Chinese vs Japanese: how similar (or unsimilar) are they?

4.11.2022

chinese vs japanese main image

We all have a general "feeling" (to say knowledge would be taking it too far) of the Japanese and Chinese culture. Chinese and Japanese food has become part of our everyday lives, so much so that eating sushi and spring rolls is not even perceived as particularly exotic anymore. 

We start our day with tai chi, and we happily de-clutter our wardrobes following Marie Kondo’s recommendations, wondering when was the last time that olive green corduroy jacket "sparked joy" for us. Or if it has ever sparked any at all. 

Yet the mist surrounding the two languages is still thick.

Together, we will try to dispel at least some of it, highlighting the major differences and similarities existing between these two fascinating and ancient languages.

It’s All Chinese To Me

chinese wall ink drawing

"C’est du chinois!" (French)

"¡Esto es chino para mí!" (Spanish)

"Questo per me è cinese!" (Italian)

"Ez nekem kínai!" (Hungarian)

"Для меня это китайская грамота!" (Russian)

In most cultures, when you want to say that something is incomprehensible, you compare it to the Chinese language. 

Knowing that Chinese is complicated for most people comes as a consolation. Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages even has a page listing all variations of this highly popular idiom

But if you go through its list, nowhere in the world does anyone say "holy smokes, this is all Japanese to me!". 

The Japanese language is simply never used as a model of linguistic intricacy. 

Why is that? Is it because it’s easier than Chinese? Or is it because nobody can actually tell the difference?

Chinese And Japanese Loanwords

ketchup dripping from spoon against yellow background

If you've ever wondered why certain words in English sound a bit different from the rest, it's because they're actually borrowed from other languages. A lot of these words come from Chinese and Japanese, two languages that have had a significant impact on English over the years. In fact, there are so many loanwords from these two languages that it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

For example: 

  • monsoon - from the Cantonese 滿水 mun seoi,  literally: full of water; 
  • soy - from the Sino-Japanese 醬油, shoyu
  • tycoon, from the Japanese 大君, taikun, literally "Great Lord"; 

and… brace yourself: 

  • ketchup - apparently from the Hokkien dialect  茄汁, kê-tsiap, literally: "brine of pickled fish or shellfish"

So, next time you're enjoying a meal or referring to the downpour that ruined your weekend plans, remember that you have Chinese and Japanese to thank for some of the most essential words in your vocabulary.

Two Languages, Two Countries, Two Different Histories

globe showing the vastness of china

Now, a few facts and figures. 

China is a huge country. And by huge, we mean nearly three times the size of the U.S. (9.5 million sq mi against just over 3.5 million sq mi for the U.S.). It has 56 legally recognized ethnic groups and 292 living languages

What we generally refer to as Chinese is Standard or Simplified Chinese or Mandarin. The twist? It is not exactly a language but a group of languages (dialects), unified by the fact that their speakers (70% of the overall population of Mainland China) can actually understand each other.

Mandarin Chinese was adopted in the 1930s as the official language of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). It is also one of the 4 official languages in Singapore, and one of the 6 official languages of the UN

Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan languages family and its first written records date back to over 3,000 years ago. According to recent data, Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language after English, with over 1.11 billion speakers, comprised of 918 million native speakers, and 199 million non-native speakers.

Japan, on the other hand, is an island country, very small compared to China (145,937 sq mi), and the Japanese language is spoken natively by about 128 million people, mostly Japanese people and mostly living in the Japanese archipelago. Japan is the only country where Japanese is the national language. 

Japanese belongs to the Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language family. We don't know exactly when the language first appeared. A few Japanese words are indeed recorded in ancient Chinese documents from the 3rd century AD, but it was not until the 8th century that substantial Old Japanese texts made their appearance.

Having said this… how have two languages with such different histories come to appear so similar?

The Pacific Takeover Of Chinese Characters

chinese character background from hong kong temple

As we saw, the Chinese and Japanese languages followed two very different paths for centuries. 

Then something happened and the paths crossed. 

Until the 5th century AD the Japanese did not have their own writing system. However, it was in that very period that, through the Korean peninsula of Baekje, Chinese logograms were first introduced into Japan.

Buddhist and philosophical treatises written in Classical Chinese became popular with Japanese scholars (only a few were educated enough to decipher them). And gradually, Chinese characters started to be used in the Japanese language, too.

What happened was an incredible (and unique!) case of linguistic synthesis: the Chinese characters kept their graphic aspect and meaning… but took on a wholly new pronunciation, as Japanese already existed as a spoken language. 

Clever and convenient. Why create a wholly new writing system when one was already available, sophisticated, and perfectly functional? 

No wonder Japan is one of the world’s major economic powers.

So, for example, the word "cat" has the same character (homograph) both in Chinese and Japanese:

 猫

However, this very character is pronounced "mao" in Chinese and "neko" in Japanese.
Of course, this was centuries ago and the two languages have since evolved in many respects. However, at the present time, it is estimated that approximately 70% of Japanese characters share the same meaning as their Chinese homographs.

Chinese vs. Japanese Numbers

number tassels against yellow background

The numeral systems of the Japanese and Chinese languages are also basically identical, with the same characters used to represent the various numbers, although pronounced differently.

NumberCharacterChinese pronunciationJapanese Pronunciation
1yiichi
2erni
3sansan
4sishi
5wugo
6liuroku
7qishichi
8bahachi
9jiuku
10shiju
100baihyaku
1,000quiansen
10,000wanman

Hanzi and Kanji

red chinese hanzi character and black japanese kanji character against blue background

The Chinese characters are called hanzi. Although the Chinese government decided to simplify the writing system in the 1950’s (adopting the so-called Simplified Chinese script, as opposed to the Traditional Chinese characters that are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau), the number of simplified characters is still mind-boggling: just imagine that the Zhonghua Zihai, the largest Chinese hanzi characters dictionary compiled in 1994 includes 85,568 different characters.

Japan is currently the only non-Chinese language outside of China that uses the Chinese script. The Japanese writing system, however, is not called hanzi but kanji.

To make things more interesting, apart from kanji characters, the Japanese also use two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The hiragana writing system is used to construct native Japanese words whereas the latter is mostly used to write the countless foreign words that have crept into the language over time, such as ホテル hoteru (hotel), マクドナルド   makudonarudo  (McDonald’s).

Names, Titles, and Honorifics in Chinese and Japanese Languages

wooden statue of a human pyramid simbolizing social hierarchy

We all know how sensitive people can be when it comes to how they are addressed. This is particularly true in the case of cultures with a highly hierarchical structure.

Both in Chinese and Japanese, the last name comes before the first name of the person. Chinese names are generally quite short (2 or 3 characters - e.g.: Chan ), whereas the Japanese can have longer names, up to 4 characters.

One thing we associate with the Japanese people is the bow. The Chinese bow, too, although definitely less. However, respect is shown also through language, with the use of honorifics (again, these are more frequently used in the Japanese than in the Chinese language). 
Honorifics are words used to address people in a polite way, in accordance with the Confucian ideals of a social order based on class consciousness and respect. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher, but his ideals were exported to Japan and eventually influenced the development of Keigo (敬語), the Japanese polite language.

Japanese honorifics include, for example:

the suffix –San, equivalent to "Mr." or "Mrs.", which is a title of respect between equals

the suffix –Sama, which is the more formal version of san and is normally used to refer to people of higher rank or somebody you admire

Both in Chinese and Japanese, titles and professions come after the surname. In Chinese you have 林先生 (Lin xiansheng), which means “Mister Lin”; in Japanese, you have 村上先生 (Murakami sensei), which means “Professor Murakami”.

Note that not only is the word 先生 pronounced differently, but it also has a different meaning.

Chinese vs. Japanese False Friends

ink illustration of two hands pinky-swearing against blue background

The Mister/Professor case was what we call a false friend.

Unsurprisingly, two different languages which are, however, so closely related via the characters they use, cannot but hide a minefield of false friends, i.e.: words that are used in both languages but have distinct meanings (as well as pronunciations). A proper challenge for any language learner reckless enough to tackle both Chinese and Japanese.

To give you an idea of how tricky it can get, suffice to say that the character 手紙 means "toilet paper" in Traditional Chinese (by the way, they were the ones to invent it, back in the 6th century or so), but means "letter" in Japanese. 

So far, we’ve had a look at the similarities and dangerous juxtapositions between these two otherwise very distinctive languages. Let’s now have a look at the major differences.

Chinese vs. Japanese Tones

You may not recognize the written language, but surely the pronunciation is unmistakable. There is something that makes learning and mastering Chinese pronunciation incredibly arduous and that is the presence of tones. 

Chinese is (alongside Thai, Igbo, Yòrúba, Punjabi, Zulu, and Navajo) a tonal language. This means that tone and pronunciation both contribute to conveying a certain meaning. In tonal languages, the tone that is placed upon a syllable can change the meaning of the word completely. 

Chinese has a total of 5 tones: Flat, Rising, Dip, Falling, and Neutral.

Here’s one of the most common examples, with the seemingly harmless syllable “ma”

妈 (mā) — mom

麻 (má) — hemp or flax

马 (mǎ) — horse

骂 (mà) — to scold

吗 (ma) — a question particle

Japanese, on the other hand, is not a tonal language. Its sound system is simpler, with “just” five vowels and fourteen consonant sounds and now and then, a "pitch accent" (a falling or rising intonation). Pitch may not be as complex as Chinese tones, but it is still very important as Japanese also has a lot of homonyms.

Japanese Grammar, Or The Samurai’s Revenge

black illustration of japanese samurai against limegreen background

Surely, what with all those tones and dozens of thousands of characters the Oscar for "appallingly-difficult-on-the-verge-of-unlearnability language" must go to Chinese, right? 

This must be the reason why people all over the world don’t say “it’s all Japanese to me!,” right?

Never, never underestimate a language. 

It’s a mistake we at LingPerfect have learned never to make.

Because we haven’t talked about grammar, yet. 

And Japanese grammar is, alas, way more complex and sophisticated than Chinese grammar.

For example, Chinese verbs are not conjugated and only have one form, whereas Japanese verbs have a wide range of conjugations and particles.

Plus, Chinese is an SVO (Subject+Verb+Object) language just like English, so sentences are easier to make and interpret.

Vice versa, Japanese is an SOV (Subject+Object+Verb) language, meaning you do not say: "I eat sushi" but "I sushi eat". 

The SOV word order could be found in classical Chinese but has been abandoned over the centuries. In this respect, it can be said that the Japanese language is closer to ancient, classical Chinese than Mandarin itself.

Looking For Accurate and Culturally Appropriate Chinese or Japanese translations?

phone illustrations with english and japanese letters

If you’ve borne with us so far, you clearly share our fascination with Asian languages. 

Maybe you’re even considering the idea of learning Japanese or Chinese yourself… why not? It may be a long and challenging process but, as the Japanese say, "fall seven times, get up eight", or the Chinese: "every step makes a footprint" (there’s just something about Japanese and Chinese proverbs…).

If, on the other hand, you are here because you need a translation into Japanese or Chinese, just remember we have the right people for that.

Our team of experienced linguists consists of native speakers, ensuring your translations will be accurate and true to the original meaning. Plus, we offer competitive rates without compromising on quality.

Reach out to our team today and let us help you ace your next Chinese and/or Japanese translation assignment.

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