Archives for category: Translation

One of the most tedious aspects of managing a rotation curation account for Tokyo, as I help to do with this Twitter feed, is the age-old controversy of what foreign people are doing as a community, what they should be doing and how they are treating each other.

It is a subject with no real end that does not appear to serve much of a purpose. However, it is a subject that bitchy expats like to discuss all over the world.

In Japan, one term comes up again and again when discussing the non-Japanese community: gaijin. Coming from the kanji 外 (soto or gai) and 人 (hito or jin)*, the term means foreigner. However, there are a couple of points of controversy.

Firstly, the two kanji read literally mean “outside person” and can thus be take to mean something a lot more pejorative than is perhaps intended when used in certain contexts. Secondly, the need to Anglicize this word is questionable. “Non-Japanese” works just as well. “Foreigner” is also fine, though it is worth pointing out that this term comes from the latin for… *drumroll*… outside.

When the term is used, most of the time those causing offense are doing so unintentionally. And those being offended are perhaps on the oversensitive side. The term does not bother me, per se, but it annoys many so I try to avoid it.

Adding a further complication to the issue is the huge number of non-Japanese that have some involvement with the country and use the term to describe themselves and others within the community.

So what should be done? Probably not a lot, but if you are thinking of using the term, be aware that it offends some people and try to justify using the word to yourself. If there’s no justification, don’t use it. This should not be difficult, so why is it?

Possibly, the answer lies in the society we are becoming, globally, in which identity politics is taking on an increasingly powerful role and social media has led to a sort of “policing” of attitude and language. This has not all been for the bad, but it has had some negative effects.

In comedy, Chris Rock has spoke of how this plays out in comedy, where often performers will be publicly shamed for crossing lines in their acts:

The thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

Does this have much to do with using the term gaijin? Rock’s example — and please take the time to read his entire, brilliant interview — may be extreme, but there are instances of people on social media arguing, refusing to talk to each other and closing off discussions over the word. That means less conversation. And that’s never a good thing.
* Most Japanese kanji characters can be pronounced in at least two ways, depending on the context they appear in.


An essay that appears to have been written by Japanese rock icon Kiyoshiro Imawano a few years ago has been popular on the Internet today. He discusses life after earthquakes, Shintaro Ishihara, corruption, the constitution and Japan in general. I thought I’d translate it as it shows the issues being discussed today are nothing new, at least among the more Internationally minded Japanese. And it obviously became popular because of the election. Over to you, Kiyoshiro:

“After a Big One, there will be war. To revive public spirit, the politicians will want something big to talk about on TV. The idiots will try to push the people into a frenzy. Snobbishly, they will try to get all to follow them.

It’s five years since the Kobe Earthquake. I woke up in a room flooded on that day. On the TV I saw there were fires in five areas. I thought soon things would be safe, and closed my eyes again. When I woke up six hours later, Kobe was a sea of fire.

After the Kobe earthquake, what did my country do? It helped big firms do big construction jobs. It did so with money to support the rebuilding of Kobe. The carpenters in the area applied for recovery money, and were ignored. This is my country.

There is one politician. A special politician. He likes to talk about his movie star brother that died. He likes to claim that because he supported his brother, one of the greats of the screen, that he also has a rock n roll aura. He is against America. The more reality pushes against his beliefs, the more he pushes back. He cannot turn around from the place he is staggering toward.

This man is capable of banning rock, and rhythm and blues shows. Politicians, after all, really love law enforcement. I want to enforce a peaceful world.

I sound like a communist, but I am just a rocker. I make music that cannot be bought. It’s not a music that can be studied, I just do what I want. I do not do what I do with personal gain or a plan in mind. I am different to those cheap bastards in politics.

What do they want, betraying and tricking people? What will happen to our budget? Who will decide? If for 100,000 yen you can get so done knocked off, what happens when you are talking about people forking out 10 trillion yen or 100 trillion yen?

That’s this country. That’s Japan. That’s the country I was born and raised in. That’s the country you were born and raised in.

But this country also has a constitution. And in Article 9, can we not see the same beliefs as we saw in John Lennon? It says we should give up war for peace. Are we not like John Lennon? End war. Spread peace. Bring happiness.”

Note: Any comments on issues with the translation would be appreciated, as would any ideas on the essay’s origin.