Is the word “gaijin” a derogatory slur?

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de·rog·a·to·ry di-ˈrä-gə-ˌtr-ē (adjective)

1 : detracting from the character or standing of something —often used with to, towards, or of 2 : expressive of a low opinion : disparaging <derogatory remarks>

Not once did the word gaijin (or the more proper form gaikokujin) instantly register as a dirty word when I read it in this article.  I don't recall hearing anyone use that term negatively at all during both of my brief stays in Japan, either.  But I understand that Japanese culture often uses non-verbal cues as part of the language; a system that works well compared to the numerous ways the English speaking system employs descriptive words.  There's over fifty different ways to express the word "happy".

The article begins to explain that the word gaijin could well be equated to the ugly and vulgar word n****r.  I don't see the commonality, but the intention behind both is very clear.  Gaijin doesn't claim nearly as much negative history as the n-word, nor does it refer to a particularly dark moment in American history.  It does, however, refer to a certain class of people: foreigners. 

There was one particular time my foreigner status befuddled me last year, roaming in Japan.  I had been inadvertently abandoned with no place to go at the Ikebukuro station.  Feeling the sinking suspicion I would be sleeping on the street that night, I began wandering around for a capsule hotel, remembering that they were relatively cheap to stay at.

I found one close by, and as per usual due to my looks, the clerk mistook me for a Japanese person.  But as soon as the conversation began to lenghten, it became apparent that my Japanese was lacking, and he gave me the death signal of all death signals: crossed arms held above the head in an "x" shape (which means no good, by the way).  Quickly shooed out without any explanation, I heard the man mutter, "gaijin wa dame desu kara" (foreigners are no good here) under my feeble protests. 

For the rest of that night, I couldn't explain to myself what just happened.

I don't think gaijin is going to be grossly used out of proportion.  There's already another word used to describe unseemly foreigners: kuso gaijin (stinkin' foreigners).  What I'm more afraid of is that given time, ill-mannered foreigners themselves may become the portrait of Americans, painting the wrong image for the majority. 

Who would be to blame then?

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3 Responses to “Is the word “gaijin” a derogatory slur?”

  1. 1 Jeff D August 16, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Racism and sexism didn't appear to be that big a deal to the Japanese when I was there though I never experienced it in the way you did (I simply wouldn't fit in a capsule hotel so never tried.)I did have a friend who, while out in Osaka with a Japanese friend, was denied entrance into a gentleman's club because he was a foreigner.

  2. 2 patapete August 16, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    That's interesting you mention that. Weren't you living in Japan for quite a time?

  3. 3 Jeff D August 17, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    yeah, from September 2006-January 2007

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