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Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008
Appropriate that 'G-word'
Following is another reader's response to Debito Arudou's last "Just Be Cause" column ( www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080805ad.html ) on the use of the word "gaijin."
When I consider the debate over the use of the word "gaijin," I am of two minds.
First of all, I consider its practical daily use, where it is given meaning by the intent of the user. When my mother-in-law uses the word, I'm quite certain she does not intend it as an epithet, because she loves me dearly. However, I have heard it uttered in a derogatory and threatening manner enough times — usually unprovoked — to be able to conceptualize it as such. The daily, practical use of the word doesn't bother me greatly, and I would never go as far as to suggest that is on par with the "N-word," but I do consider its casual use to be undesirable, as there are a number of more appropriate substitutes in the Japanese language.
On the other hand, when I think about the word's cultural impact, I can only conclude that it has an entirely negative influence, epithet or not. I believe the word is part of the framework of a dialectic of exclusion that pervades Japanese culture to greater or lesser extents depending on the demographic being considered. On the surface it is the same old "us-and-them" attitude that we all love so much, but on a deeper level it is a manifestation of an emotional conviction that "outsiders are not able to understand." Other aspects of this framework include the intellectually problematic "Nihonjinron" — the study of Japan's unique uniqueness — and the ever-prevalent "the Japanese way" or "wareware nihonjin" ("we Japanese") responses that are intended to stop a conversation in its tracks.
Ultimately, the word "gaijin" — and the dialectic that accompanies it — is a significant obstacle to genuine intercultural understanding and appreciation. And in my view it is undesirable in a country that promotes "internationalism" politically, but more importantly one that reflects an increasing trend towards multiculturalism. As The Japan Times regularly informs us, the number of intercultural marriages has increased, as has the population of mixed-race and mixed-nationality children as a result, and the national economic situation is such that an increasing number of foreign nationals will be allowed into the country to work and make their lives.
So it is not so much the offensiveness of the word that is significant, but the destructiveness of the underlying attitude that we should be weary of. After all, in North America the use of the word "foreigner" is not acceptable in ordinary use, and the only people who do use it freely are victims of a similar mind set. As for Austrians who freely use the word "Auslander," I have no insight into their thought processes, but I suspect that they are not genuinely interested in a culturally heterogeneous society.
Unfortunately, though I would condemn the use of the word Gaijin on an academic level, I perceive no end to its use in the near future. For its use to become taboo, the momentum must come from the indigenous population. And it will be decades before there are significant numbers of residents of other cultures that will produce the social and cultural friction necessary for such an understanding to gain critical mass.
On the bright side, considering the Japanese changes in attitude towards smoking and environmental issues that I have witnessed over the last 10 years, once such momentum does begin I am confident that it will be carried forward in a thorough and meaningful manner.
For now I can only suggest that people who are bothered by the word try to subvert it by appropriating it. This has worked before.
(As for those who would criticize Debito for being extreme, I suspect you are not aware of the breadth of his work. Personally, I applaud his efforts. Who else is willing to play the role of the agitator?)
Christian Orton, Kyoto
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