When talking about a person from Japan, why is it offensive to say "a Japanese" rather than "a Japanese person"?

The English language Wiktionary says

(person in or from Japan): The singular “a Japanese” is less common than locutions using the adjective, such as “a Japanese person”, and is considered potentially offensive by many speakers.

but doesn't explain why it is offensive.

Allwords.com says

Note: many people object to the usage of this sense in singular form, and it is now more frequent to see a person in or from Japan referred to by using the adjective Japanese. Rather than "a Japanese," you will frequently see "a Japanese person."''

but again, there's no explanation.

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    I wonder if it's because 'a Japanese' sounds too close to 'a Jap', which might be construed as a racist or derogatory term. This would explain why 'a German' is okay (because it doesn't sound like 'a Kraut'), and why 'an American' is okay (because it doesn't sound like 'a Yank'). But that's only a theory. – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 10:45
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    @J.R. a Japanese person learning English thought the same. – Andrew Grimm Jan 24 '13 at 10:51
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    "A Japanese" all by itself is not grammatical. That wiktionary entry is just plain wrong. (see smartboyhw's answer) – Mitch Jan 24 '13 at 14:08
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    @spiceyokooko, In Aryan originated languages in India also there are 3 different words for "You" and "He". Don't know about Spanish, but here there are 3 words in Hindi,an Aryan originated language, to let understand closeness and respect from the speaker to whom one is talking to.For Example, In Hindi, "Tu" is said to friends, "Tum" to husband,wife,elder,smaller people and "Aap" to aged people to show respect. Also with respect to closeness "Tu>Tum>Aap" – Mistu4u Jan 27 '13 at 8:11
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    @Mitch Wiktionary's goal is to describe the use of a word rather than prescribing it. Just because you think it is ungrammatical doesn't mean it's not used. In fact, it is quite commonly used as a noun to refer to a Japanese person. Do a google search. I have also heard it used in conversations. – deutschZuid Jan 30 '13 at 20:15
up vote 47 down vote accepted

I found an answer in this article: 「私は日本人です」は、I am a Japanese. それとも"I am Japanese?

In English there is a distinction between nationalities that end in 'ian' like Canadian or Italian and those that end in 'ese' like Japanese or Burmese.

Those that have the 'ian' can say 'I am Canadian' or 'I am a Canadian' interchangeably, but usually in English the 'ese' ones don't use the 'a' when they're referring to people--unless it is being used as an adjective.

You could say "That is a Japanese person" (where Japanese is an adjective describing the word 'person')

This convention also applies to nationalities that end in 'ish' as well, as in 'I am British' or 'I am Scottish' --though Scotland is a different case because they could say, "I am Scottish" or "I am a Scot".

I don't really know why this convention exists, but saying 'I am a Chinese' to a native speaker would be very strange for them.

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    Yup, this: words in -ese are only ever adjectives, whereas words in -ian can act as nouns. Thus, "He is a Japanese" is grammatically incorrect, same as "He is a blue" would be. It has nothing to do with offense or history. – Martha Jan 24 '13 at 20:44
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    @Martha: So what about using it as a plural noun? "The Japanese elected a new prime minister" doesn't sound incorrect to my ear. – Nate Eldredge Jun 28 '13 at 0:20
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    I don't find the distinction to be entirely clear. For example, the first definition of "Portuguese" in the Free Online Dictionary is "a native or inhabitant of Portugal." There is an analogous definition for Japanese. I don't think the dictionaries agree with this assessment. – BobRodes Jul 24 '13 at 3:36
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    @BobRhodes As an American, I would never say "a Portuguese" without a noun after it. I might say "the Portuguese" referring to all Portuguese people (or the entirety of a subset of them), like, "The Portuguese are really doing well in the World Cup this year." – Paul Mar 29 '16 at 14:03
  • @NateEldredge: You can see from the fact that it doesn't take a plural suffix (unlike Canadian in the sentence "The Canadians elected a new prime minister") that "Japanese" is still an adjective in that sentence. It's part of a noun phrase, but not a noun itself: the actual noun is elided. Here's a relevant paper: anglistik.hhu.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Fakultaeten/… – sumelic Jun 22 '16 at 22:40

'A Japanese' implies the Japanese person is a thing, and not a person. This is what deems it offensive.

'A Japanese Person' implies the Japanese person is just that - a person, and is therefore considered fine for use.

If the race requires an an, it is no longer offensive - due to the lack of bluntness in the phrase. 'An American' isn't offensive.

As well as this, a native speaker would think that 'He is a Japanese' sounds incorrect - it fails to flow, whereas 'He is a Japanese person' does.

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    Is "an American" or "an Australian" offensive? – Andrew Grimm Jan 24 '13 at 8:02
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    Is "a Swede" considered offensive? – Deco Jan 24 '13 at 8:09
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    Liam, I don't think your answer is very convincing. Somehow, 'a Japanese' is offensive, because it infers the person is a thing, but 'an American,' 'a Swede,' 'an Aussie,' 'a German,' and 'a Brit' are all okay? – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 10:40
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    When used with an indefinite article, some nationality adjectives only apply to things (such as Irish; you can say "he has an Irish accent," but you wouldn't say "he is an Irish"). Other nationality adjectives can be a applied to things and citizens (such as Iranian, you can say "he has an Iranian accent" or "he is an Iranian"). But that only goes so far; it explains why "a Japanese" would be considered improper or ungrammatical – but not offensive. – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 10:55
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    I don't believe race is an appropriate term here, and suggest 'nationality' instead. – Mark Beadles Jan 29 '13 at 16:17

Because apparently there is a factoid on the Internet, either based on or sustained by an article in China Daily, (viewable here) that claims that the ending -ese is used in English only for certain Asian peoples (examples include Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese) and it then makes an unfounded historical argument to assert that this shows that English and/or English speakers (and other Europeans, by using the corresponding ending in their languages) are "racist" towards these peoples.

However this claim can be rebutted by showing that the ending -ese is used for non-Asian peoples, including Portuguese, Maltese, Viennese, Milanese, etc.

And, anyway, the usage note at Wikitionary lacked any verifiable citation and has been changed to something more sensible:

Usage notes
As with all nouns formed from -ese, the countable singular form ("I am a Japanese") is uncommon and often taken as incorrect, although it is rather frequent in East Asia as a translation for the demonyms written 日本人 in Chinese characters (Japanese kanji).

  • I doubt this is the reason, because most people who object to "a Japanese" are fine with "a Japanese person." If the suffix "-ese" was felt to be offensive in and of itself, I don't see why the second would be any more acceptable than the first. – sumelic Jun 22 '16 at 22:43
  • uh huh @sumelic except that I've had Asian friends point me to this article more than once. – Alan Carmack Jun 23 '16 at 0:26
  • Yeah, I don't dispute that the idea you mention exists, but I think it's separate from the idea that this question is about. The question here is: "why is it offensive to say 'a Japanese' rather than 'a Japanese person'?," not "why is it offensive to say 'a Japanese' rather than 'a Japanian'?" or something like that. – sumelic Jun 23 '16 at 0:30

Here is another theory based on historical linguistics: I think the offense partly comes from it not being grammatical. The same is true for "French", "English" or "Welsh". These are older nationality adjectives. (Slightly over-simplifying, the -ish/sh/ch ending is Old English; the -ese ending is French; the -ian/an is Latin, which, counter-intuitively, is often used more recently to make nationality adjectives in English.)

The older words (-ish/-ese) are adjectives, nouns referring to the language, or collective nouns referring to the people (eg the English, the Portuguese, the Japanese). Many of these have different words for individuals (eg a Spaniard, a Scot, a Swede). The newer words (-ian/an) are adjectives, nouns referring to the language, or nouns referring to individuals (eg an American, a German, an Ethiopian). So referring to "a Japanese" would be like talking about "a furniture".

Also, there is a derogatory sense of words ending in "-ese", as we can see in words like "legalese", "officialese" or "educationese", but it's difficult to say whether the suffix "ese" is intrinsically derogatory, or whether it became derogatory because of anti-asian discrimination.

To add confusion, some of these adjectives have come into English from other languages (French or Late Latin) and some have been made in English. When countries have appeared or come into view needing an adjective, using Latin has been the default. Also adding an "n" may be natural for countries ending in "a" such as Korea or Malaysia. But Asian countries have often had "ese" applied, such as Taiwanese (who used to be called Formosan) and Vietnamese.

More interesting still is Congolese, which used to be Congoese, but was replaced by the French word Congolais.

It's offensive in English because it's offensive in Japanese. A Japanese person would be translated as 'nihonjin' where 'jin' means person. Omitting the word 'jin' makes the phrase at best meaningless, at worst rude and incorrect. Rather like saying "He's an Irish". As the Japanese people are possibly the most polite in the world, we should respect their language and culture.

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    This doesn't sound very plausible, because I often see on lang-8.com Japanese people mistakenly using "a Japanese" rather than "a Japanese person". – Andrew Grimm Jan 24 '13 at 10:34
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    I don't think any culture could be considered the most polite in the world. That is only a stereotype, as some people are polite and others are rude in any culture. Additionally, what may be considered polite in one culture may be very rude in another, and vice versa. – ctype.h Jan 24 '13 at 16:11
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    @ctype.h Plus, we all know Canadians are the most polite people in the world. – Ken Bellows Jan 28 '13 at 17:32
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    This really isn't a parallel example, since nihonjin literally means 'Japan-person' not 'Japanese-person'. The grammar of the two languages is really too different to make this a compelling reason for why the phrase is objectionable. – Mark Beadles Jan 29 '13 at 16:19

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