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Is gaijin a term that's only acceptable when it's a non-Japanese person using it self-referentially (similar to n-word privileges in TV Tropes), or is it considered ok to use in normal conversation between non-Japanese and Japanese?

For example, could one say, "Can you rewrite that address in romaji so us gaijin can understand it?", or would it be better to use a more bland term?

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I'm not sure this question is about English language and usage. Gaijin is a Japanese word... – Philoto Jul 15 '11 at 8:00
@Philoto: A loanword? – Andrew Grimm Jul 15 '11 at 8:23
It's a loanword in English, as attested by its modern usage and its presence in dictionaries. As such,the question of its usage and perceived meaning is on topic. – F'x Jul 15 '11 at 9:13
It's actually "romaji" (long "o") to be 100% Japanesely incorrect. Romanji is a mistake of the Japanese' mistake. How sweet isn't that. – Jonny Aug 10 '11 at 15:29
@Jonny, there is no mistake on the part of the Japanese. ローマ Rōma is the Japanese form of ‘Rome’, and as Japanese has no real morphological way to form adjectives from nouns, simple compounding is often employed instead; hence ローマ字 Rōmaji ‘Rome characters’. ローマン rōman is an entirely different word in Japanese, quite unrelated to Rome, and ローマン字 rōmanji would mean ‘romance/novel/adventure letters’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 30 '13 at 14:02
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Firstly, for my first-hand reporting of the usage (and perceived offensiveness) I observed of this word, discussing with a small Japanese community in London and Boston. Gaijin is fine in normal conversation, both between non-Japanese people and between Japanese and non-Japanese.

Secondly, looking up some authorities, none of the dictionaries I have at hand or checked online (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge) mark it as offensive or derogatory.

Thirdly, I thought about similar words for other communities. You gave the example of nigger, which is extremely offensive (“black” or “African American” being respectful alternatives). Another one is goy, which can be perceived as offensive depending on context and audience (and for which “Gentile” is a safer alternative).

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In my experience, the Japanese seldom use gaijin to your face. If they are making an effort to be polite (which they almost always are), they will call, say, an American amerikajin or beikokujin (lit. "rice-land person"). If they're really being rude (it happens) they might use hakujin (lit. "white person"). If you hear that and you're Caucasian you may assume that you're being talked down to, although there's still a chance the rudeness is merely condescension or ignorance.

The politer form of gaijin is gaikokujin (lit. "out-country person").

Now, in English we make no such distinction. We just tag it as their word for foreigner, which glosses over all of the nuance.

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My understanding of the word is that originally it came about just as a contraction for "gaikokujin"(foreigner) and was not meant to be offensive or anything, and in fact it still is as it was for a considerable portion of the population. Since it was translated as "foreigner" in English, visitors from English speaking countries gradually came to take it as somewhat discriminatory. More Japanese people are using the original "gaikokujin" these days after being told how "gaijin" is taken. Lots of Japanese people, especially the older generation, however, use "gaijin" without any awareness of the negative nuance. In this sense there is some essential difference from N-words in the US.

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