Foreigner is not a good word in English

school-girlPictured: A Japanese school girl

The word foreigner is often used in Japan, as the direct translation from the words gaikokujin or more casually or perhaps rudely (depending on your opinion) gaijin.

You cannot say the word “gaijin” on NHK, Japan`s national broadcaster.  Why not? It is because the word gaijin is regarded as being rude, or at least cold.

Yet if you live in Japan, you will hear the word gaijin everywhere.  Unless the Japanese is talking with a non-Japanese, then they will switch to gaikokujin or gaijinsan.  But if Japanese are talking with friends on the train for example, and they dont know you (an immigrant) at all, you will hear gaijin on the train, as they talk about non-Japanese.  They don’t care that you hear. And perhaps think that you won`t understand anyway. Or they simply feel it is OK to talk about non-Japanese as gaijin while a “gaijin,” is within hearing range.

In English, I feel you should avoid the word foreigner if you can.  We don`t use the word much, as it has a cold feeling to it.  It means, outside person, or not one of us.

In Canada, where I am from, you very rarely hear the word foreigner.

In fact it is best to not label people at all if you can.  There was a woman in a blue jacket. There was a man in a suit etc.

We usually just say things like: “There was a man waiting in line, and he ……”  We don`t label him in a story like this.  But a Japanese might say in Japanese in Japanese the equivalent of: “there was a gaijin waiting in line and he……”

If you have to label a non-Japanese person you can use words like these:

tourist, immigrant, guest worker, expatriate, non-national, not Japanese, non-Japanese, associate, colleague,  co-worker,  

It is Dangerous to label people as we are often wrong: 

Some of these words may be OK, depending upon the context.

Westerner, caucasian, white man, Arab person, African American, European, Asian woman, mixed person, North American, Latino, biracial, bicultural.  

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But some people perhaps would take offense. They may well take offence if you mislabel them.  i.e.) call a person an Arab, when in fact they are Persian (non-Arab).  Do you see my point?

If you know the person`s nationality, you can say things like: he’s Nigerian.

I`ve Lived in Japan for almost 30 Years

For example, I have lived in Japan for 27 years at this point. So to be called a foreigner, is offensive to me.  I am an immigrant to Japan.  My wife and children are Japanese.  I speak Japanese. (not perfectly) – but I am pretty fluent.  I have lived in Japan longer than many Japanese.  So you really shouldn`t call me a foreigner.

There are thousands of immigrants to Japan.  Yet there is no word for immigrant in Japanese.  So Japanese mistakenly think that foreigner is OK to use.  In my opinion, at least, it is not.

This has been a very difficult topic to write about.  One reason is, the rules are fluid (or always changing).  I feel if you can avoid it, do not label people by colour, nationality etc. We are all humans after all.  But if you feel you must, be careful!  What may be fine with one person, may not be fine with another.

To Kevin’s English Schools (home)

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