Earlier this week, website Netallica posted an interesting little article entitled “The Things That Foreigners in Japan Hate to Hear” for its predominantly Japanese readership. Naturally, classics like “wow, you’re so good at Japanese”, and “you’re very good with chopsticks” were flagged as the main offenders, which I’m sure many gaijin (a term I use intentionally and will come back to later) will no doubt empathise with and would be happy to hear a little less frequently, but overall there were few phrases that could not be reasonably perceived as stemming from either the speaker’s genuine desire to compliment the listener or simple naivety.

It’s difficult to broach this topic- especially as a cynical Brit who loves a good grumble- without it quickly turning into a cliché-ridden compendium of gripes about life in Japan as a foreigner or an ill-advised rant about how comments of this nature are, in fact, some kind of backhanded attempt to draw a line between foreigners and Japanese; and goodness knows there are plenty of those out there.

There are, nevertheless, a number of phrases that foreigners living in Japan have heard a thousand times and would definitely prefer Japanese people knew aren’t always received in the way that they are probably intended…

Among the responses received from foreigners living in Japan, the most common complaints were of Japanese openly commenting on or complimenting a person’s size, body shape or facial features; over-zealous praise of Japanese language skills regardless of actual ability (or lack thereof); Japanese pointing out a foreigner in a crowd for no reason other than their being a foreigner; and passing comment about a foreigner whilst falsely assuming that they cannot understand what’s being said.

After presenting these gripes, Netallica’s article switches its attention to the use of the word “gaijin”, with some respondents to the survey arguing that the word does little more than segregate foreigners and native Japanese, while others responding that they use it freely and couldn’t care less if the word is used to refer to them.

In preparation for this article, I spoke with a number of foreigners living in Japan, as well as members of our own RocketNews24 writing staff regarding their perception of the word. On the whole, few people took issue with the term, and were more concerned with some Japanese people’s seemingly genuine belief in national stereotypes like “all Americans love hamburgers and own guns”, or suggesting that individual differences of opinion are a result of country-specific character traits, rather than the individual’s thoughts and feelings.

To this writer’s mind, the word “gaijin” is little more than an abbreviation of the word “gaikokujin”- namely, gai, koku and jin (“foreign” or “outside”, “country” and “person”, respectively). True, “gaijin” could potentially be interpreted literally—thus becoming the rather severe sounding “outside person”– but in the land where everything from family restaurant (fami-resu) to Tokyo’s famous Ajinomoto Stadium (aji-suta) is shortened to the degree that the word comes close to losing all meaning, it’s quite probable that the word “gaijin” is for the most-part a benign moniker.

While I’m sure that we all have our own interpretations of the term, my own personal feeling is that the word “gaijin”, while not offensive in itself, is a rather informal one, and as a result ought not to be used in a formal setting or when addressing people with whom we are unfamiliar. For me, a person with whom I’m not well acquainted using the term “gaijin” is not dissimilar to a Japanese omitting the term “san” (a polite suffix not unlike “Mr.” or “Ms.”) after a person’s name; overly friendly and a little blunt. Rather than interpreting the word “gaijin” as some kind of socially alienating tool of destruction, I personally prefer to focus on how and where it’s used; although I’d prefer not to hear it at a business meeting, once we’re on first-name terms or chatting over beers, people can use the word “gaijin” as much as they want. We can fist-bump, too, if they like…

With articles like Netallica’s becoming more and more common, and with the gaijin side of life in Japanese society being put under the spotlight more frequently, it’s fair to suggest that attitudes are starting to change on this little island that we all love so much. Who knows- with foreigners’ sensitivity to these issues being brought to Japan’s attention in this way, maybe a few years from now, we’ll all be twirling our chopsticks like batons, desperately scanning the room in search of a compliment or a nod of approval. Until then, we’re all going to do our best to smile politely the next time someone compliments our chopstick skills, aren’t we?

Source: Netallica via Yahoo Japan

Title image: The Karate Kid 1984 Columbia Pictures