In 1995, my new Japanese boss and manager and I left a fine traditional restaurant in Kobe. It was dark. Steady rain made it hard to navigate over the old stone street. The three of us were 30+ feet into the rain, when the 40-ish hostess, in her traditional silk kimono and wooden geta, came out of the door, saw us, and without hesitation ran with rapid but short 4 inch steps into the rain, like a delicate horse, risking life and limb to give me a tiny box of forgotten business cards – calling as she ran . . . “Gaijin-san, Gaijin-san, O-wasuremono!” . . .
to get us to look back. As she drew near, with angry faces my Japanese companions glared at her and barked, “Gaijin desuka!!?!?!”Her face fell, in shock at her lapse into humankind: She bowed nearly to the wet ground, “Oh, shi-tsu-rei-shimasu, gaikoku-jin san, gaikoku-jin san, Owasuremono dozo …”My Japanese friends’ angry faces turned to vindicated righteousness: “Gai-koku-jin” was just fine, but “Gai-jin” never! Justice had been served. I felt so sorry for her … much less the risk of injury for such a small item. Not a bit of offense was intended and not a bit taken (by me). Still, my counterparts were ready to behead her. This indelible memory makes it impossible to get offended at such a harmless word.Come on ‘intelligentsia’, Find a *real* problem to solve!
Japanese pencils, beer bottles and any cylindrical object have a counter suffix. “one pencil, two pencils three-pencils: ippon, nihon, sampon …“My 58 year old 白人high schoolmate had been in Japan 55 years. when asked him,
“Tim, are you Japanese yet?” “I can never be…” he said. And told this story to to illustrate:
Just today a 5 year old boy pointed at me in the store, and in a loud stage whisper exclaimed,
“Hora ‘ka-chan, Gaijin da!!” (Hey Ma! Look! There’s one of those out-siders!”)
I knelt down on his level and asked, ‘Gaijin-desuka?’ (Count with me here, ) “Kazoete ne: ippon, nihon” and we counted my own legs then the boys legs, 1, 2. then 1, 2.
“I-ppon, ni-hon” “Nihon-jin ja nai ka?”
So – we both have ‘nihon’ legs, doesn’t that make us both “Nihon-jin“?
To which the mother effusively apologized with no idea where her son could ever have picked up such an expression.