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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Foreign branding

Being called a 'gaijin' is not unusual or harmful, says Cai Evans

Before I start, let's get one thing straight: I am well aware that the term "gaijin" has pejorative overtones and that its etymology is grounded in a history of discrimination and exclusion.

Yet the issue here is not what the kanji mean in a technical sense; we all know they mean "outsider" (or when you've really upset someone, "fiendish outsider who may defile your tatami and eat your pets").

The contention, rather, is whether use of the term should offend foreigners living in Japan right now.

One complaint is that the label is used to herd us all into one clumsy enclosure, thus obscuring our diversity and leaving the Japanese alone to claim a unique sense of ethnic identity and cultural sophistication.

But is it really so odious that Japan has a tendency to divide its residents into "Japanese and the rest?" Don't the majority of nations do this to a certain extent?

Some tabloids in the U.K. and Australia, for example, aren't too fussy about describing the divergent cultural or racial backgrounds of "bogus asylum-seekers." Neither are certain politicians. These people are just bracketed as unwelcome interlopers from somewhere else and that's the end of it.

Besides which, Japanese people don't necessarily subscribe to this lopsided view of humanity, even if they do use the g-word. If the Japanese really saw the foreign community as one amorphous mass, strangers in bars wouldn't keep asking you "where you from?" all the time.

Moreover, Japan is famously one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on Earth. The "us and them" thing may not be too edifying, but it makes sense in practical terms, no matter what the PC police say.

The best reason for not blowing your gasket when you hear yourself called a gaijin, however, is to remember that it's your word now -- if you have the guts to claim it.

Think of it this way: The longer we stay offended by this tag, the longer it will be used by some as a tool to keep us in our place, as it were. Yet the sooner we embrace it as a badge of honor, the sooner it will lose its power to denigrate and oppress.

Language is a fluid medium and the process of empowerment is one of the things that changes it. Just think how some black and Chinese Americans address others within the same ethic groups these days, using words that have the highest taboo values in the history of race relations.

Admittedly, not everyone thinks this sort of thing is helpful in terms of countering prejudice (Bill Cosby certainly doesn't). But I think it's fair to assume that the people who use these terms aren't doing so because they perceive themselves as downtrodden.

As it happens, I'm from Wales -- a country that by its very definition means "territory occupied by aliens." Except that it doesn't anymore, of course. Now it means "postindustrial madhouse occupied by chain-smoking harpists who may from time to time enjoy romantic congress with sheep."

And that's my point. What the Teutonic occupiers of England once thought of those barmy enough to want to live on the Welsh hillsides is (mostly) irrelevant to modern life.

In all truth, most foreigners who have Japanese friends will hear the g-word on a regular basis -- and nearly always in the spirit of reciprocal chain-pulling.

To whit, I have one very good Japanese pal who insists that every sexual conquest, pay rise or toothpaste discount achieved by any foreigner in Japan is down to a phenomenon he describes as "the gaijin advantage." Anyone who takes umbrage in these situations shouldn't be living overseas in the first place.

But I will readily acknowledge that there are times when the label is used for no other purpose than to subjugate and provoke. These are the occasions when ownership of the word needs to be asserted.

So when that bigot on the train mutters darkly in your direction about the odorous gaijin invading his personal space, don't get hot under the collar and wave your arms about like a French theater critic. That's exactly what he wants you to do.

Just smile at him, scratch your armpits and say it loud: "I'm a gaijin and I'm allowed."

He won't do it again.

'Gaijin' is a 4-letter word and should be canned, says Melanie Burton

Many of you might think the word "gaijin" is a relatively harmless little term to be bandied around at will and those who are offended by it should cultivate thicker skins. Yet, thinking people realize the term's wider implications and refuse to use it.

The term gaijin was originally used to refer to other Japanese who weren't part of the "inside" group, yet these days the term applies exclusively to foreigners.

Many people erroneously assume that "gai" -- outside -- and "jin" -- person -- is simply a shortening of "gaikokujin" -- outside country person. Yet the emphasis in "gaikokujin," is placed on the difference of the person's country of origin, rather than on the person themselves.

In October 2003, Internet news site Japan Today took a poll of whether the term gaijin was thought to be offensive. Out of a total of 1813 responses, 49.8 percent said that it was, while 34.6 percent said it wasn't.

According to www.debito.org , a similar poll was taken by TV Asahi. While half the English-speaking foreign population polled found the term offensive, only 34 percent of Japanese did. The poll asked if the respondent used the term, (yes: 51 percent), and if they thought foreigners would feel uncomfortable with them using the term (yes: 51 percent).

Yet surprisingly, when asked whether the term was discriminatory, 61 percent maintained it was not (from a total of 650 responses.)

While tone and intent are contributing factors, ultimately it's not the person speaking who determines a word's offensiveness. These results alone should be a good enough reason to put the term aside.

So people shouldn't use gaijin, just in case someone gets upset? PC is out of vogue, yet it should be remembered that it's still a standard enforced in most universities, publications and a basic courtesy. Branding words, like gaijin, reinforce negative stereotypes and support unequal power distribution within society. They undermine people's right to equal treatment, respect, responsibility and accountability. Analysis of language reveals value-laden perspectives and illuminates prejudice. The pros and cons of political correctness are beyond the scope of this piece, but the world is surely a better place for it.

Many cities lay claim to multiculturalism, with the complex and incipient problems it brings. In my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, every minority group has its own somewhat derogatory label.

Yet one word that has escaped our vocabulary is "foreigner." Everyone squeezes in under the larger umbrella of "Australian."

On the other hand, gaijin is an exclusive term. One is either "foreign" or "Japanese." This means that there is little scope for those born in a foreign country to identify as Japanese, and limited scope for the definition of "Japanese" to include them.

The use of the word also provides a disincentive for Japanese to differentiate between nationalities, U.S. and French, for example.

Foreigners referring to themselves as gaijin may perceive it as a harmless, ironic bit of fun. It certainly allows for a lot of fun. Gaijin cannot, by definition, be included in the Japanese "in-group," and are therefore excluded from its social protocol. Many foreigners see this as a free ticket to engage in behavior they wouldn't back home.

There's a certain attraction to anonymity and the freedom it brings. And if it all gets too tough, there's always a ticket home. No burden of social responsibility to bear, and often no contribution expected.

But for those who want to play a more adult role in society here, it can be a problem. For those who want to integrate and grow into positions of responsibility, as perennial "outsiders" it's a harder task.

As for hopes for foreigners' hopes of "owning" the term gaijin, with a current foreign population of 2 percent, the connotation of the term isn't likely to change any time soon.

And when foreigners ironically adopt the term, an argument can be made it's also perpetuating the stereotype of the racist Japanese.

Language is laden with bias and bursting with nuance. As an evolving entity, a critical eye should be passed over it every so often and outdated words or concepts plucked out, then thrown away.

GAIJIN GOOD OR BAD?

What do you think?

E-mail your thoughts to community@japantimes.co.jp

Five readers will each receive a Japan Times Japanese-language study aid.



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