Chinese vs Japanese: An Intriguing Comparison

China and Japan are two ancient nations that throughout centuries influenced each other through trade, literature, art as well as military conflicts. Chinese is a language spoken mainly by people living in China and has several varieties or dialects that are spoken in China itself. It is believed that more than a fifth of the world’s population are native speakers of some varieties of Chinese. The native speakers of Japanese are not as numerous, but Japanese is still a very popular language spoken by approximately 125 million people, mainly in Japan.

Despite belonging to different language groups, these two share many similarities, mostly due to the massive influence the Chinese culture had on Japan in the pre-modern era. Therefore, if Chinese and Japanese seem similar to you, you are somewhat right. However, once you delve deeper into the subject, you will find out that even the writing system is actually different, not to mention pronunciation and grammar. Despite the fact that many foreigners tend to assume that Japanese and Chinese are very similar, we listed only two clear similarities between them.


  1. Nouns

The first similarity that can be noticed is the nouns. In both Japanese and Chinese, they do not have a masculine or feminine gender, unlike in f. ex. Spanish. They also do not conjugate (there is no distinction between singular and plural). For example, the English word for cat and cats are 猫 (mao) in Chinese and 猫 (neko) in Japanese. Moreover, there are many words of Chinese origin in Japan. The simplest example is the word “three”, which is basically the same in both countries in terms of writing and pronunciation: 三, pronounced “sān” in China and “san” in Japanese.

2. Characters (hanzi and kanji)

 Did you notice that the word “cat” has identical writing in Chinese and Japanese, but they differ in pronunciation? The same applies to the word “three”. A few lines above we didn’t sneak a mistake into the text – Chinese and Japanese really do use the same characters. The reason for this is that no form of written language existed in Japan until the 4th century AD. A writing system derived from China (hanzi) was then adopted, while using Japanese pronunciation for it (kanji). Of course, seventeen centuries later things are a little more complicated, elements from the Latin alphabet have also entered both systems, and the Japanese have developed their own symbols, but many characters are still used in both languages. The best examples are the words “Japan” and “China” themselves, 日本 (jap. Nihon and ch. Rìběn) and 中国 (jap. Chuugoku and ch. Zhōngguó).

Since we agreed that some Chinese characters are also used in Japan, it is fascinating that some of them still express similar or even the same meaning, as in the word “cat”. However, since Japanese also developed their own characters, some of them may have the same origin and meaning yet still be a bit different to its Chinese equivalent. Another good example is the word iron: 鉄 (tetsu) in Japanese  and铁  or 鐵 (tiě) in Chinese, simplified and traditional. The Japanese character is simpler than traditional Chinese, but more complex than simplified. Few people know that the Japanese were first to simplify Chinese characters, yet most of them still bear many similarities to those used in China today. Even the pronunciation of this word (tiě vs tetsu) is related.

If you spent more time on the comparative research of these two languages, you would definitely find more interesting similarities. However, despite Japanese being heavily influenced by Chinese and sharing many cultural similarities, Japanese and Chinese are generally more different than they are similar. We will now show you, why:


  1. General writing system:

We have briefly discussed the fact that the Japanese characters (kanji) actually come from China (hanzi) and despite going through a centuries-long adaptation to the Japanese language itself, the original meaning of the characters is often the same or slightly similar, and even Chinese and Japanese pronunciation of it may also resemble each other. However, this is where the commonalities end.

Japanese writing consists of three elements. The first is kanji. Initially, they were used only to write down syllables, but with time they also gained meaning. In addition to kanji, Japanese also includes kana, or two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Each of them contains 46 symbols corresponding to vowels, syllables and one consonant. Hiragana is usually used for inflectional endings, partitions or words without kanji characters. Katakana is currently used to write words of foreign origin or to emphasize something.

This is Japanese:

私は猫が好きです。 (Watashi wa neko ga suki desu) I like cats. A combination of hiragana (curved and simpler characters) and kanji.

For a standard Chinese speaker, this text translates as: Private blah cat blah good blah blah blah. Jokes aside, lets continue.

This is also Japanese:

アルフレッドキウイオレンジストロベリーすっぱいくだものすきですよ。 (Arufureddo wa kiui ya orenji ya sutoroberii ya suppai no kudamono ga suki desuyo) Alfred likes kiwi, orange, strawberry, and other kind of sour fruits. If you pay enough attention, you can single out two different types of characters: katakana, characterized by strong, straight strokes with sharp corners, and more pleasant looking hiragana.

And this is also Japanese:

小林先生。 (Kobayashi sensei) Professor Kobayashi. Written only in kanji that in Chinese would be pronounced as “Xiǎolín xiānshēng”.

Compared to all of it, Chinese writing, even though divided into traditional and simplified, feels more consistent. However, memorizing Chinese characters takes a lot of time.

2. Pronunciation

Chinese is a tonal language. This means that each word has a specific tone(s), which indicates how it is pronounced. In Chinese there are four tones (flat, rising, falling, falling-rising/dip and falling) and one neutral tone. These are extremely important as they affect the meaning of the word. The most popular example: “妈 mā” is “mother” and “马 mǎ” is “horse”. Although learning the tones is tedious work, it is well worth the time spent in order to speak the language fully correctly and not make inappropriate mistakes.

Japanese pronunciation is much easier, as there are no tones (there is an accent, but it is not as important as tones in Chinese). The sound of Japanese is generally softer and there are also extensions of the vowels (short and long vowels) and softening of the sounds, the two of them being quite hard to master for an English speaker.

Just to make it clear, native Japanese and Chinese speakers cannot really understand each other when they talk.

3. Sentence structure and grammar

There is an SVO sentence structure in Chinese. It is an abbreviation for the parts of speech: “subject – verb – object”. The array used in Japanese is SOV – “subject – object – verb”. Let’s come back to the sentence “I like cats”

Chinese: 我喜欢猫。Wǒ xǐhuān māo. – 我 Wǒ – I, 喜欢 xǐhuān – like, 猫 māo – cat.

Japanese: 私は猫が好きです。Watashi wa neko ga suki desu. – Watashi – I, wa – participle, neko – cat, ga – participle, suki – like.

As you can see, grammar is actually much simpler in Chinese. In Chinese, the function of a word is determined mainly by its position in the sentence. Example of a sentence: 他昨天去了商店。Tā zuótiān qùle shāngdiàn. – 他 Tā (he) 昨天 zuótiān (yesterday) 去了qùle (go) 商店 shāngdiàn (shop) – He went to the shop yesterday (take notice of the lack of the past tense, we will come back to it soon).

In contrast, Japanese is an agglutinative language. This means that the function of a word is determined by adding syllables to the word stem. In simpler terms, we add each piece of information to a word by attaching a “particle” to it. For example: 食べた , tabeta – “tabe-” is the subject of the verb 食べる (たべる) taberu (“to eat”), and “-ta” expresses the past tense.

Another difference between Chinese and Japanese is the tenses. In Japanese there are two basic tenses: past and present-future. There is no such thing in Chinese since the Chinese speakers simply grasp it from the context. Time is defined by words such as yesterday, tomorrow, today, afternoon, etc., and by certain grammatical forms that are not strictly “time” but rather emphasize that an action has been completed (e.g. the participle 了 you saw above). In Japanese, time determiners are also used to denote tenses, but the corresponding verb ending is necessary.

There are many more differences between these languages but the article is simply too short to deal with all of them. Instead remember that despite the fact that Japanese and Chinese share a long common history and cultural similarities, their languages are inherently different.

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