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')?

  • 5
    Just curious, what is a "near native speaker"?
    – Lukman
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 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
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 6:35
  • 4
    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. Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 6:40
  • As an addition, 「海外人」 is sometimes used
    – onteria_
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 19:46
  • 3
    @lukman: near native = when ntt calls they dont believe that I am me because I sound J but my name is not! :p
    – crunchyt
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:58

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 4
    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. Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 13:53
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    @Derek: It's because Chinese and Korean people are too close by the be considered completely 外人さん Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 17:38
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    @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
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 0:30
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    @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!
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 14:22
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    I'd disagree about the offensiveness. 外人さん is extremely common and used without a sign of offence. You often see girls talking about a "handsome gaijinsan" where it just means "a foreigner" and is if not polite then definitely not offensive. Regarding 外人 - I've heard people using it as a "normal" word even in quite official setting. I've told them later this is not really polite to say this way and they were quite surprised. Which means, again, there's no offence, this is just a normal way to call any foreigner. When it comes to 外国人 it sounds too politically correct if not in an official talk.
    – Rilakkuma
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 2:21


I'm a native speaker and I'm sure that there's no difference between them.

It's a evidence for it that Japanese government uses 外人 on its public document.


It's said that 外人(さん) should not be used because few people feel discriminated when Japanese call them 外人.

Thus, especially on public document (e.g. TV programs), 外国人 are used nowadays.

(EDIT) Here are some pages in www.mod.go.jp (Japanese government: Ministry Of Defence) that use the word 外人.

Japanese government built some cemeteries for foreign people, called 外人墓地. An article on Wikipedia mentioned about 外国人 and 外人.

Please take a look at reference #2:


(Both 外人墓地 (Foreign cemeteries) and 外人部隊 (Foreign legion) have been used for long time. So, it's certain that there are no meanings that imply discrimination.)

  • Completely agree. I've been called 外人 in the Immigration Bureau by a clerk once by the way and there's completely no offence.
    – Rilakkuma
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 11:05
  • Can you direct me to some of those government documents? Or even better include it in your answer? Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 14:12
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    I've just edited my answer. You can search them yourself: Search on Google -> "site:mod.go.jp 外人 -外国".
    – puhitaku
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 15:18
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    Seems like news sites (NHK, Mainichi etc) uses 外国人 much more often than 外人. For NHK web search, it's 24 for 外人 vs 2550 for 外国人. Also, English Wikipedia noted commentators (mostly Western) feel the term to be derogatory. Fascinating. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 17:51

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.

  • 1
    +1 for sarcastic. and "short-form" (for which I forgot the official name like in tokyo daigaku = todai)
    – repecmps
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 6:52
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    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. Commented Jun 7, 2011 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
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 11:56
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    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
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 0:32
  • I agree. 外人 (4 moras) is easier than 外国人 (6 moras) to pronounce in ordinary conversation.
    – puhitaku
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 4:35

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.

  • 4
    Ooh, if you could find a link to this study, that would make this a great answer!
    – Amanda S
    Commented Jun 28, 2011 at 23:12
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    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
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 22:14
  • @Elijah <外人 is used for white people and black people.> Not necessarily. For example Sumo Mongolian wrestlers are quite often referred to as "外人力士".
    – eltonjohn
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 2:13

First of all, there's only one modern polite word to call a foreigner and it is 外国人. There are other phrases too, such as 海外の人 or 海外の方. The latter one is used more often.

However, you mostly hear 外国人 when a politician talks from a tribune or an overly politically correct Japanese person tries to be polite.

In fact the normal way to refer to a foreigner is 外人 and there's zero offence in it. When talking about a particular person, -さん is added, making 外人さん. Again, this is not offensive even a bit and is hardly ironical. I'd say it is quite polite way to refer to a foreigner even if not suitable for an official setting.

And of course there were always foreigners who feel offended by the 外人 word because apparently the word is made of "outside" and "man" and with some fantasy can be translated as an "alien". Which is well, quite true, so I see no reason to be offended here.

Alien is perfectly normal word to refer to a foreign national or to a foreign introduction.

  • 1
    I agree that 外人 is not offensive, but I also think that in offensive contexts, 外人 tends to be the word used rather than 外国人. Apart from that, I've always considered 外人 to be a short for 外国人.
    – NigoroJr
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 16:34

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