I want to simply indicate that I was born and raised in Japan. I think I can say "I am a native Japanese", but when I google the expression, the results include information about indigenous people in Japan.

If this expression can mean both mere Japanese people and Japanese indigenous people, how can one distinguish between those two?

I thought I could say "I am a Japanese native" for mere Japanese, then I thought this sounds like "I am a native Japanese speaker".

  • You might just say "I am Japanese" but that could mean you are of Japanese descent. You could also maybe use "I am a native of Japan" which I think most people would assume to mean that Japan was your birthplace. – Kit Z. Fox May 24 '14 at 16:27

If I were to encounter the sentence "I am a native Japanese" in a letter, I would assume that the author meant to indicate that he or she was ethnically Japanese (not distinguishing between various smaller populations of indigenous peoples on the islands and members of the nation's ethnic majority) and that he or she was born and (probably) raised in Japan. If the author had wanted to convey the notion of being a member of an indigenous Japanese minority, I would have expected him or her to use the phrase "indigenous [or aboriginal] Japanese" in order to indicate that special status.

A Google Books search does turn up a few instances where "native Japanese" is used to signify "indigenous Japanese minority." For example, from Reinhard Bendix, Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (1980):

England is physically related to the European continent much as Japan is related to the Asian mainland. In ancient times, the native British population was Celtic, the native Japanese, Ainu. In Japan, rulership arose through the gradual emergence of a dominant lineage, the Yamato, which eventually won supremacy in struggles against rival clans and hostile native tribes. Thereafter, Japanese rulership developed through many internal struggles, but without military conquest by outside forces.

And from Ronald A. Morse & Shigenobu Yoshida, Blind Partners: American and Japanese Responses to an Unknown Future (1985):

In the formation of Japan, the Jomon were the native Japanese who already had a spiritually advanced culture, whereas the Yayoi were the minority group of invaders who had efficient continental technology. If Japan's transformation resulted from the Yayoi's conquest of the Jomon—the minority over the majority—then the situation required the conquerors to take a cautious attitude toward the conquered.

But the vast majority of recent instances—and virtually all instances before 1980—of "native Japanese" use the term to mean exactly what the OP intends to convey: a person born and raised in Japan and (probably although not necessarily) part of the nation's ethnic Japanese majority. The term "native Japanese" frequently arises as a way of distinguishing between born-and-bred traditional Japanese (on the one hand) and Chinese- or Western-influenced Japanese on the other.

In one instance, "native Japanese" even appears as an appellation for majority ethnic Japanese in contradistinction to other longtime denizens of the islands. From Mikiso Hane, Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, Second Edition (2003):

Burakumin are today concentrated heavily in the areas centered near Kyoto and adjacent prefectures, and in the Inland Sea region, while the northeastern region has the least number of them. There have been numerous theories about the origin of the outcastes. Scholars once ascribed their origin to immigrants who came to Japan from Korea sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries. These artisans, craftsmen, and workers had, it was contended, a semi-slave status; and, being non-Japanese, they were segregated and treated by the native Japanese as inferiors. Some scholars have asserted that they were descendants of Korean prisoners brought back to Japan by Japanese expeditionary forces in between the fourth and sixth centuries, while others have held that they were descendants of the Ainus.

Here are some more-common instances of the term's usage. From Takie Sugiyama Lebra, The Japanese Self in Cultural Logic (2004):

The ultimate message of [Edward] Said's Orientalism is that a reasonable representation of a culture can be accomplished only by an insider (native), but an Orientalist like [Peter] Dale rules out the possibility that native Japanese can fairly represent Japanese culture because they are imbued with Japanese nationalism, imperialism, and fascism.

And from Takami Kuwayama, Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony (2004) [series of snippets]:

With some notable exceptions, contributions by non-Japanese scholars have seldom been taken seriously by native Japanese anthropologists. Thus, mutual indifference and ignorance characterize the US-Japan relationship with regard to the anthropology of Japan. Two senior scholars made illuminating comments about this situation.

And from Kamiko Akita, "Cuteness: The Sexual Commodification of Women in the Japanese Media," in Carilli & Campbell, eds., Women in the Media: Diverse Perspectives (2005):

I wish to explore here the sexual commodification of women in relation to cuteness in the Japanese media from a woman's insider perspective using an autoethnographical approach. As a native Japanese who was once willing to objectify herself to become a commodity, I have become more sensitized to my own experiences. I have spent countless hours talking with ganguro girls (darkened faces) and Sailor Moon look-alikes. I taught many such young girls at a women's junior college in the suburbs of Nagoya, Japan, between 1992 and 1998, as one of the few female full-time faculty.

And from William E. Russell and J. Marc Rhoads, "Nutrition and the Humoral Regulation of Growth," in Duggan, Watkins & Walker, Nutrition in Pediatrics (2008):

On a large scale, the effect of malnutrition is often so striking as to produce major population differences in stature that appear to be genetic. For instance, prior to World War II, native Japanese were smaller than Americans of European ancestry and smaller than Japanese-Americans raised in the United States. However, with the significant nutritional improvements that took place in Japan following World War II, these differences vanished.

Given this record of usage, I think it would be a mistake to imagine that most English speakers equate "native Japanese" with "member of an indigenous Japanese minority group." Still, it's a good idea to proceed cautiously in any discussion of race or ethnicity in the English-speaking world. The simplest way to avoid even the possibility of misunderstanding would be simply to say "I am Japanese" (if you grew up in Japan and still live there) or "I was born and raised in Japan" (if you grew up in Japan but subsequently left the country).


Native has more than one meaning, and as such, you choose the meaning that applies to what you want to say. The definitions that apply to your question for native are:

  • Being such by birth or origin: a native Scot.
  • Being one's own because of the place or circumstances of one's birth: our native language.
  • Originating, growing, or produced in a certain place or region; indigenous: a plant native to Asia.
  • Being a member of the original inhabitants of a particular place: Native Americans were mistakenly referred to as "Indians".
  • Of, belonging to, or characteristic of such inhabitants: native dress; the native diet of Polynesia.
    One born in or connected with a place by birth: a native of Scotland now living in the United States.
  • One of the original inhabitants or lifelong residents of a place.

Before the 1600's, the Part of North America which is now the US was inhabited by various indigenous peoples now referred to as Native Americans. However, all people born and raised in America can claim to be native (adjective, not part of a proper noun) Americans, and call themselves native English speakers (if they were raised speaking English. Some are not.)

Therefore, you are correct (in English) to call yourself a native Japanese, and your native tongue is Japanese as well. It would probably be better understood if you said you are native to Japan.

If your country defines native differently, a Japanese language site may be of more use to you.

  • The Japanese language does not lend itself in the least to the description 'native'. It is a mixture of ancient Japanese (a polysyllabic language with word order 'subject, object, verb') and 4th or 5th-century Chinese (a monosyllabic, tonal language with word order of 'subject verb, object') – WS2 May 24 '14 at 8:50

The very simple answer is that in English, as you will have guessed, it sounds a little strange to say "native Japanese".

It's that simple: find another form.

In, say, Canada, the USA or Australia, you have the "native" people (before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them), and you also have the currently dominant Western-society populations.

Generally (but not always) if you say "Native [Australian, etc.]", that generally means an indigenous person, rather than the genocidal arrivals of the colonial era.

On the other hand, you might sometimes say "I'm native to New York", meaning "I was born there" as opposed to being one of the very many people who move to NY to live there.

This particularly applies in very unusual cases like, say, Monaco, where there are only a handful of true native Monégasques and the rest are visa-holding residents.

Note that in both these cases it does not really apply to you.

So your question .. If this expression can mean both mare Japanese people and Japanese indigenous [Ainu etc.?] people, how can one distinguish between those two? .. indeed, the answer is -- you can't. It tends to mean the latter more than the former.

So, generally in English, saying "native .." and then a country such as: Japan, France, etc. makes less sense. It's that simple.

"Native country" tends to apply more only to the New World countries where the Europeans exterminated -- or nearly exterminated -- the native people.

Finally, today:

If you do say "native French person", that can sound almost a touch political: at the moment in European countries, there is a tremendous influx of new residents (from Muslim countries, Africa, etc.).

Even within Europe, in say Britain there is a big influx of Polish people. (Thank God, so we get some good food and table manners there! :) ) So if you say "native British person" it CAN TEND TO MEAN a "real" British person, not one of these "newly arrived economic immigrants".

You see?

So that's a little fraught with danger.

There is SOME CHANCE that if you say "native Japanese" it sounds like you're saying: "I'm not one of these damned Koreans or Brazilians who move to Tokyo to run a restaurant!"

Now to further add to the confusion, most people would be aware that in Japan you do NOT, generally, have a lot of economic immigrants (only from Brazil, right!), so this would further confuse people.

To recap:

1) Native __ of New World country __ tends to mean one of the remaining indigenous people not wiped out when the Europeans arrived.

2) Native __ of some country like France, etc. __ -- at the moment, in current affairs -- tends to mean "not one of the many new economic immigrant arrivals". This can sound a little bit racist or political, so take care.

3) "Native of __ city like New York, Monaco __ in very vibrant, mobile cities is like (2), but has no racist or political overtones

4) In your case, listeners will realise that Japan is in category (2) (like France, not like the USA), BUT Japan is known for having unusually few economic immigrants (unlike, say, Holland or Britain, where it's a hot current affairs topic), so it would be additionally confusing to say that.

Note that as you point out, separately, in the phrase "native speaker...", that simply refers to your mother tongue, and has nothing to do with your race, birthplace etc., or the other issues raised here.

My very short answer: it's completely clear if you say "I'm a native Japanese speaker." However in short I just would not say "I'm a native Japanese", as it's plain confusing!

Say you also speak great English, and on the phone (say) someone was confused about where you are from; if I was you I'd simply say "Yeah, actually I am Japanese" or "Actually, I am from Japan", or even expand: "Sure, I'm Japanese, I was born and raised in Japan, I just speak English also."

There's a "short" answer for you! :) Cheers...

  • 1
    There are, in fact, quite a lot of economic migrants living in Japan. I've no idea of the numbers but Taiwanese, Korean, Indian, and Chinese are found in large communities. – WS2 May 24 '14 at 14:06

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