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Gaijin (外人, ) (literally and originally meaning "outside person") is a Japanese word for "foreigner," "non-Japanese", "alien," "outsider" or "different." The word is composed of two kanji: gai[gai] (), meaning "outside"; and jin (), meaning "person." There are similarly composed words to refer to foreign things, most fundamentally gaikoku[gaikoku] (外国, foreign country), but also to various other things such as the common words gaisha[gaiʃa] (外車, foreign car), gaika (外貨, foreign cash), and gaitame[gaitame] (外為, foreign exchange). The word can refer to nationality, race, or ethnicity, but in Japanese these are generally conflated.

Some modern commentators feel that the word is now negative or pejorative in connotation and thus offensive.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Other observers say the word can also be used neutrally or positively.[2][7][8][9][10] One scholar suggests that the term has become controversial and is avoided now by most Japanese television broadcasters.[11] The uncontroversial,[11] if slightly formal, gaikokujin (外国人, foreign-country person), is commonly used instead.[11] However, even gaikokujin is avoided by some people, who might use the honorific form gaikoku no kata (外国の方, gentleman/woman of a foreign country) instead. Similarly, some people might not use gaisha (foreign car), but use gaikoku no kuruma (foreign countries' cars) if they receive interviews and have to speak in front of TV cameras.


  • Etymology and history 1
  • Usage 2
  • Flyjin 3
  • Foreign residents in Japan 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7

Etymology and history

The word gaijin is of ancient provenance and was initially not applied to foreigners. It can be traced in writing back to Heike Monogatari, written early in the 13th century:

Assembling arms where there are no gaijin[note 1]

Here, gaijin is used to refer to outsiders[13][14] and potential enemies.[15] Another early reference is in Renri Hishō (c. 1349) by Nijō Yoshimoto, where it is used to refer to a (Japanese) person who is a stranger, not a friend.[15] The Noh play, Kurama tengu[16] also has a dialog where a servant objects to the appearance of a traveling monk:

A gaijin doesn't belong here, where children from the Genji and Heike families are playing.

Here, gaijin also means an outsider/stranger or an unknown/unfamiliar person.[17]

Historically, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to visit Japan, were known as nanbanjin (literally "southern barbarians"). When British and Dutch adventurers such as William Adams arrived in Japan fifty years later in the early 17th century, they were usually known as kōmōjin ("red-haired people"), a term still used in Hokkien Chinese today.

When the Tokugawa shogunate was forced to open Japan to foreign contact, Westerners were commonly referred to as ijin ("different people"), a shortened form of ikokujin ("different country person") or ihōjin ("different motherland people"), terms previously used for Japanese from different feudal (that is, foreign) states. Ketō, literally meaning "hairy Tang", was (and is) used as a pejorative for Chinese and Westerners.[18]

The word gaikokujin (外国人) is composed of gaikoku (foreign country) and jin (person), so the word literally means "foreign-country person". The term was introduced and popularized by the Meiji government (1868–1912), and this gradually replaced ijin, ikokujin and ihōjin. As the empire of Japan extended to Korea and Taiwan, the term naikokujin ("inside country people") was used to refer to nationals of other territories of the Empire of Japan. While other terms fell out of use after World War II, gaikokujin remained as the official government term for non-Japanese people. The modern word gaijin is held by some writers to be a simple contraction of gaikokujin.[11]


Foreigners in Japan in 2000 by citizenship.[19]

While all forms of the word mean "foreigner" or "outsider", in practice gaikokujin and gaijin are commonly used to refer to racially non-Japanese groups,[20] principally Caucasians.[9][21][22][23][24][25] However the term is also sometimes applied to ethnic Japanese born and raised in other countries.[23][26] Gaijin is also commonly used within Japanese events such as baseball (there is a limit to non-Japanese players in NPB) and professional wrestling to collectively refer to the visiting performers from the west who will frequently tour the country.[27]

Japanese speakers commonly refer to non-Japanese people as gaijin even while they are overseas. Also, people of Japanese descent native to other countries (especially those countries with large Japanese communities) might also call non-descendants gaijin, as a counterpart to nikkei.[26]

Historically, some usage of the word "gaijin" referred respectfully to the prestige and wealth of Caucasians or the power of western businesses.[8][28][29] This interpretation of the term as positive or neutral in tone continues for some.[2][3][7][9][10][30][31] However, though the term may be used without negative intent by many Japanese speakers,[1] it is seen as derogatory by some[4][5][6] and reflective of exclusionary attitudes.[1][2][11][24][30][32]
"While the term itself has no derogatory meaning, it emphasizes the exclusiveness of Japanese attitude and has therefore picked up pejorative connotations that many Westerners resent." Mayumi Itoh (1995)[3]

The term is avoided by mainstream Japanese media whenever possible.[11][33] Now that gaijin has become somewhat politically incorrect, it is common to refer to non-Japanese as gaikokujin.[24][33] However if the honorific san is attached to the word Gaijin as Gaijin-san, some see it as a friendly expression.

Gaijin also appears frequently in Western literature and pop culture. It forms the title of such novels as Marc Olden's Gaijin (New York: Arbor House, 1986), James Melville's Go gently, gaijin (New York : St. Martin's Press, 1986), James Kirkup's Gaijin on the Ginza (London: Chester Springs, 1991) and James Clavell's Gai-Jin (New York: Delacorte Press, 1993), as well as a song by Nick Lowe. It is the title of feature films such as Tizuka Yamazaki's Gaijin - Os Caminhos da Liberdade (1980) and Gaijin - Ama-me Como Sou (2005), as well as animation shorts such as Fumi Inoue's Gaijin (2003). It is a recurring word in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), where it is used to refer to both the main character, an American, and his love interest. The author Ben Mezrich uses the word "gaijin" frequently in his book, Ugly Americans to refer to the society of Americans making their living from the Japanese stock market.


Foreigners and the English-language media in Japan coined the comical and/or pejorative term "flyjin" (or fly-jin, fly person), a play on the word gaijin, as a label for the non-Japanese who fled Japan in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Approximately 531,000 non-Japanese in Japan departed the country after the disaster. Some have since returned.[34][35][36][37][38]

Foreign residents in Japan

See also


  1. ^ The 13th-century pronunciation of the characters 外人 is debated; it may have been kotobito (ことびと), udokihito (うどきひと) or gwaijin (ぐわいじん). The spelling gaijin is used here for continuity.


  1. ^ a b c Wetherall, William (1983). "" 2. Tokyo: Kodansha. pp. 313–4. 
  2. ^ a b c d Buckley, Sandra (2002). "Gaijin". Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture. Taylor and Francis. pp. 161–2.  
  3. ^ a b c Itoh, Mayumi (Summer 1996). "Japan's abiding sakoku mentality - seclusion from other countries - Economic Myths Explained". Orbis (Foreign Policy Research Institute / JAI Press Inc.) 40 (3). 
  4. ^ a b De Mente, Boye Lafayette (1994). "Japanese Etiquette & Ethics In Business". McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 159.  
  5. ^ a b Hsu, Robert (1993). "The MIT Encyclopedia of the Japanese Economy". MIT Press. p. 195.  
  6. ^ a b Wetherall, William; de Vos, George A (1976). "Ethnic Minorities in Japan". In Veenhoven, Willem Adriaan; Crum Ewing, Winifred. Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: A World Survey. Stichting Plurale. p. 384.  
  7. ^ a b Kitahara, Michio (1989). Children of the Sun: the Japanese and the Outside World. Sandgate, Folkestone, England: Paul Norbury Publications. pp. 117, 516. "For example, gaijin literally means a "person from outside", namely a foreigner, and that means "Caucasian"."
  8. ^ a b Lie, John (2000). "The Discourse of Japaneseness". In Douglass,, Mike; Roberts, Glenda Susan. Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Routledge. p. 75.  
  9. ^ a b c Befu, Harumi (2001). Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Trans Pacific Press. p. 76.  "In the generic sense, [Gaijin] refers to all foreigners; but in daily usage it designates only Caucasians—that is, those foreigners who are worthy of admiration in some respects"
  10. ^ a b Koshiro, Yukiko (1999). Trans-Pacific Racisms and the U.S. Occupation of Japan. Columbia University Press. p. 114.  
  11. ^ a b c d e f Gottlieb, Nanette (2005). "Language and Society in Japan". Cambridge University Press. pp. 117–8.   "Gaikokujin is uncontroversial and simply means a person who does not hold Japanese citizenship; it is the more common contracted version that has been the subject of irritated complaint: people may be pointed at by children and have the word gaijin either shouted or whispered though this is much less common in Japan today than it was thirty years ago. At a deeper level, though, it is the connotation of exclusion and oddity that irks, particularly when the term is combined with the adjective hen na to mean 'peculiar foreigner,' a term once often heard on Japanese television shows. The term gaijin itself is included these days by most broadcasters on their list of terms best avoided."
  12. ^ 高木, 市之助; 小沢正夫, 渥美かをる, 金田一春彦 (1959). 日本古典文学大系: 平家物語 (in Japanese). 岩波書店. p. 123.  
  13. ^ A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijirin (大辞林), (p. 397, 9th ed., vol. 1). (1989). Tokyo: Sanseido. "がいじん【外人】② そのことに関係のない人。第三者。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ/平家一」"
  14. ^ A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijisen (大辞泉), (p. 437, 1st ed., vol. 1). (1998). Tokyo: Shogakukan. "がいじん。【外人】② 仲間以外の人。他人。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ」〈平家・一〉"
  15. ^ a b "外人".  
  16. ^ (Japanese) 鞍馬天狗, Ohtsuki Noh Theatre.
  17. ^ M. Yamaguchi et al. (eds.), Shinkango jiten (新漢語辞典), (p. 282, 2nd ed., vol. 1). (2000). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten Publishing. "【外人】② 局外者。他人。「源平両家の童形たちのおのおのござ候ふに、かやうの外人は然るべからず候」 "
  18. ^ "毛唐人".  
  19. ^ Japan Statistics Bureau, accessed 8 December 2007 Archived December 25, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Lee, Soo im (2006). Japan's Diversity Dilemmas: Ethnicity, Citizenship, and Education. iUniverse. p. 102.  
  21. ^ Reischauer, Edwin O. (1981). Japan: the Story of a Nation. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 255. 
  22. ^ Wilkinson, Endymion (1980). Japan versus Europe: a History of Misunderstanding. London: Penguin Books. p. 126. 
  23. ^ a b Koshiro, Yukiko (1999). Trans-Pacific Racisms and the U.S. Occupation of Japan. Columbia University Press. p. 254.  
  24. ^ a b c Lie, John (1999). Multiethnic Japan. Harvard University Press. p. 20.  
  25. ^ Creighton, Millie (1997). "Soto Others and Uchi Others: Imaging racial diversity, imagining homogeneous Japan". In Weiner, Michael. Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity. Routledge. p. 212.  
  26. ^ a b Tsuda, Takeyuki (2003). Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return. Columbia University Press.  
  27. ^ Sibley, Adam (2008-02-13). "NOAH limits as Japan hits". The Sun. Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  28. ^ Suzuki, Jiro; Sakamoto, Mickey (1976). "Discrimination against foreigners of Japanese descent in Japan". In Veenhoven, Willem Adriaan; Crum Ewing, Winifred. Case Studies on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: A World Survey. Stichting Plurale. p. 274.  
  29. ^ Meredith Stuart, Paul (1987). Nihonsense. Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd. pp. 3–5. "Not all foreigners are gaijin to Japanese and quite a few natives of Japan are gaijin. There is a logic to this mess, but it is hardly logical. It is true that 'American' (Amerikajin) is a synonym for gaijin for many Japanese. At one time, at least when the U.S. auto industry was undisputed leader of world autodom, the term connoted awe and respect."
  30. ^ a b Thomas Dillon, "Born and raised a 'gaijin', Japan Times, December 24, 2005
  31. ^ Wada, Minoru (20 June 1994). "Education behind the scenes".  
  32. ^ Sugihara, Kaoru; Allan, John Anthony (1993). Japan in the Contemporary Middle East. Routledge. p. 150.  
  33. ^ a b Whiting, Robert (2004). "The Meaning of Ichiro". Warner Books. p. 152.  
  34. ^ Metropolis, "The Small Print: See Ya!", #893, 6–19 May 2011, p. 4.
  35. ^ Gondor, Derek, "'Fly-jin' face fallout from decision to go", Japan Times, 5 April 2011.
  36. ^ Arudou, Debito, "Better to be branded a 'flyjin' than a man of the 'sheeple'", Japan Times, 3 May 2011.
  37. ^ Japan Times, "'Flyjin' rather few", 6 May 2012, p. 6
  38. ^ Budmar, Patrick, "'Flyjin' feel vindicated, worry for those left in Japan", Japan Times, 12 June 2012, p. 16
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