Different words for foreign, foreigner

I’ve seen a whole bunch of words that mean variations on ‘foreign’, ‘foreigner’, ‘overseas’, but don’t have much of an idea about the context in which each word should be used. Does anyone have any advice on how to approach using them?


Can you list out the Japanese words?


I’ve seen the following, and assume that there might be some more:

Foreign -

Foreigner -
gaijin (I guess informal)
gaikokujin (formal?)

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体外 refers to “from outside your body” - like a “foreign substance” that your immune system might react to Wrong taigai, my bad, I’m a dumdum

対外 is “foreign” or “external” in a more general sense, and can refer to things outside Japan, but can also be more like “from outside some boundary/group/area”
海外 is “foreign” or “overseas” as an adjective, referring to things outside Japan (which is an island, so everything outside Japan is automatically also overseas)

外国人 is a person from outside a given country (and without context to indicate otherwise, that’d usually be Japan)
外人 originally just meant “outsider” - not necessarily from outside Japan but also outside your group of friends for instance - but is now synonymous with 外国人 basically, especially referring to Americans and Europeans.

Note that 外人 isn’t inherently derogatory, but may, depending on the context, the tone, the person, etc. have some derogatory connotations. It’s perfectly fine to use though, and if someone uses it to refer to you that doesn’t by any means mean they look down on foreigners.

You’re also right that 外国人 is more fit for formal situations, and as I understand it’s the legal term as well.


Thank you - this is so helpful, and also a heads up for a future ‘taigai’!

I might get to this eventually as I progress through the course, but is there a version of foreigner that is neither potentially derogatory depending on tone (gaijin), nor formal (gaikokujin)? I guess something that you could use as a middle ground?

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Using the nationality is a decent alternative. Nationalities can still be used in a derogatory way but that comes from your tone, not the word


Perfect, that makes sense. Thanks so much!

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Honestly, everything can be used in a derogatory way depending on your manner of speaking, and to a degree the language you use as well - languages with heavy use of sarcasm make it much easier to turn anything and everything into an insult (and if you don’t believe me, look at the British).

Generally I wouldn’t worry about using 外人. Like what @bakugames said about using specific nationalities (which is definitely a good option because it puts less emphasis on “not Japanese” and more on “from <insert country here>”) the derogatory nature comes from tone and context. If someone calls you a 外人 while complimenting your Japanese, that’s not derogatory at all. If someone’s calling you a 外人 while telling you off for breaking some sort of social norm, then they’re likely not being friendly… but they weren’t being too friendly if they weren’t calling you a 外人 either.

I’d say in most cases you’ll know if it’s derogatory or not, and you’ll definitely know if it’s derogatory or not if you’re the one using it - quite simply because if what you mean is “someone not from Japan” and not “those darn foreigners and their weird habits/food/clothes/Pokémon cards” you’re good.

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I wouldn’t say 外国人 is “formal”, it’s perfectly normal to use in everyday speech. It’s just that it’s the correct term to use in formal situations because 外人 is both more informal and can be derogatory.


Thanks - this is some good extra clarity and makes a lot of sense.

You hit the nail on the head with British use of sarcasm and, given that I am half British, I definitely see where you’re coming from!

I think there’s some ambiguity to describing a word as “formal” when talking about Japanese. To me, it doesn’t necessarily imply the same level of formality as it would in English (i.e. words you’d tend to use in business emails, legal documents, etc. but not when talking to someone in person in most cases) but more so words you’d preferably use wherever keigo is appropriate (but wouldn’t necessarily avoid when it’s not).

At least that’s how I’ve always interpreted it. But it’s a bit confusing all the same since it’s not like “formal” and “informal” is a binary in Japanese, there are levels of formality ranging from “joking around with someone you’ve known all your life” to “talking politics with a head of state”, so to speak.

I’ve seen people say 外人さん to make 外人 more polite, but I’m unsure if the effect comes across as intended.


The most polite way would be 海外ニキ obviously.


The first time my current neighbor met me, she used 外人さん when describing her first thoughts upon seeing me. She’s a nice person and obviously didn’t use it with derogatory intent, since she said it to my face. This doesn’t clarify if she thought 外人さん or if she thought 外人 and added さん when saying it to me. Not that it matters much to me.

As for 外人without さん, the English teacher at my school I most frequently work with always tells students not to use 外人 if she hears them use it. I’ve never remarked on the word to her.