There has been much debate on the terms “gaijin” (foreign/outside person) and “nigger” lately in Japan among the foreign community. In a series of articles published in the Japan Times, professor, activist, and coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants, Arudou Debito comes out swinging. Here is his latest article: THE CASE FOR “GAIJIN” AS A RACIST WORD: THE SEQUEL – LET’S COME CLEAN ON “GAIJIN” [Published September 2, 2008 as “The ‘gaijin’ debate: Arudou responds”]

Last month’s column (JBC August 5) was on the word “gaijin”. I made the case that it is a racist word, one that reinforces an “us-and-them” rubric towards foreigners and their children in Japan. It generated a lot of debate. Good. Thanks for your time. Now let’s devote 700 more words to some issues raised.

Regarding the arguments about intent, i.e. “People use the word gaijin, but don’t mean it in a derogatory way”. The root issue here is, “Who decides whether a word is bad?” Is it the speaker using the word, or the person being addressed by it?

Ditto for the word gaijin. People like me who have lived here for many years, even assimilated to the point of taking citizenship, don’t want to be called “gaijin” anymore. We can be forgiven for taking umbrage, for not wanting to be pushed back into the pigeonhole. Don’t tell us who we are–we’ll decide for ourselves who we are, especially in our own country, thanks. So stoppit.

Now for the more controversial claim: my linking “gaijin” with “n*gg*r”. Although I was not equating their histories, I was drawing attention to their common effect–stripping societies of diversity.

You can read the rest of the article and numerous comments here.

Here is the response that I (Zurui) sent:A very interesting debate! I’ve been lurking but I think that I need to weigh in and speak not only for myself but for others that have emailed me from Black Tokyo (BT). I will hopefully post one of my infamous long responses on BT before the end of the week.

My brother-in-law taught his Japanese daughters to refer to “unknown” foreigners as gaikokujin if they are unsure of the nationality. My just about 90 year old grandmother-in-law uses gaikokujin but sometimes slips up and says gaijin. I give her a pass due to age and generation. I figure that if she can make an effort, others in Japan can also. I believe that all my Japanese relatives and friends (and I have many from my time spent (18-years total) in Japan [beginning in 1981] understands the difference between gaijin and kuronbo (nigger) and probably would not use the later.

I have been called gaijin in Japan but the term that many Japanese use in referring to me or others “like” me is “kokujin” (black person). Usually (almost immediately) I correct the speaker and have them refer to me by name, title, or nationality. If referring to folks in my native country, I tell the speaker to use American. I further give a quick lesson on diversity which leads to the offender wishing that the word gaijin was never sprayed my way.

I do not like the word gaijin. Using it is taking the easy way out and does nothing but foster a type of racism. I am sure that some of the readers here have heard “gaijin” used in a derogatory manner. It sort of like a person saying, “those damn (fill in the nationality)” when you’re pissed off that someone has taken “your” job, moved to “your” country, one of “them” started banging “your” precious daughter, or whatever else earns “those…”

Politicians like Ishihara can break gaijin down and instead use “sangokujin” (third country person/third country national) to slam the point home. The drunk dude in the shotengai that used his face to catch the force of my friends foot probably knows that he should never use the word “kuronbo” in an attempt to piss off some random “buraku” (black) guy. Now he probably knows that gaijin (commonly used for caucasians) is safe and may not get a rise from those of the darker persuasion. Many Japanese my age that I meet at an izakaya or soul bar use “brotha” when referring to me and other “black men” from America.

My wife got a close and personal observation of how gaijin is used in business. We visited a realtor to lease an apartment or a house. The agent made calls to numerous owners and most said no deal in renting to gaijin. Some homeowners would rent to gaijin if my wife (a.k.a. Japanese, safe, and a link to the parents if something went wrong) signed. I said NO to that! However, ONE homeowner said OK to rent to gaijin. The homeowner posed a question to the realtor. My wife and I did not hear the question but the realtor’s body language and his response to the question seemed like someone dropped a nuke on my wife. “Anooooooo kokujin desu!” Ahhh, he’s black! Not American, not just gaijin, but kokujin! My wife was frickin’ livid!

The agent spend another 30 or so seconds on the phone, hung up and proceeded to apologize for not being able to find us an apartment. Another agent walks in, recognizes me from TV commercials and print ads and proceeds to get an update from his partner. The second agent calls the last homeowner, explains that he can vouch for me and states that I am an American with over a decade in Japan. He also told the homeowner that I was a talento (ching, money, call the Fuji TV or TBS if something goes wrong). The owner agreed to rent and my wife refused to let me drop even one yen. In the end, we found a GREAT person to rent from and I sent many of my “non-Japanese” friends to my realtor.

Well, I warned you about my long posts but remember, there are “gaijin” out there that still stand by the lie that Japanese are clueless when it comes to racial matters. I always tell them to try the “Guess who’s coming to dinner” test. This works especially well if a Japanese daughter is involved.

The bottom line for me is that gaijin does not carry the same meaning, meanness or historical message as the N word. And, the N word by definition does not equate to Blacks, Africans, African Americans and other “dark” people by default! That is why Paul Mooney said that if you quickly say the N word three times, your teeth will turner whiter.

Again, good debate. Now if only people would be as passionate about housing discrimination.

BTW, I forgot the fail safe way to understanding the difference between “gaijin” and “nigger” for those in Japan.

Find a group of African-American men (US military, random dudes working on the local economy, other) and ask: “Are there a lot of gaijin around here?”

Wait for a response.

Then ask: “Are there usually a lot of niggers around here?”

Wait for a response.

If the response is the same, case closed!

What do you think?