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Gaijin versus Gaikokujin: Context is everything!

“Gaijin” is just a regular slang word but in any situation, the way you say things can change the meaning behind it.

The Origin trail : Compare and contrast: 外人(gaijin) and 外国人(gaikokujin)

When studying the Japanese language, looking at the kanji characters of words you are studying can give you a hint on the words meaning despite not knowing what the actual word is. With that being said, let’s look at the kanji of the two words we will be talking about today.

外国人 (gaikokujin)

Consisting of 3 kanji characters, 外 (gai: outside), 国 (koku: country), and 人 (jin: person).

外人 (gaijin)

The word itself consists of 2 kanji characters, 外 (gai: outside) and 人 (jin: person)

As seen above, “Gaijin” refers to an outsider, while “Gaikokujin” refers to someone from a country outside your own. Take it with a grain of salt though because remember that language changes with time and are replaced by up to date meanings. Words then and now have different interpretations to today’s more modern society. 

It was only in the 1800’s when the word “gaikokujin” was introduced while gaijin has been around for centuries. The Meiji government coined it as a more polite, formal way of referring to foreign nationals. That action in itself has proven that there is recognition and respect towards foreigners in Japan. Gaijin has been a term used for a long time and although can be offensive to some more “woke” foreigners, it’s actually just a colloquial slang word used by the Japanese to refer to a foreigner without any malice.

It’s not you… It’s history


The term “gaijin” has been around for centuries and honestly, has not been used in a good way. For culture buffs who are quite into Japanese literature, “Heike Monogatari” would be one of the top, if not most, exceptional works of Japanese literature of the last 1,000 years. The term “gaijin” can be found here and is portrayed as an enemy. 

Gaijin mo naki tokoro ni heigu wo to no e
Prepare weapons even where there are no gaijin

You can’t blame them! It’s not a Japan thing, but a history thing. Foreigners occupying your native land usually ends with horrible consequences and in a way, has increased patriotism (and sad to say, racism) in almost every country in the world.

In hindsight, Japan isn’t the most innocent country when it comes to these things (ahem, ask WW2) but before the 21’st century, history did dictate how people from other countries, or other countries themselves, cannot be trusted and are portrayed as enemies. Anyway, to get to the main point, the world has changed so much and such behavior has no place in current society and is pretty much frowned upon in every country you go to. IT’S THE 21’ST CENTURY, PEOPLE. 

Gaijin ? The Japanese side of things

As non-Japanese people,  some feel offended by the term “gaijin” and some dont really care… But seriously, what do Japanese people imply when they use “gaijin”?

Slang in modern society

In modern society, “gaijin” is a very “young” and casual term used by Japanese people without batting an eyelash. If you are a foreigner in Japan, go out and talk to actual Japanese people and you will soon figure out that it is a very common term used in casual conversation and absolutely has no malice attached to it.

If looked at in a different perspective, this situation is very similar to what we have with modern slang words. Unbeknownst to most people, a lot of the slang words we use in our everyday English vocabulary has very discriminatory or offensive origins. Try googling the origin of  basket case, spaz, or even “rule of thumb”. Although these words are used nonchalantly in everyday conversation, they actually have very insidious origins without the speakers knowledge. Obviously, when spoken to a person who does know about the real meaning behind it, can either be offended by it or not.


Let’s be honest, context isn’t only important in Japanese, but in pretty much every language! Meaning doesn’t only come from word definition so let’s break it down into 3 things.

Intent/purpose of the speaker 

Example: If the term itself is used simply to refer to a foreigner in a casual conversation between friends versus a Japanese man using the term gaijin with the intention to insult, hurt and ostracize a foreigner

The understanding of the person using it

Example: Japanese people simply referring to foreigners as gaijin without fully understanding that it can be an offensive word versus a person despite knowing how offensive it might be, continues to use it especially when they want to get under a foreigners skin.

How the receiver reacts to it

Example: In the situation that a foreigner is called a gaijin without malice but is reciprocated by anger and violence versus a situation where a foreigner is called a gaijin with no malice and the foreigner, instead of causing a scene, instead informs the Japanese person of how it can be offensive to some people.

Example: Depending on the 3 things above, it can alter how the word “gaijin” is received or portrayed. Technically speaking, the term “gaijin” is not only debated between foreigners, but Japanese people as well since the meaning changes depending on its usage.

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YOU get to decide if it’s offensive or not

As a foreigner, you are technically a representative of all foreigners living in Japan. Think about it this way, depending on how you act, defines how the term “gaijin” is portrayed. The more negative a foreigners behavior is, the more negatively the term “gaijin” will be used and seen.

The more positive a foreigners behavior is, the more positively the term “gaijin” will be use and seen. It is mainly up to you whether or not you will represent foreigners in a good or bad light. A lot of foreigners put up an image of where they “don’t care”, but please remember that as a foreigner, you are on their land as a guest. Respect their culture, land, and rules. It’s a very simple thing to do.

A simple word like “gaijin” should not define you as a person and shouldnt be used as a catalyst for hate and violence. As long as you don’t see it as a racist, derogatory term, then it won’t be. Use it as your armour and remember, being a gaijin isn’t all that bad because sometimes, you can get away with a lot of things simply because you are not Japanese.


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