As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!


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