, and in the packed train we were in very close proximity. His eyes darting everywhere, he quickly sobered up as he looked for an escape route. We were just pulling away from the station and he checked which one it was. His whimpering response was something along the lines of “Oh, no. That’s fine. I’m getting off at the next stop.”


I repeated in a way that clearly wasn’t an invitation. “Sit down”! I grabbed him by the upper arms and forced him into the seat he had been desperate for. All eyes were on me, of course. 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 kind  polite way to refer to gaijin). Further, Tanaka-san – I see your name and company right there on your name tag – and I could raise a complaint with your employer about the discriminatory way you’ve assaulted me here tonight. I won’t do that.”


I went on to explain how, even though he may have had a bad experience with someone from another country at some time in the past, 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 – you shithead wanker! You’ve behaved like an asshole, but that certainly does not mean that all of these other fine people are also assholes. In fact, you should be ashamed to have so embarrassed yourself, your family, your company all of your fellow commuters and your country with the horrible behavior you displayed here tonight.


To cut a long story short, there were tears (not mine), and much low bowing in apology from the transgressor. There was a round of applause from the audience and a smattering of apology for what had happened to me, and I left the train at my usual stop.


Throughout my life, I’ve always felt like the “gaijin” or outsider, no matter where I’ve lived or visited. Even in Australia, where I grew up, I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in or belong. But 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 and has helped me to learn and grow as a person.


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, or the topic of conversation is foreigners in general. It’s from my perspective as a “gaijin”, outsider that I explore the millions of things I’m curious about:


Welcome to the Curious Gaijin!

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