Gaijin

I don’t have any tattoos.  In fact, I think tattoos are ugly and I would never intentionally get one.  Why one would intentionally blemish their skin like that is beyond me.

(and if you disagree, then go ahead, but this is my opinion and I’m sticking to it).

I haven’t put a lot of thought into the topic, but lately a particular image has been sticking out at me, about what I would get as a tattoo, if I ever somehow decided to get one.

Here it is.

外人

This is the Japanese word for foreigner, pronounced “gaijin”.  And I think this word, above all of the other words in all of the languages I know, describes me the best.

For I have no home, no place to which I belong.

One of the reasons that Japan appeals to me as much as it does is that it’s not here.  In fact, it’s about as far from here as it’s possible to get, in all ways.  Physically, culturally, linguistically, spiritually – you name all the ways, and Japan is the exact opposite of my world.

I have never been comfortable being the outsider, but I have always been the outsider.  In every situation I have been in, for as long as I can remember, I have been the gaijin.  I am a gaijin in my own country, I am a gaijin in my own culture, I am a gaijin in my own faith, I am a gaijin in my own skin.  And the most appealing thing to me about Japan is this:  At least in Japan, at least when speaking Japanese, I am expected to be the gaijin.

In my world, others perhaps do not see me as the gaijin.  They see me as a member of the in-group, as an American, as a Christian, as all sorts of things and labels that I could (and often) do take but never fit.  But to Japanese, I am a gaijin (or gaikokujin, if that makes you more comfortable).  I will always be a gaijin.  I will never not be a gaijin.

And frankly, I think in some ways I prefer that.  The low expectations of being a high functioning child in Japanese culture.  In many ways, it beats what I am in my own culture.

Maybe that is why I am learning Japanese.

Gaijin?

When I first created this blog, I had a nearly infinite choice of things to call it.  I could have called it, oh, I dunno…  “Musings on Japanese”, or “My Japanese Journey”, or a whole bunch of stuff.  But I settled on this one.  In fact, it really wasn’t even all that much of a decision.  This was the right name.

But why, when the word “gaijin” had less than savory origins, and some may still find it offensive?

The literal meaning of gaijin (外人) is “outsider”, or, literally, “outside person”.  (the two kanji separately would be pronounced “soto hito”, or “outside person”).  It is a word that was coined for people who are not Japanese.  It was originally a derogatory word, and even now, many Japanese don’t use it, but it’s mostly lost its connotations over the years and now many foreigners, such as me, use it to self-identify.  But for me, it has more meanings than just “someone who’s not Japanese”.

See, I was raised in an environment where I never felt like I belonged.  Ever since I was a small child, I was an outsider.  I never fit in school, I never really fit in church, I didn’t really even fit in my own family.  And, to be honest, none of that’s changed all that much.  I can think of no situation at all in this life where I really feel as if I belong.

I’m not just a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider from Japan, I’m a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider to everything.

So the name of this site has deeper meaning than just a once-offensive-and-some-think-still-offensive word that means an outsider from Japan.  It’s much more involved than that.  And you’d never know if I didn’t tell you.

If a Japanese person called me a gaijin, I might laugh it off – and depending on the tone of voice, I might not.  I do respond negatively to people who deliberately cause offense, and considering how agreeable many Japanese are, that would probably be someone who was deliberately trying to cause offense.  But, truth be told, I’d be just as likely to agree as to take offense.

And that is why I’m a “gaijin learning Japanese”.  For, in all honestly, I even consider myself a gaijin in the Japanese class I’m attending.