As a Chinese citizen living in Japan, my American friends often ask me what the difference between the Chinese and Japanese languages is. Are the two languages mutually intelligible? For me, it is difficult to give a straight “yes” or “no” answer.
A quick search on Wikipedia shows that the Chinese language (Mandarin) belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and the Japanese language belongs to the Japonic language family. However, for most of us who are not experts in linguistics, such knowledge is not very helpful. Therefore, this article aims to offer a more straightforward answer to achieve a practical understanding of the two languages’ differences and similarities.
First, the Japanese writing system is more complex than the Chinese one. The Chinese writing system consists of 100% Chinese characters. Meanwhile, the Japanese writing system consists of three parts: Kanji (Chinese characters), Hiragana, and Katakana.
The Japanese language has two alphabets – 46 Hiragana and 46 Katakana. As you may have guessed, Hiragana and Katakana correspond to each other individually. For example, the vowel “a” in Japanese can be written as either “あ” in Hiragana or “ア.” in Katakana. As learning deeper, you will gradually comprehend the differences in their specific application.
When it comes to the Chinese language, this language doesn’t have any alphabet at all – just thousands of Chinese characters.
Hanzi vs. Kanji (Both Chinese characters)
Chinese Characters are the most significant part of the Chinese and Japanese written languages. They are called Hanzi in Chinese and Kanji in Japanese. Although both Hanzi and Kanji are Chinese characters, they don’t correspond to each other all the time in each language. The Hanzi used in mainland China today are simplified for ease of learning and writing. Japanese, however, retains more traditional Chinese characters.
Simplified Chinese characters (China): 忧郁
Traditional Chinese characters (Japan): 憂鬱
English translation: depressed
I deliberately chose the above example to highlight the major difference between simplified and traditional characters. In most cases, there is little or even no difference between Hanzi and Kanji. Nevertheless, Hanzi and Kanji have entirely different pronunciations and are not orally intelligible to each other. As a result, the meaning between Hanzi and Kanji is the same in most cases, but they are pronounced differently in each language.
However, again, there are no absolute rules when comparing these two languages. Sometimes the meaning between them can be different, too. For example, the character “娘” means “mother” in Chinese, while in Japanese, it means “daughter.” Kinda funny, right?
The number of Chinese characters is enormous, totaling hundreds of thousands. Don’t panic, though. Not even Chinese and Japanese speakers know all of them. According to a document from China’s State Language Committee, the number of commonly used Hanzi in Chinese is 2,500, covering 99% of the daily texts. Furthermore, according to a report issued by the Japanese Cabinet Council in 2010, the number of commonly used Kanji in Japanese is 2,136.
For Japanese, the more formal the text, the greater the proportion of Kanji; meanwhile, the more informal the text, the greater the use of Hiragana and Katakana. Interestingly, Chinese citizens who have never learned Japanese can read official documents and reports issued by the Japanese government because they are almost entirely written in Kanji.
Chinese: one of the few tonal languages
Chinese is one of the few tonal languages in the world. Each syllable in Mandarin has four corresponding tones, and the meaning varies accordingly. Let’s take the syllable “ma” as an example. In Mandarin, it may correspond to the following characters.
mā 妈 (mother)
má 麻 (flax)
mǎ 马 (horse)
mà 骂 (scold)
For some dialects of Chinese, the tones may be more complex – for example, Cantonese has nine tones. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese language is written in Chinese characters, which are not phonetic. Therefore, you cannot tell what the pronunciation of a character is from its writing. You can only figure out how to say it after looking up its pronunciation in the dictionary. Mainland China uses a phonetic system called Hanyu Pinyin to pronounce Chinese characters.
“It’s a beautiful day, let’s go for a walk.” in Chinese
From my perspective, pronunciation is the most challenging part of learning Chinese, and many of my foreign friends who study Chinese agree with me.
Japanese: one of the easiest pronunciations
The pronunciation of Japanese is much easier than that of Chinese. Similar to English, Japanese has no tones (including the Chinese characters in Japanese, which also have no tones) only accents.
Furthermore, compared to Chinese, which has some problematic phonemes, almost everyone can learn Japanese pronunciation quickly. It’s worth mentioning that the ratio of vowels to consonants in Japanese is almost 1:1, making it the most musical language.
The downside is that even though Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic, Chinese characters (Kanji) in Japanese also need annotations to show pronunciation due to their ideographic nature. In Japanese, the pronunciation of Kanji is generally indicated by Hiragana.
“It’s a beautiful day, let’s go for a walk.” in Japanese
Chinese: interesting word-formation logic
Many beginners find memorizing Chinese vocabulary to be very thought-provoking. Actually, the word-formation logic of Chinese vocabulary is clever and inspired. After learning the primary Chinese characters, you will quickly master a series of Chinese words.
For example, the term “电视 (Television)” is made up of “电 (Electricity)” + “视 (Vision).” Just think about it: TV requires electricity to operate and vision to watch it. Another example is the word “香水 (perfume),” made up of “香 (fragrant)” + “水 (water).” Learning Chinese vocabulary is like solving a jigsaw puzzle game, which requires you to use known Chinese characters to form different words.
Japanese: many English loanwords
Japanese uses far more English loanwords than Chinese. The loanwords are often used for modern ideas and inventions (especially after the industrial revolution). For example, the term “television” in Japanese is “テレビ (te re bi)” which is short for “television”, in contrast to “电视 (diàn shì)” in Chinese.
For items and concepts that have been around since ancient times, the Japanese language still uses Chinese characters or native words. While learning Japanese, you are learning a lot of Chinese vocabulary without even realizing it, and vice versa. According to the National Research Institute of Japan, the Japanese language consists of native words (36.7%,) Chinese words (47.5%,) and loanwords (almost 10%).
In contrast to the word order of English (Subjective-Verb-Objective), the Japanese sentence structure is (Subjective-Objective-Verb), which means that Japanese predicate verbs tend to come at the end.
The sentence structure in Chinese is in the same SVO order as in English. You could argue that the Chinese sentence structure is more intuitive for English speakers.
Japan is a somewhat hierarchical society, and the concept of honorifics is integrated into its grammar tree. The Japanese honorific system is so tricky that even many Japanese people get it wrong sometimes.
Generally speaking, the Japanese honorific is divided into three main categories: humble, respectful, and polite languages. As a beginner, you only need to learn basic application scenarios. Don’t worry about getting it wrong because Japanese people have a high tolerance for foreigners’ language skills. In general, they are just impressed that you’re doing your best to use their language.
Like English, modern Chinese doesn’t have an honorific system and only uses a few words to express respect. In this respect, the Chinese language is much simpler than the Japanese language, which has a mind-bogglingly complex honorific system.
Just as English verbs are conjugated depending on tense and other situations, Japanese verbs are conjugated, too. Take the word “完成する (complete)” as an example:
完成する To be completed
完成しない Not completed
完成しなかった Not completed yet
完成するな Don’t complete
完成すれば If completed
完成される Will be completed
完成できる Can be completed
The Chinese verb does not conjugate. Not one bit. Rather than relying on changes in form or prefixes/suffixes, Chinese uses additional words as needed for different situations like time. The verb above in Japanese, “完成する,” has only one form, “完成,” in Chinese. For more knowledge about Japanese verb conjugation, you may refer to an article we wrote before!
Japanese is an agglutinative language and relies heavily on particles to reflect the grammatical relationship between different parts of a sentence. If you want to learn more details about Japanese particles, please click here.
Modern Chinese has almost no particles (auxiliaries). I can’t tell whether it’s better or worse to have auxiliaries. Some people may find it too tricky to learn and use Japanese particles. In contrast, others may think it is hard to recognize the components in Chinese sentences due to the lack of auxiliary cues.
Which is easier, Japanese or Chinese?
After reading the my above breakdown, I believe you may have come to realize that the answer to this question is ambiguous. In my opinion, they each have easy and complex parts, and here is the difficulty assessment based on my personal opinion:
Grammar Difficulty: Japanese > Chinese
Vocabulary Difficulty: Chinese ≈ Japanese
Pronunciation Difficulty: Chinese > Japanese
What is the range and number of Japanese and Chinese speakers?
According to WorldData, Chinese is spoken by 1.31 billion people, making it the second most spoken language in the world, after English. Chinese is predominantly spoken in Chinese communities in mainland China, Taiwan Province, Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, Singapore, Malaysia, and Chinese communities in other countries.
With 128 million speakers, Japanese is the eighth most spoken language in the world, mainly in Japan and overseas Japanese communities.
Why does the Japanese language use Chinese characters?
In the beginning, the Japanese language could not be written and was only oral. Chinese characters began to be introduced to Japan during the Han dynasty in China (around 57 AD). After that, Japanese people started to use Chinese characters to write the Japanese language.
However, Chinese and Japanese are two different languages, so Chinese characters can’t 100% meet the Japanese language’s writing needs. Hence, after introducing Chinese characters, Japanese people themselves created Hiragana and Katakana themselves to make written Japanese better and easier.
Are there dialects of Chinese and Japanese?
There are many dialects of Chinese, many of which are not even mutually intelligible. For example, the most famous Chinese dialect, Cantonese, is incomprehensible to many Chinese people who aren’t Cantonese speakers.
Therefore, the Chinese government has designated Mandarin as the standard language of Chinese. Almost all Chinese people can speak Mandarin (although not all have standard accents). By learning Mandarin, you will be able to handle nearly 95% of situations.
Japanese also has dialects, but they are not distinctive as the Chinese ones and are almost always mutually intelligible. The Tokyo accent is considered the standard accent, and you can learn it by listening to Japanese TV channels such as NHK.