Foreign? Western? White? Non-Japanese? Occidental proboscis monsters?

There are 3 terms in English that people use interchangeably for the Japanese word 外国人 gaikokujin (a very loaded term for non-Japanese people) here in Japan. None of them are perfect translations since they reflect the communicative needs of different societies, which I believe is a consideration that should affect any translated text. The words are:

  1. Foreigner,
  2. Westerner,
  3. Non-Japanese (NJ), and sometimes just
  4. Gaikokujin or gaijin

I’ve already talked a bit about gaikokujin and gaijin and how using them means adopting some of the least admirable parts of Japanese culture.  Even the 3 English terms though have some problems with definition and usage, and at least one ought to be tossed like savage in the junk heap of formerly acceptable words for types of humans.  The 3 words highlight a few issues I think people should take into account when choosing a translation, particularly for a concept like “people not from this country”, so clearly context-dependent.

It’s-a me, the historical basis for Mario!

Foreigner = gaikokujin?

First, foreigner, the exonym par excellence that everyone forgets that everyone defines differently.  Foreigner has in its favor roughly the same mapping onto the set of people referred to by a technical reading of gaikokujin, i.e. people without Japanese nationality (外 outside 国 country 人 person).  That is about all it has to recommend it. Following is a list of problems with this word and with translations in general, and then an examination of Westerner and Non-Japanese.

Representativeness and stereotype

Using foreigner disregards the fact that while gaikokujin may technically include Malaysians and Taiwanese and all other non-Japanese people, it is most commonly used to refer to white people who speak English, much in the same way bird technically includes ostriches and kiwis, but most people think of sparrows or robins first.  This is not a quibble; even seemingly neutral or scientific words can bring to mind “representatives” that are thought to embody the truest essence of those words, irrespective of their technical scope.  That is why fruit reliably elicits dozens of other canonical examples of fruit-ness you might put into pies before anyone thinks to mention tomatoes or non-sweet fruit like olives, zucchini, or string beans.  A translation that failed to take this aspect of the word into account would fail to serve its purpose.  Because of the vastly different representatives associated with them, foreigner is not an ideal translation of gaikokujin.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 9.03.31 AM.png
Actual distribution of national minorities in Japan (ethnic minorities are not included in statistics).  Note how the USA gets the “donate millions to charity” slice.
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Google image search for 外国人 gaikokujin.  What do your elf eyes see?

This is partly due to history – from Japan’s perspective, China, Korea, the Ryukyus, etc. are a bit too culturally and historically close to Japan to form a functioning other, a capital F Foreigner, despite their much greater numbers as ethnic minorities in Japan. In Japanese history, China is what the Roman Empire and France are to England – something first copied, then later ostentatiously distanced from.  China and Japan’s other Asian neighbors fail, especially nowadays, to conjure up the same practicer-of-strange-religions, bringer-of-goods, harbinger-of-change image that representatives of the white world bring to Japan.  Most of the actual non-Japanese in and near Japan fail to bring the sheer alienness that is demanded of an Other, hence whites rather than other Asians wear that label.

This is to “bird” what Chinese are to “gaikokujin”.


A related issue is something that gaikokujin‘s extensive list of connotations and representative images also hints at: It is a very common word.  Uses of gaikokujin are not just deictic references to actual non-Japanese people seen in real life; the word is a token for a type of person prominent in public discourse, like refugee or teenager.  Regardless of whether you’ve met any, you probably have an opinion on them and some feeling as to whether you’d like to get to know one or not.  Hence the word shows up more frequently than one might expect from the mere number of non-Japanese living in Japan due to the importance of the Other in Japanese national narratives.

In interpersonal use as well, the word gaikokujin has power beyond that of foreigner.  Even after someone’s nationality is known, they are still usually called gaikokujin, in some cases prefaced with (country) no, as in kanada no gaikokujin (“a gaikokujin from Canada”).  Gaikokujin is a commonly understood type that subsumes all other classifications under it and appears whenever other identifying information is absent, or even when it is present.  If you’re in the habit of correcting people when they continue to call people gaikokujin even after their nationalities and names are known, they react as if you’d insisted that each almond be identified only as an almond and not as a nut.  To most people, gaikokujin is the only salient classification – which particular part of gaikoku they hail from is just a detail.

I once asked a student outside class about his new junior high school ALT (native-speaking assistant English teacher), and he replied “Futsuu no gaikokujin.  Gaikokujin tte kanji no hito.” (A regular gaikokujin.  A person who seems like a gaikokujin).  We all knew this meant a white English speaker.  If he had meant Chinese, he would have said 中国人 chuugokujin or maybe アジア人 ajiajin. Tellingly, gaikokujin can also be abbreviated and take the honorary suffix -san as in gaijin-san, indicative of their status as both honored guests and embodiments of familiar stereotypes.  Nobody says chuugokujin-san for Chinese, as it sounds at once too familiar and too respectful.

(I’ve written before about why the different etymologies of gaikokujin and gaijin don’t matter for this or most other discussions)

Corpus data bears out the distinction between gaikokujin and foreigner:  Shonagon gives 4698 hits for 外国人 gaikokujin out of 105 million words, or 44.7 per million.  The English “foreigner” on the other hand gets 1252 hits on COCA out of more than 520 million words, or 2.4 per million.  In other words, gaikokujin is about 20 times more common in Japanese than foreigner is in English.  I honestly don’t remember the last time I heard foreigner in the US outside parodies of right-wing politics and Best of the 70s compilation CDs.  Try Google image searching “foreigner” and see what you get (hint: It may make you “hot blooded”).

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 3.39.32 PM
Proportion of the combined frequencies out of 1 million words for gaikokujin, foreigner, Westerner, and non-Japanese.

So to recap, the issues behind why foreigner is a bad translation of gaikokujin are:

  1. The word has its own set of stereotypes and connotations that differ from gaikokujin.  To my ears, a typical foreigner is Borat, while a typical gaikokujin is an expat English teacher.  Exonyms (words for people outside one’s own group) basically can’t be translated with all their connotations and stereotypes intact.
  2. Foreigner in English is the equivalent of seeing a working pinball machine.  It’s rare and a bit of a relic.  Gaikokujin is still a word that sees a lot of use in Japanese and is continually referred to with minor updates in common discourse.
  3. Nobody considers him/herself a foreigner since, as an exonym, it only applies to other people.  If you translate a piece of signage like “Foreigners welcome!”, it is less likely to be understood than “International tourists welcome!”, since the first thought in anyone’s mind when hearing foreigner is “not me”.

Read on for the two most common alternatives to foreigner and why one is superior to the other.

Westerner and Non-Japanese

The other two typical translations of gaikokujin are not exonyms but attempts to map a word from English onto the stereotyped definition of gaikokujin, i.e. white people from Europe or BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) countries.

Western and Westerner are two words that I believe should go the way of phlogiston.  I read a book recently in which the author differentiated her uses of “Westerners” and “foreigners” in that “Westerners” referred to caucasians specifically.  This is the least justifiable usage of Westerner, as Europe is not exclusively white, and certainly neither is anything further west from there.  The opposites of WesternerEasterner and Oriental, have long since become a taboo in educated circles thanks in part to the work of Edward Said.  Of course, Japan is not the same as Korea or China, let alone Iran or Singapore.  Why use words that would seem to imply that Ireland is the same as England, Italy, and Mexico; and further paint them all white?

And why use a word that is so easily confused with a genre of film?  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve misunderstood students when they tell me they like “Western movies”.

The concept of the West seems to date back to antiquity.  I think with the Kingdom of Dacia safely defeated we can stop dividing the earth as if everything west of Athens were a unified Christendom and the east its mysterious heathen opposite.  If you mean caucasians, say caucasians.  If you mean BANA caucasians, say that.  Otherwise, you’re endorsing a continuing and continuingly troublesome assumption that Europe and the Americas are the unified domain of white Christians.  I don’t know enough, and I don’t think most anyone else does either, about the various countries and cultures of Europe and the Americas to attempt to capture them all under one term, especially to cast them all as the ideological opposite of just one country in Asia.

(Incidentally, the English-speaking world seems to agree: “Westerner” has only 292 hits on COCA.)

The book I was reading justified eventually settling on foreigner to describe its BANA  English-speaking research subjects because this was close to how they were perceived by the Japanese.  It is almost definitely true that people in Japan really do see white BANA nationals are the representatives of the outside world, and inasmuch as every society nominates one ethnicity or another to stand for all the rest, in that sense gaikokujin and foreigner are equivalent.  But since when do social science researchers feel obligated to accept loaded terms as is?  If we can problematize the word “gender” then surely we can do the same with a word that refers to 98% of the world’s population as if their single most important identifying characteristic was not being from Japan.

To me, the least loaded term is non-Japanese, which captures the technical definition of gaikokujin while being unemcumbered by historical baggage or the ambiguity of referent inherent in Westerner or foreigner.  It doesn’t have the connotations of white English teacher-ness that gaikokujin carries, meaning some explanation of those stereotypes will be necessary, but it also doesn’t endorse the notion that the opposite of “Japan” is “all of Europe and North America”, nor does it blatantly ignore the actual minorities in Japan, as using foreigner does.  The absence of connotation means that authors using the word are free to (or rather forced to) spell out its associated stereotypes explicitly, not rely on the reader’s or listener’s knowledge of Japanese culture or force them to buy into common prejudices therein.  “Non-Japanese” has a very low frequency in COCA (92) but to me that means it’s still unspoiled by generations of lazy use.


In choosing an English equivalent to a Japanese word, or really any equivalent word to any other word, we should keep in mind their neglected properties and dimensions – connotation, canonical or stereotypical referents, frequency, formality, political correctness, etc.  Substituting one word for another simply because in their most technical readings they refer to the same thing wrongly assumes that people use those words with lawyer-like precision and runs the risk of endorsing perspectives or opinions you don’t actually agree with.

In language classes, it can be an interesting exercise to take apparent synonyms, accepted translations, and commonsense substitutions and investigate whether those words can really be called equivalent in any but a technical sense.  Most of the time when we communicate, we don’t labor over technical definitions but what our audience, interlocutor, or reader has in mind and what verbal or written tokens we can use to put into their heads roughly the same image that we have in ours.  It is a great help to language students to see that although the words for “dogs” in various languages all refer to the same species (probably), a Google or corpus search is likely to reveal different images and other words associated with them.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 3.29.08 PM.png
This is what you get for 犬 inu – Shibas and Sanrio characters.

Politically loaded words like gaikokujinforeigner, and Westerner cannot be assumed to map onto the same things in vastly different political and ideological contexts. Authors should at the very least caveat quite a bit before using any of these, and I would suggest doing away with Westerner altogether.  Unless you’re talking about the Gary Cooper movie.


2 thoughts on “Foreign? Western? White? Non-Japanese? Occidental proboscis monsters?

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