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.