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As a near native speaker of Japanese, I find it annoying to be called 外人 since it seems to imply that I "know nothing about Japan" (outsider). I much prefer 外国人.

In modern usage, how do native speakers regard the differences between 外人, 外国人 and 外人さん?

Also are there any newer more "PC" uses of the word coming into use (akin to not calling North American natives 'Indians')?

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Just curious, what is a "near native speaker"? –  Lukman Jun 7 '11 at 6:20
on a side note: 外人 from America in Okinawa are called ヤンキー because of the "Y" on their car registration plates. (it's a very pejorative word) –  repecmps Jun 7 '11 at 6:35
Yanki has completely different meaning unrelated to foreigners on the mainland honshu, in that it is a person who is very agreesive, or what we would call a punk in america. –  Mark Hosang Jun 7 '11 at 6:40
As an addition, 「海外人」 is sometimes used –  onteria_ Jun 7 '11 at 19:46
@lukman: near native = when ntt calls they dont believe that I am me because I sound J but my name is not! :p –  crunchyt Jun 9 '11 at 20:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Nowadays 外人 and 外国人 are similar in meaning, with the latter seeing less usage. However, traditionally speaking 外人 is a derogatory word that shouldn't be used towards foreigners. 外人 actually doesn't mean foreigner as much as it means "outsider" to a group. So one could technically refer to people in a different social class/group as you as 外人 and technically be ok. Though I've have not heard this usage recently. This usage is the derogatory one btw.Though the only people I've met that know about this distinction have been Japanese teachers and people over 60.

外人さん I have heard is just japanese throwing a title onto the end of a group of people to make it seem more polite like Tanaka-san, though whether or not it is actually more polite is questionable.

lastly, I've actually been called this by my grand-mother-in-law, 異国人(いこくじん) which is a VERY old very polite way of referring to foreigners as it means "people from a different country". But even my wife was shocked when she heard this, since she has never heard it before.

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It's curious that 外人さん exists when you would never hear something like 中国人さん or 韓国人さん. –  Derek Schaab Jun 7 '11 at 13:53
@Derek: It's because Chinese and Korean people are too close by the be considered completely 外人さん –  Matti Virkkunen Jun 7 '11 at 17:38
@Matti: I don't think that's the reason. I've never heard オーストラリア人さん either and it's not because of Japan's close Asiatic bonds to Aussies. @Mark: I like 異国人 because it speaks plainly of the facts, rather than a value judgement filled pejorative term of "outsider". –  crunchyt Jun 20 '11 at 0:30
@crunchyt but then they'd shorten it to オージーさん, and that'd sound too similar to おじいさん to an Aussie! –  Andrew Grimm Apr 8 '12 at 14:22
I personally find 外人 to be very offensive. It comes off to me as "outsider", rather than "person from another country". Japan being such a homogeneous society with such rigidly defined social behaviors, calling someone an "outsider" is definitely not very flattering. I've never actually even heard a Japanese person say it (but I have seen it in blog posts and forums), and all of my Japanese friends say 外国人. –  Ataraxia Sep 14 '12 at 14:58

First, I am not native, but let me share my idea on how I feel.

I also prefer 外国人, but I don't feel offended with 外人.

It could be because they think 外人 is a more common word than 外国人 or everyone around them use 外人, and Japanese use short-form of the words a lot, so may be they don't intend to be discriminate.

I personally feels 外人さん is sarcastic, but may be I am wrong.

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+1 for sarcastic. and "short-form" (for which I forgot the official name like in tokyo daigaku = todai) –  repecmps Jun 7 '11 at 6:52
i'm not entirely sure that gaijin is the short form for gaikokujin as they were traditionally two seperate words that have more or less converged in meaning. –  Mark Hosang Jun 7 '11 at 7:12
Ditto, I feel like the Japanese person I am speaking to is out of touch if they refer to gaijin-san –  makdad Jun 7 '11 at 11:56
I think 外国人さん was a naive attempt to create a category for foreigners similar to お兄さん、お姉さん etc... I dislike being called 外人 as it feels pejorative and certainly had those connotations long ago. –  crunchyt Jun 20 '11 at 0:32

I'm surprised that this isn't mentioned in the above posts. I can't remember the exact sociolinguistic study but the differentiation in usage of both terms for a majority of Japanese speakers sampled was based on race. 外国人 is a catch all term for all foreigners (asian, black, white, etc) and considered the modern polite term. Whereas, 外人 is used for white people and black people.

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Ooh, if you could find a link to this study, that would make this a great answer! –  Amanda S Jun 28 '11 at 23:12
I'd also be interested in seeing the study. I've never been offended by being called 外人、外人さんor外国人, but I have given a piece of my mind to other foreigners in Japan from Korea or Taiwan who call me a 外人. That's no longer a matter of nationality and purely a matter of skin colour. –  ジョン Apr 9 '12 at 22:14

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