Some Japanese words are complicated to use, but easy to understand.
Others are simple to use but have complicated contexts. In this post, we’ll look at one of the latter, the word 黒人 (kokujin).
What does the word 黒人 (kokujin) mean in Japanese?
The word 黒人 (kokujin) means a person with black skin. It is made up of two kanji, the 黒 (koku, “black”) and 人 (jin, “person”). Essentially, the word is the same as saying someone is black in English. This word is similar in register to the word 外国人 (gaikokujin) for foreigner, although the “koku” in that word means country rather than black. 黒人 doesn’t carry any kind of offensive meaning, either. However, much like the U.S., Japan has a complicated relationship with blackness, and it can help to be aware of that when using this word.
The grammatical basics of 黒人 (kokujin)
The word 黒人 (kokujin) is a noun meaning “black person.”
Although some Japanese words have no direct English equivalents, 黒人 is a one-to-one translation of “black” plus “person.”
That means you don’t need to do complicated mental gymnastics to figure out exactly what you’re saying when you use this word.
You can simply put it into any sentence where you would say “black person” in English.
The kanji used in 黒人 (kokujin)
黒人 is simply two separate kanji put together. 黒 means “black,” while 人 means “person.”
Put them together and you get 黒人 (kokujin), or “black person.”
If you’ve already learned the kanji in this word, you might be surprised to see that they’re pronounced differently in a compound word than they are individually.
That’s due to the differing pronunciations used in most kanji. These two readings are known as the ‘kun’ and ‘on’ readings. Or, in Japanese, 訓読み (kunyomi) and 音読み (onyomi).
When the word black is used as an adjective by itself, it uses the ‘kun,’ or native Japanese pronunciation of ‘kuro.’ The adjective for “black,” then, is 黒い (kuroi).
However, in a compound word, the ‘kun’ reading is not used. Instead, most kanji have an alternative ‘on’ (Chinese-derived) reading. For “black,” the ‘on’ reading is ‘koku,’ as in the word 黒人 (kokujin).
The kanji for person (人) also has separate ‘on’ and ‘kun’ readings. Alone, 人 is pronounced using the ‘kun’ reading of ‘hito.’ When added into a compound word, it uses one of two ‘on’ readings: ‘nin’ and ‘jin.’
In this case, we add the ‘kun’ readings of ‘koku’ and ‘jin’ together and end up with 黒人 (kokujin), or “black person.”
How to use the word 黒人 (kokujin) in a sentence
As already noted, 黒人 is a noun. That means you don’t need to mess about with verb conjugations.
Instead, simply add the word 黒人 into a sentence like you would any other noun.
Of course, you still need to pay attention to the rules of Japanese grammar. But there are no special rules with 黒人 that you need to worry about.
The difference between 外国人 (gaikokujin) and 黒人 (kokujin)
The words 外国人 (gaikokujin) and 黒人 (kokujin) are similar sounding, and both are more likely to get used to describe foreigners.
Despite the same “kokujin” sound being in both, however, they are completely different words with completely different meanings.
外国人 (gaikokujin) is the polite word for “foreigner,” more commonly heard as the ruder 外人 (gaijin). The word 国 (koku) here is a noun meaning “country,” and it uses a completely different kanji.
The reason 外国人 is more polite than 外人 is because it doesn’t imply that the person is from “outside” (外) just that they come from a country “outside” of Japan (外国).
While many black people in Japan may be both 黒人 and 外国人, there are definitely people who are both black and Japanese citizens, either by marriage, birth or other paths to citizenship.
The complicated question of blackness and Japaneseness
Japan is a famously homogenous society, and many Japanese people perceive there being very little, if any, ethnic diversity amongst Japanese people.
The reality is more complicated than that. Although Japan is certainly less ethnically diverse than the United States, there are significant minority populations (making up approximately 2% of Japan’s total population) of people from China, South Korea, Vietnam, Brazil and many other countries.
While many of these are not Japanese citizens, there are also Japanese citizens who are not Japanese in ethnicity, many of them likely Japanese by birth.
Some of these Japanese citizens who are not ethnically Japanese are also black.
That means that some 黒人 you see in Japan may be citizens and may consider themselves (and legally be) Japanese.
But does the rest of Japan consider these people Japanese? Well, it’s complicated.
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka is a great example.
In a bilingual post on her Twitter reported by BBC Japan, Osaka describes herself as “a black woman first, and an athlete second” (私はアスリートである以前に人の黒人女性です). Here, Osaka uses 黒人女性 (kokujin josei) to show that she is both a black person and female.
As Wikipedia notes, Osaka is a native-born Japanese citizen, being born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father in the city of Osaka in 1997.
That means she’s both a 黒人 (black person) and a 日本人 (Japanese person).
That said, as this article from Nico Video Japan points out, other Japanese people haven’t always accepted Naomi Osaka as being Japanese.
The article describes how people on Japanese social media site SNS made comments like 「大阪なおみは日本人じゃない」 (Naomi Osaka isn’t Japanese) and 「日本人に見えない」 (She doesn’t look Japanese).
Although Osaka is absolutely a Japanese citizen, as well as a black woman, at least some portion of ethnically Japanese people are likely to have trouble reconciling the two.
None of this changes how you use the word 黒人 (kokujin) in a sentence grammatically, of course.
All the same, it’s important to be aware of unspoken contexts that native Japanese speakers might apply to things you say.
If you would like to learn some more Japanese, I recommend you trying out Rocket Languages Japanese. They have a free trial that you can make use of and get started right about now.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.