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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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  • This discussion has been moved to chat.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 23, 2019 at 17:36
  • There are two overlapping and partially intersecting issues here. "Are you a Japanese?" would be seen as odd phraseology, and could well, as Wiktionary (though arguably not Allwords) claims, be seen as offensive. // "Are you an Englishman?" would also be seen as distinctly odd in most circumstances, but would be regarded as (a) an unusual choice of phraseology which choice needs serious thinking about on the part of the questionee, or more likely (b) a set-up for a joke or (c) a sign of the falling short of full idiomaticity of a learner. But not at all offensive in itself. Dec 20, 2019 at 11:42
  • I'm a Japanese person (I must say that I've never introduced myself as "a Japanese person" in my entire life) and I didn't know that someone might find "a Japanese" is offensive. Even after knowing it, I don't care how people call us about... Probably 99% of Japanese people won't care or doesn't know the difference.
    – Skye-AT
    Jan 13, 2023 at 2:18

7 Answers 7

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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, 2013 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. Jun 28, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2016 at 14:03
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    @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, 2016 at 22:40
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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).

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    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, 2016 at 22:43
  • uh huh @sumelic except that I've had Asian friends point me to this article more than once. Jun 23, 2016 at 0:26
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    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, 2016 at 0:30
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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.

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'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?
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 24, 2013 at 8:02
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    Is "a Swede" considered offensive?
    – Deco
    Jan 24, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 10:55
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    I don't believe race is an appropriate term here, and suggest 'nationality' instead. Jan 29, 2013 at 16:17
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While the majority of top rated answers here describe the grammatical reasons this is the case correctly, they don’t specifically address why it is unacceptable socially (I.e. why it sounds inherently racist to native English speakers) and those that do address this fail to do so adequately.

To understand why this is, you have to understand that it is common (for complicated historical, cultural, and linguistic reasons) for native English speakers to lightly modify grammatical structure in their own language as a form of contempt or derision, especially when said phrasing refers to a group that can be considered ‘other’.

When said ‘other’ is being referred to in racial or ethnic terms, or as in this case, by a nationality that can also double as an ethnic group from the perspective of native English speakers, this practice can result in seemingly innocuous phrases or those not intended to be racist coming off as racist. This is because native English speakers are conditioned to perceive obvious grammatical mistakes from their perspective, especially when race or ethnicity is involved, to be intentional.

Context is also important. Take, for instance, the following example; it would be very uncomfortable in a polite or neutral/serious context such as describing a person to a stranger for a native English speaker to have another native English speaker describe a third person of Jewish descent as ‘a Jew’. In this case, a religion that can also be an ethnicity in proper singular noun form is used as a descriptive adjective.

Referring to said person in such a singular, direct, and obviously strange sounding (to native English speakers, as explained well in other answers) way implies that the speaker is referring to the person’s ethnicity rather than their religious beliefs, that this status of ‘Jew’ is of particular importance, and that the speaker considers that type of person to have negative characteristics because they have not made the effort to refer to the fact that they are of Jewish descent correctly.

So, within the context of a conversation between two native English speakers who are mostly unfamiliar with each other personally, this misuse of grammar strongly implies that the speaker holds contempt for Jewish people and have either subconsciously revealed such or are revealing such intentionally.

An analogous example related to lifestyle would be referring to someone who is gay as ‘a gay’, although because of the increased grammatical incorrectness of referring to someone collectively as a member of a particular sexuality this could be considered a politically incorrect or offcolor joke, and the Jewish example could fly under the radar if the people in conversation are at least acquaintances.

However, both would undoubtedly be considered to demonstrate racism/homophobia, respectively, within the context of a conversation between strangers.

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  • Welcome Judson. Very nice answer to to introduce yourself.
    – EllieK
    Jan 12, 2023 at 19:39
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    The example of "a Jew" doesn't work though because "Jew" is a noun. Hence, it is perfectly correct to call someone a Jew, and I don't find it particularly offensive. | As a Jew, Anne Frank was subject to antisemitism and racism.
    – ILEM World
    Jan 12, 2023 at 22:41
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The real reason is that "Are you a Japanese?" signals stereotypical thinking. It suggests that you have a shelf in your mind for "the Japanese" and you want to make sure you're putting them where they belong. It sounds discriminatory and hence offensive in a world increasingly affected by political correctness.

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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".
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 24, 2013 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, 2013 at 16:11
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    @ctype.h Plus, we all know Canadians are the most polite people in the world. Jan 28, 2013 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. Jan 29, 2013 at 16:19

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