sassenach gaijin

This week’s episode of Outlander, more savagely than in the book [that I finished just last week so it’s not distance talking here], reminds us how awful it feels when you know just enough of the language to know they’re talking shit about you, but not enough to know the exact shade of the shit they’re ascribing to you.

Kind of kills the appetite, doesn’t it, Claire?

Having almost finished DIA, I’d become accustomed to reading sassenach more as the affectionate pet name Jaimie uses it as than as the slur it is meant to be. This week’s episode restoring it (however briefly?) to its intended purpose made me try to imagine–since the purpose of the word is the same: to point out the other and harm them in so doing–someone using the term gaijin as an endearment.

Specifically, it being used on a foreign woman thusly. I’m sure next to every Japanese 101 class male has some mimikaki fantasy where someone whispers “my gaijin” or some other nonsense into his ear. But could you take the gender dynamic you see in Outlander’s use of the term sassenach and apply it successfully to gaijin?

Not bloody likely.

Sassenach specifically means someone English. It doesn’t set up a dynamic of “us vs. the world” for the Scots, but rather “us vs. the English.” Who have, you know. Just a tad bit of history there. However fraught, though, the relationship is a unilateral one, at least as touched on by this one word. 

Gaijin is different. It’s Japan vs. the world. Vs. every other goddamned person from every other goddamned place. Even if you’re not even from another goddamned place! You could have been born and raised in Japan! But if people think you look or sound different, bam. Gaijin it is. To quote Leah:

Why does this word make me so uncomfortable now? Part of it is the lack of respect, especially toward people in my generation who were born and raised in Japan but are not ethnically Japanese. They are not foreigners. If your Japanese parents immigrated to the US and raised you there, you would probably consider yourself American or Japanese American, depending on your view of the terminology as it relates to your personal experience. However, a child born to two non-Japanese parents in Japan and who has lived their whole life in Japan will not be considered Japanese. There’s a very strong link between race and nationality in Japan, and one of the ways it is supported is linguistically. Gaijin lumps tourists, immigrants, permanent residents, and citizens all together that appear to be a very limited concept of “foreign,” both in terms of appearance (white, sometimes black) and of experience.

Likewise, part of the reason I hate that word is the cavalier manner it induces when used. For instance, when Japanese people go abroad, they continue to use gaijin to refer to the native population. “There are so many gaijin in America!” No, you are the foreigner in this situation, but the attitude is that “Japanese people can’t be gaijin/foreigners.” I feel that the term just encourages a xenophobic and rude mindset, and getting people to understand why it is linguistically problematic will be a step in the right direction.

As for those who use it to refer to themselves, I think a lot of people go through a phase where they think, “Well, I am an outsider and it doesn’t bother me.” I’m reminded of several incidents in which some acquaintances who did not speak Japanese well claimed that to have never experienced racism in Japan over the course of the 3-6 months they had lived here. In a short period of time, that might be true, and without listening skills, it’s quite easy to miss. But as with sexism, everyday racism is not usually blatant or violent; microaggressions are easier to ignore or excuse, especially by the perpetrators. When you are not The Other, it requires imagination and often experience to even understand a fraction of what it is like to live as The Other. I understand the line of thinking “I’m foreign, so I will use gaijin,” but there’s a lot of cultural baggage associated with the term, and I don’t think we can reclaim it.

To be clear, I am in no way standing here golf-clapping the existence of a term intended to mean the Other that applies to only one kind of other (sassenach), in favor over a term intended to stamp the label of Other on everyone else (gaijin). Nor am I quite saying that it’s easier to reclaim, as a pet-name, a slur stemming from a unilateral relationship than a multilateral one: I assume once you bring enough libido into it people will croon in response to any appellation. But to quote the earlier link:

The assertion that ‘this is our word for you (whether you like it or not)’ is clearly a political statement, even when the word is not used intentionally as a term of abuse.

It may be that the fact that Jaimie is speaking from the standpoint of a group of people actively engaged, at that very moment, in a struggle against the Other implied by the term sassenach makes the co-opting of the term by affection possible. Or at least more likely. The term is referencing an extant enemy. It’s more…topical, more invasive, to take it into yourself as an endearment, when you are actively involved in killing those whom you were raised to call this term you have now bestowed on your beloved. You are doing more work. (Or at least, smitten readers can convince themselves you are.) 

Whereas with gaijin…unless you’re some crazed nationalist pundit (or maybe an LDP lifer, har har) you don’t actually think Japan is at war with, or even in controlled disagreement with, every other nation and culture on the planet. Were you, as the Japanese person, to take the term gaijin in as a term of endearment for someone…you’re seeking to invert a relationship that has no grounding in any factual or imaginary dynamic. The word is referencing a worldview that is so off-balance–us against everyone–that I don’t think you could do it, if you actually held that worldview. If you thought gaijin should be used the way it is currently used, you wouldn’t bestow it on someone you love as a pet-name. It would be too much to invert. Too much work.

It’s not, then, that it’s easier to reclaim a slur stemming from a unilateral relationship than a multilateral one. It’s that the magnitude of the multilateral “relationship” implied by gaijin is too great for the linguistic flip to work. Instead of “we’re fighting a bunch of sassenachs right now but I’m also in love with you, sassenach, thus some part of my brain is probably subconsciously acknowledging that even though these people I call sassenachs have done terrible things to me and mine, they can’t all be bad because you’re one of them and I constantly remind us both of that fact by calling you by this word.” Instead of that, it would have to be “it’s me against the world, gaijin, and the whole world is made of of gaijin, but they can’t all be bad because here I am calling this person I love gaijin.” Really, the entire rest of the world “isn’t all bad?” You don’t say.

That’s what I mean when I talk about the work being done. In the latter example, the whole entire rest of the world couldn’t possibly have given you reason to hate and distrust them so. For you to nobly acknowledge, via liberal dispensation of pet-names, that you know this to be the case is not noteworthy or gallant. It’s common fucking sense. And not worth swooning over. No, not even in a romance novel.


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