`Gaijin' is a contraction of the word `gaikokujin', and literally means "foreigner". The Japanese language has several cases of using `gai' (outside) plus a noun to indicate one of `noun' from another country. For example `gaisha' for foreign cars, `gaijin' for foreign people, `gaika' for foreign currencies.

Some people are deeply offended by the word, saying that `gaijin' refers to outsiders rife with undesirable characteristics. There is no doubt that is one meaning of the word.

`Gaijin' is also used in many cases where it is probably not intended as a negative statement. Consider that it is common in the Japanese language to address people whose names are not known, or even if names are known, by titles: `omawari san', Mr. Policeman; `sushiya san', Mr. Sushi Shop. It is not unusual for a Japanese speaker to call a non Japanese who is otherwise not known, `gaijin san'.

Note that:
  • The language also has much stronger words for cases where a speaker wants to discriminate or insult.
  • Non-Asian foreigners will be called `gaijin' by many Japanese.

From the soc.culture.japan FAQ.
In Stephen Baxter’s “Space” (book two in the Manifold Series), the Gaijin are the first aliens to be discovered. When I originally read the book, I assumed that Gaijin was an invented name, but the wonders of E2 have shown me otherwise. They were discovered by Nemoto, who chose to call them simply “foreign” or “alien” in her own language.

And alien is certainly what they are. They are slightly irregular, chunky, metallic dodecahedra, with limbs ending in tools and multi-tools here and there in an asymmetrical manner. When most people see a Gaijin, they assume they are not life, because they fail to meet almost every criteria that we use to identify living things by sight. A typical Gaijin is described here:

A variety of instruments, cameras and other sensors, protruded from the dodecahedron’s skin, and the skin itself was covered with fine bristly wires . Three big robot arms stuck out of that torso, each articulated in two or three places. Two of the arms were resting on the ground, but the third was waving around in the air, fine manipulators at the terminus end working
Despite the Gaijin usually being described as robots, or robotic, they actually evolved naturally on their homeworld, referred to as 0000 (becuase it is the first to be numbered in the Gaijin planet cataloguing system). 0000 is a cannonball world, gigantic iron core and a thin crust (in the context of the book, it seems likely that it was once a larger planet, which has been stripped of outer rock).

The Gaijin have little or no sense of identity, with identity/name/self simply being a list of component parts which are interchangeable. Early in the book, a Gaijin is seen taking itself apart for medical/technical analysis.

The Gaijin use the blue-hoop-teleportation-devices to travel interstellar distances and in Gaijin flower-ships, advanced Bussard ramjet ships, for regular interplanetary travel. They are seen mining helium3 from asteroids with nanotechnology, and have highly efficient solar arrays that beam power to microwave recieving stations on planets.

The meaning of the word gaijin 外人
  1. 仲間以外の人。疎遠の人。 nakama igai no hito. soen no hito.
    A person who is not a friend or of one's group. A distant person.
  2. 敵視すべき人。 tekishi subeki hito.
    A person who should be seen as hostile.
  3. 外国人。異人。opp.邦人。 gaikokujin. ijin. hantaigo houjin.
    A foreign person. A person of another culture. opposite: <<person-from-speaker's-country>> (ie. if speaker is a Japanese person, this word means "Japanese".)

source: Koujien 5th ed. English "translation" arbitrarily assigned by me. (This is a CST Approved use of copyrighted material.)

It is easy to see why many literate gaijin resent the casual usage of this word. The ancient usage of this word is to mean an enemy or outsider, someone who does not belong. It is a reminder that one's appearance will always mean that one does not really belong, even if gotten used to. However, in my experience, this is still the default word of choice of Japanese, adults and children, housewives and TV stars alike. This label becomes very frustrating after one has lost one's gaijinity.

The proper word, gaikokujin, is generally only used on Japanese news (not to be confused with Japanese News-Like Variety Shows) or in formal situations. Even more polite phrases exist, such as gaikoku no kata. These are almost never used in conversation, perhaps because they are cumbersome to say.

When normal Japanese people make an effort to be polite in the presence of gaijin, they will often use the suffix -san: gaijin-san. -san is often used as a softener in Japanese; an example is okama-san, "Mr. Faggot". I have heard many a flustered Japanese use the pleonasm "gaijin no hito", (an addition made superfluous by the double use of "jin" and "hito", both the same Chinese character) in a vain attempt to make gaijin sound more correct. On the other hand, in places such as Roppongi where gaijin abound, it was at one point trendy to reverse the reading of the word as jingai, so as not to be understood by the gaijin.

Gaijin almost always use the word "gaijin" to refer to themselves and other gaijin, perhaps because that word best captures the bittersweet ironies of life in Japanese society. I've heard about African-Americans internally referring to themselves as nigger, and I think it's probably a very similar situation.

Why a white person is always gaijin, but a Korean, Chinese, or other Asian Person is not

It occurred to me while talking to a close Japanese friend that it's exactly the same reason that to me, a Canadian, an American would never be "a foreigner". Due to proximity and shared history, the label "American" outweighs "foreigner."

An Asian-American or -European may also be gaijin, especially when making a gaijin mistake such as wearing the wrong slippers, but is more likely to be categorized as a nikkei or haafu.

For occidentals, this label seems to be placed entirely on appearance, rather than behaviour. However, in my short two year history living in Japan, I (a caucasian and quite visibly non-Japanese) have been twice asked if I am Japanese. Compared to the amount of times I have been called "gaijin", this may be statistically insignificant, but both times were much more shocking than every shocked gaijin face combined.

Other Nodes

James Clavell wrote several historical novels about gaijin, one of which is even named Gai-jin.

Sure, you may be a gaijin, but are you a card-carrying gaijin?

Foreigners in Japan

According to the Japanese National Statistical Institute, in 2000 there were 1,310,545 foreigners of all ages, 621,046 males and 689,499 females. The most represented nationalities include:


Why the number of Peruvians and Brazillians ? Many are of Japanese ancestry.

Around 15,000 foreigners a year acquire Japanese citizenship, mostly Koreans and Chinese. One former Finn who became Japanese, Tsurunen Marutei, became a member of the Japanese Diet.


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