While in English, the word "gaijin" is far more common than "gaikokujin", I've heard that in Japanese [外人]{がいじん} has been replaced by [外国人]{がいこくじん} for reasons of political correctness.

What differences are there between the two words?

  1. Is it merely replacing one word with another, a case of a euphemism treadmill?
  2. Is the former perceived as a contraction of the latter, though Wikipedia claims that the former word pre-dated the latter? Contractions are often seen as derogatory.
  3. Does the latter emphasize that it's nationality that's being talked about, rather than race?
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    外人 hasn't been replaced by 外国人. They are different words from the beginning, and people often misuse 外人. You are correct that 外人 is not politically correct.
    – user458
    Dec 31, 2011 at 13:16
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    Are you sure that gaijin (and gaikokujin to a less extent) are accepted as English words? I didn't know that.
    – user458
    Dec 31, 2011 at 18:57
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    @sawa, for students of Japanese, yes I'd say they definitely are. Are they official English words? Couldn't say. However, to everyone I know who studies Japanese they're as English as 'kanji' and 'sushi' are :) Dec 31, 2011 at 19:12
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    Imagine if you gained Japanese Citizenship, you would no longer be a 外国人 but on first appearances you would still be a 外人 to most people. However, if your Japanese is so good, your Japanese friends may forget, and even comment, that you are not like a 外人 whether you are 外国人 or not. Jan 1, 2012 at 1:18
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    @sawa many foreigners use gaijin in causal way. i.e. "I need to eat some gaijin food tonight..". Said jokingly. Jan 1, 2012 at 1:20

3 Answers 3


You've stepped on a potential land mine of debate there. Whether or not 外人{がいじん} is offensive, politically incorrect, or means something other than just "foreigner" is the topic of a lot of heated debate. Take a look here for the "gaijin is offensive side". Take a look at the Wikipidia entry for links to the "gaijin is just a word" side.

Which means that for starters, it can't simply be taken as axiomatic that 外国人{がいこくじん} is more politically correct, which makes answering your question a little tough.

As far as I know, NHK and news programs favour the use of 外国人{がいこくじん} over 外人{がいじん} because it is considered more politically correct. However, if you look at the links in this answer, 外人{がいじん} does not seem to be on the list of "unbroadcastable" words (although the lists linked to are unofficial, so perhaps broadcasters have their own in house rules).

The Wikipedia entry you (and I) link to covers a lot of the history and two sides of the issue, so there's no need to retread them here.

I think that for the purposes of this site and wondering about usage in Japanese, you can't be given hard rules on this one. I think the guidelines you need to consider are:

  1. Some people do find it offensive, so know your audience.

  2. Most Japanese are unaware that it is an issue, simply because foreigners in Japan are such a tiny minority that most issues relating to foreigner relations go under the radar for most Japanese.

  3. Whether offensive or not, the word is most often understood to mean non-Chinese, non-Korean foreigners.

Personally, I feel it is too simplistic to simply assert that a word like 外人{がいじん} is or is not offensive. People seem to want to put the entire burden of responsibility on either the speaker or listener, on intent or perception, but I believe language is a relationship in which two parties participate in understanding. So 外人{がいじん} can be made offensive, or not, it can be understood as offensive, or not. If you and I were having coffee together, I could show you how I can take a neutral word like "woman" and use it as a weapon. But that becomes part of a broader debate about language and social norms. Too broad to cover here.

  • What about 外国人 of other Asian descent? (I.e. Chinese, Korean, etc.) Is there another word like 外人 that classifies them?
    – Flaw
    Dec 31, 2011 at 14:44
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    @Dave, that sounds like the best Gaijin Show ever! Also, +1 for your guidelines :D Dec 31, 2011 at 16:56

外人 means "outsiders" or "strangers", not necessarily foreigners. When this word is used against foreigners, the point of view is set to Japan, and it is presupposed that anything that belongs to outside of Japan, or anything that came from outside of Japan is an "outside(r)" or a "strange(er)". On the other hand, 外国人 means "people from a foreign country" or "foreigners", and it is appropriate to use it against foreigners. It does not have the negative implications mentioned above that 外人 has. 外人 is not shortened form of 外国人, although some people mistake it as so. They overlap, but are not the same. 外人 hasn't been replaced by 外国人, but over the recent time, more people became aware of the misuse and came to use the correct word.

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    This makes a lot of sense to me, as I've heard few of my Japanese friends in the U.S. still call Americans 外人, even though it is they who are the foreigners. I've always found it funny because even after pointing out the irony, it doesn't change anything. Dec 31, 2011 at 16:13
  • Well, I guess it's not really ironic anymore. Dec 31, 2011 at 16:22
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    @Louis Yeah, even though it does mean foreigner, I think a lot of Japanese think of it meaning "non-Japanese person". Even someone not of Japanese decent who was born in Japan, or has even gained official citizenship is still pretty much considered a gaijin. I blame it on their history of isolation...That being said, I personally don't find the word 外人 offensive, I use it all the time (it's pretty much a word in English for me...), I just find that mindset a little sad. Doesn't make me stop loving Japan thou :D Dec 31, 2011 at 16:53

I think a lot of the political debate stems greatly from how one recognizes a person, in which 外人 and 外国人 have subtly different implications.

'outside' + 'person'
stranger, foreigner, outsider

In the context of culture, someone who is not Japanese and is among Japanese people, or in Japanese land, is a 'stranger,' a 'foreigner,' or an 'outsider.' That this word can be used as a pejorative though not always carries the connotation that the 'outside person' may not be welcome, may be rude, may be disrespectful, as a virtue of being from outside.

'outside' + 'country' + 'person'
someone from another country

This variation can be used to describe the same person, in the context of prominence. This person does not have to be a cultural outsider, but is from another country. This word is usually not used as a pejorative, although it can be used to mark a possibility for lack of understanding, though most often, in a negative comment, 外人 is more commonly heard, thus lending its negative connotation.

The end result is that there's a fine line that separates both words, because both have similar, but not exactly the same, meanings. I would say that 外人 does not always but can border on xenophobia and come up in xenophobic remarks, whereas 外国人 doesn't necessarily carry the same connotation.

This is all, of course, up for debate, and up to interpretation. I generally go by the rule that tone and context provide the true meaning of the word when it is said, so if someone refers to you as a 外人 in a non-negative way, I doubt that they are being xenophobic towards you, for example.

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