Refugees 難民 = “difficult people”? The semantics of nanmin, the Japanese word for refugees

The words we use matter. It influences how we think, form opinions, and see each other. Especially, this is the case when considering labels which categorize certain groups of people.

Take the phrase ‘illegal migrants’, often used in the media to refer to those who are in reality, irregular or undocumented migrants. It can be seen that describing someone as ‘illegal’ creates a link between migrants and criminal behavior; further, it connotes to an unlawful existence. This is unsound in itself, as only actions under law can be deemed illegal, not persons. Not to mention, it is dehumanizing to degrade an individual’s existence as unlawful. This kind of labelling contributes to the production of identities open to exploitation, detention, and deportation – evidence of the importance of labels in how certain groups are treated in society.

This is why in this blog post we’ll be taking a critical look the Japanese word for refugees, 難民 (nanmin). This literally translates to ‘difficult people’ (nan 難 = difficult) and (min 民 = people)


Etymology of nanmin

In the early 20th century, those who fled the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War to Japan were called 避難民 (hinan-min). 避難 (hinan) translates to “evacuation, escape, or to seek shelter”. Put together with 民 (people), the literal translation of 避難民 (hinan-min) is “people who evacuate, escape, and seek shelter.”

However, when Japan acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, the translation of ‘refugees’ appeared not as 避難民 (hinan-min), but as nanmin (難民). Why was the shortened form, nanmin used in the translation – can it be explained simply as a matter of convenience? After all, it is very common to shorten words in Japan. Or was there more to it? Unfortunately, limited accessible research exists on the decision-making processes which led to the translation of nanmin. We’d love to know more, please get in touch if you have further information.

RIJ advocates for a change: 避難民 (hinan-min), instead of 難民 (nanmin)

As mentioned earlier, labels can produce and reinforce how people imagine a group’s identity. While noting that all those who are categorized as ‘refugees’ do not share a homogeneous identity, how a group is labelled has social implications for individuals within the category. Implications such as how individuals may think of themselves, how others think about individuals within the group (labelled ‘difficult people’), and consequently how they are treated by institutions, policies, and everyday interactions.

Seen above in the case of labelling migrants as ‘illegal’, a similar critique can be applied here. To label a group with a term that literally translates to ‘difficult people’ cannot have neutral social implications. It is not the people themselves who are difficult, as the current label suggests. Instead, the descriptor ‘difficult’ should clearly refer to the conditions they are fleeing from. However, as things stand currently, the label nanmin will likely evoke feelings of fear or unwelcome – because the image 難 (difficulty) connotes a heaviness, unwanted and undesired.

Therefore, when functioning as a conceptual metaphor, 難民 ‘difficult people’ influences the way Japanese speakers think about refugees. Consequently, it impacts public opinion regarding the acceptance of refugees into Japan.


Especially for a language which is written visually through the use of kanji, the consequences of using the character for difficult 難 to connote the identity of displaced persons is in need of reform. At RIJ, we acknowledge that in the past, we have used the traditional way of referring to refugees, 難民 (nanmin). In fact, it was used in our organization’s name, 国際難民支援会 (kokusai-nanmin-shienkai). However, in recent years we have recognized the importance of labels and the power of words in constructing the identities of people. This is why we encourage you to join us in advocating this change: a shift away from 難民 (nanmin), to 避難民 (hinan-min).


Koto Akiyoshi, RIJ Intern


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