Ah, gaijin. It’s a word that means so much to four groups. The first of these groups are the average Japanese folk who use the term “gaijin” in an unconscious way because in their minds there are Japanese and non-Japanese. They don’t mean “foreigner” in a way that Americans might use it. Don’t think I’m a Japan-apologist, I love calling Japan on its weird shit, but I’ve given up on the idea that Japanese are inherently racist. The average Japanese is more ignorant (I mean that in a dictionary-style definition of the word) than hateful. Put simply, they just don’t know any better. Their parents said “gaijin”, people in movies said “gaijin” and it just became part of their vocabulary. And it’s not a “bad” word per-se, it’s that we foreigners have made it feel that way, to ourselves.
There’s a second, decidedly hateful group of Japanese who use “gaijin” to mean “people we want out of our country”. These are the guys who drive around town in their black mini-vans and blare their hateful and small-minded ideas out of their loudspeakers. These are also the guys that when they talk about “foreign crime”, they’re talking about Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos. For all our crimes of being “foreign”, white foreigners aren’t included in the “foreign crime” problem, we’re just English teachers looking to steal their women.
The third group would be the foreigners who moved to Japan for monetary reasons. Folks from less prosperous countries who come to Japan looking for work and a better life. I’m not part of this group, but I get the feeling from talking to some people in this situation that they’re way less concerned about being called “gaijin” and more worried about just getting by. In short, they’ve got bigger fish to fry.
The last group are the foreigners from well-to-do countries that come to Japan to study Japanese, be anime nerds, teach English, become the next top pickup artist or sometimes, that person who’s going to “change Japan”. This is the group that usually gets up in arms about the word “gaijin” and have the most to say about racism in Japan. Japanese people don’t think racism exists in Japan because most Japanese people don’t have a lot of interactions with people ethnically different from themselves and it’s not talked about in the Japanese media. The foreigners who comes from Western countries, especially the USA, we have plenty of experience with racism and discrimination and can’t wait to tell the Japanese that they’re getting it all wrong. This can be extended to and sort of advocacy in Japan. Foreigners will often talk about gay or women’s rights here, but nothing is ever done about it. You can tell your opinion to Twitter and Facebook till you’re blue in the face, but unless you’re printing signs and getting out in the street, you’re never going to change anything. But Japanese people don’t want to hear what you have to say, any more than an American wants to be told by a foreigner about America’s problem with obesity.
Having said all of this, I’ll share a story about a conversation I had at a bar here in Japan. I’m sitting at a bar, owned by a Nigerian and I’m talking with two Japanese and one Ugandan. It’s a diverse crowd. We got to talking about discrimination and being a foreigner, and because I’m American, my country’s history with racism and discrimination comes up. Surprisingly, every else was of the mind that “the past is the past” and as long as we’re working on living together peacefully, we shouldn’t dwell on the sins of our fathers. This led the Uganda fellow to tell me that he didn’t much care for African-Americans because they whine about slavery too much. So much for “we’re all one”. And because I’m well aware of Japanese people’s dislike of the Chinese, I asked the two Japanese people in the bar if they liked Chinese people. One said, “Fuck no!” and the other said, “I fucking hate Chinese people!” This was all in English, so don’t worry that I’m taking liberties with translation. They did admit that people from Hong Kong and Taiwan are okay, but that the mainlanders can go fuck themselves. And as a bit of a game, I ask every new Japanese drinking buddy if they like Chinese people. In the nearly 10 years I’ve spent in Japan, only one person didn’t say “No.”
So, what did we learn? It’s no use talking to Japanese people about racism. Why? Because Japanese people have different definitions of racism. It would seem like the Japanese definition of “racism” is pretty “black and white” and it’s only racism if you discriminate against black people. Hating Chinese and Koreans, that isn’t racism to most Japanese people, it’s just what you do.