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I have been teaching English on italki for about a month now. I have had satisifed students, but recently I had a lesson with a Jaoanese man, who left feedback saying that the lesson was good, but who then wrote me a private message to say that I had been rude to him and the Japanese in the lesson.

I had asked the man if he thought it fair to describe the Japanese as an island people, which, literally speaking, they are. I used the adjective 'insular' as well to try to improve his vocabulary. During the lesson, he gave me no hint that he was annoyed by my use of that adjective. In the feedback, it looked as though he was satisfied with me. However, then came the private message. He said that since he was paying for the lesson, it was very rude of me to use the word 'insular' to describe the Japanese. I immediately wrote back and apologised for my unintentional 'rudeness'. However, for the life of me, I cannot understand how the word 'insular' can be deemed to be 'very rude'. Furthermore, I did not even say that the Japanese were insular, I asked him for his opinion: I asked him if he thought it was fair to describe the Japanese as 'insular'. I do not see in any of the dictionaries that 'insular' is a pejorative adjective. Furthermore I googled "Japan' and 'insular' and I got thousands of hits, some of which were from highly reputable newspapers [NY Times and the Japan Times]. I was wondering if anybody has had similar experiences and whether this is something that I should have to get used to. Furthermore, if there are any native Japanese speakers here, could they please let me know, if I committed a major faux pas, because to tell you the truth I am rather distressed about this. I had no intention whatsoever to imply or insinuate anything bad about Japan or the Japanese, about whom I know very little. Is this word something that raises Japanese hackles or is it just a personal quirk of one particular Japanese student? 

I would be deeply grateful for any input, particularly from native Japanese speakers or from people who have experience of living and working in Japan. Thank you.







I’m not Japanese myself but I’ve been to Japan several times and have quite a few close Japanese friends. My opinion is that this is definitely not a “collective hatred towards the word” thing, it’s just a fact that some people are always more sensitive about things to do with nationality or ethnicity. Especially in a scenario that English is not his native language, that he doesn’t know the authentic implication or insinuation of the words that you use. Misunderstanding might occur when he look through some disreputable English-Japanese dictionaries after the session, and then have his personal interpretation of the word himself.

I guess the best way out is for you to tell him directly that there was no such pejorative meaning of the word in the context that you brought to, etc.

Many people are proud of their insularity (like Sicilians or British). What's the matter?


It may be that he found this definition of insular and one can understand his concern.  Clearly this was not the context you were using the word insular in but this is the definition which springs to mind for me rather than the one you were using.  I wonder if he has done the same when going over the new vocabulary from his lesson.  When I think of living on an island as we do in the UK I would think of myself as an island rather than isular-because of the ways in which I have heard and used "insular" it has a negative connotation for me.  Dont worry, thse things happen to us all, so often problems occur due to it being "lost in translation".

Definition of insular


1ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience:a stubbornly insular farming people

lacking contact with other people:people living restricted and sometimes insular existences



This problem starts from "island country/people".


I  found it a bit intresting because I just received a email yesterday from another Japanese (language exchange) , who was complaining not being able to learn foreign languages since she is born in  "island country." and just now I asked another Japanese, he said it depends on where people are from in Japan, he is from a inland city in japan, he wont call himself "island people" but he wont feel afended if he is called like that.


From the past experiences i worked and communicated with Japanese students, different person had different reacts and answers about this term. but one thing in common is that they wont feel unconfortable if they are the ones that call themselsves like that in the first place.


A bit more sensitive example in west is Western people call some of them "white trash".


So i would figure that you have a little over-reacted about the term "island people", when you try to offer a better term, which happens a bit similar with "insul---", misunderstandings added up.




As Gillian cited from Oxford Dictionaries the word ''insular'' also connotates ''1ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience.'' This, when used to describe the Japanese people, in my personal opnion, is unfair. The Japanese have always been interested in the outside world and been learning and adopting more advanced cultural, political, and economic elements of other countries so to further develop their own. Zen Buddhism originated from China but tea ceremony, as of the masterpieces of the manifestation of Zen philosophy, reached its climax in Japan. Tea Zen is just one of the numerous examples to illustrate that it is almost insulting to address the Japanese as ''insular'' should it be understood as ''narrow-minded.''

Maybe they are 'insular' people, but they are certainly very polite and courteous. He should have torn you to pieces (figuratively speaking) and sunk your score here to ground zero. Instead he just sent you a modest private message. I applaud him! :D

He must have been thinking of the other meaning of insular, ignorant and narrow-minded.  I'm a US English speaker and this is the meaning  that comes to my mind before the other meanings.  

may be every people in Japan has crisis awareness because of the island life, they think the island will sink soon or later.

I agree with Goatish. I'm a native English speaker and the negative meanings of the word were the first to come to mind. As far as the media sources you refer to, they generally refer to Japan as being insular when making a negative judgment about the Japanese  (i.e. when they are complaining of the Japanese doing something that the NY Times, etc, don't agree with). 


Apparently the two of you had a semantial cultural misunderstanding.

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