Gaijin, pronounced “guy-jin” is a Japanese word meaning “foreigner”.
But it is much more than that.
I lived in Japan 1972-1975 as an Army officer. And I had studied Japanese for four semesters in college to satisfy my language requirements. A solid C-student, I came away with the speaking and reading ability of a Japanese second grader. But I had a good ear for spoken Japanese.
My secretary there, Mrs Minami, who I’ve written about at VeteransTales.org, was an American-born Japanese who had spent WWII in an internment camp out west. She was a GS-grade secretary, and my anchor as to Japanese ways. We were good friends and exchanged letters into the 90s, long after I left the Army.
Mrs Minami schooled me about manners in speaking with Japanese, as there were three ways to speak to a person, depending on their rank; someone beneath you, someone your equal, and someone above you. I was eager to learn this, for if I spoke in the honorific to a Japanese man, he would think I was not a mere “gaijin”, which, as every secretary who tried to talk to John Kerry knows, goes nowhere..
Mrs Minami warned me about that word “gaijin” as well as two other terms I had learned in college that were not acceptable in Japan any longer; “Kon-koku-jin” and “Kai-koku-jin”, which were names Japanese had used for Koreans and Chinese during their occupation during World War II. “Never call a Korean, of which there many in Japan, Konkokujin, for it is a great insult” she warned.
The other word she advised me against was “gai-jin”, which, as Google will tell you means “foreigner.” Only it means so much more. It really meant “dirty, filthy foreigner”. She said “gaijin” was similar to what white Americans once called Negros while she was a girl in Wyoming. You know, the N-word, only color had nothing to do with it. It meant every foreigner.
And the Japanese government had carried on a national campaign against its use since the 1950s. It was never used in respectable company, but still, you heard it muttered on the streets, usually by lower classes, and usually because they thought the foreigners wouldn’t understand them. I heard it many times, mostly in bars, crowded restaurants and crowded trains during rush hour.
I even had the chance to throw it back at them once, while on a beach in Hawaii.
There is this beautiful off-the-beaten path place on Oahu, called Hanauma Bay. which is a meteor crater with one side collapsed, the ocean filling in. You can see the first several yards is a coral reef, which is so shallow you can crawl across the reefs with a snorkel and view the most wonderful array of tropical fish-life, without even having to know how to swim.
I traveled back and forth to Hawaii a few times, for trials, and this was the place my wife and I enjoyed most.
Now if you don’t already know, Japanese tourists almost always travel in groups, with some little guy holding a flag over his head to keep them herded. They are universally recognized as pushy and ill-mannered when in this herd mode, totally outside their character in one-on-one situations. One day a group from a bus walked down the long trail from the top of the crater, fully clothed, fanning out in small groups the length of the beach. Eight or nine of them laid down towels just in front of my wife and I, and began disrobing, folding their clothes neatly on the towels. Underneath they wore swimwear, and then they proceeded to walk into the water, in groups of three or four. At about knee-deep, they turned while friends on the beach took photos of them. Then they would come out and repeat the favor for their friends.
OK, that was something. Then they did the most incredible thing. They started putting on their clothes back on. I looked at my wife and asked, “Do they not know that the greatest free exhibition of tropical fish wildlife is hiding in plain sight, just another ten feet behind them?”
In and out inside 30 minutes, just for some lousy photos that could have been taken at any beach in Asia. I can’t explain why I was angry, but as they were marching past us to make that long hike back up the cliff, I looked at my wife, shook my head, and said “Gaijin.”
Maybe a little too loudly, for one head snapped, and glared at me. “Karma” I thought.
Still it was rude, and I’ve regretted it since. But it was also the first thing I thought of when I watched the closing ceremony of the US Open tennis championship on Saturday.
Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese national to win a tennis Grand Slam title. Ever.
And she defeated Serena Williams, who was in search of her 24th Grand Slam title, trying for the second time in a row to tie the all-time record. She was denied at Wimbledon in July, and now again at Forrest Hills.
She did not comport herself well.
Nor did the tourney spokespeople who made no bones about the fact that Naomi Osaka should not have been the champion in the first place.
Serena has a history of this kind of behavior (you can look it up) and will have to deal with her demons, but perhaps karma has other plans. And perhaps the PC police inside US Tennis may even take a lesson in hiding their boorishness and bias, as if they were a Harvard Admissions Committee.
But please, God, just don’t let “gaijin” return to the lips of every Japanese citizen, again.
That would be a tragedy.