Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja: Why are they both Similar and Different?

hanzi, kanji, and hanja

Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja: what are their differences? Are they mutually intelligible in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean?

If you are interested in East Asian culture or learning CJK languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), you might have encountered questions like these before. In this article, we will focus on differentiating between these similar words in CJK languages and learn a little bit of their history as well!

Let’s get started!

History Overview

A long time ago, neither Japan nor the Korean Peninsula had their own writing system. Chinese, on the other hand, is one of the oldest languages in the world with an ancient writing system. Thanks to their proximity to China, Japan and Korea have long been influenced by the Chinese language and culture.

Gradually, Japanese people adopted Chinese characters and formed Kanji, while Korean people used Hanzi to form Hanja. In the 20th century, the Chinese language further evolved into simplified Chinese, which is now used in mainland China, while Taiwan and Hong Kong kept on using traditional Chinese characters.

evolution of Chinese, Japanese, Korean language

Now, let’s take a look at them one by one.


Hanzi (Chinese characters) is the current writing system of Chinese. This is the oldest writing system that is still used in the modern world. It is also one of the most widely adopted writing systems.

Hanzi are logograms, which means each symbol-like character represents an idea. The sounds used to pronounce Hanzi are also not based on the written form itself. Take a look at some of these examples here and you’ll get the idea:

人 person

囚 prisoner

凸 convex

凹 concave

雨 rain

傘 umbrella

川 river

火 fire

木 tree

林 woods

森 forest

山 mountain

口 mouth

田 rice field

串 skewer

As one of the oldest languages in the world, Chinese has also spread to and influenced many other neighboring countries. For many centuries, the Chinese character script was the only script used in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. In fact, Chinese is quite the equivalent of Latin or Greek in th e Sino-Tibetan language family.

As the Chinese language evolved, it grew simpler and simpler. In the early 1900s, the debate over whether to use traditional or simplified Chinese resulted in what it looks like today: Mainland China uses simplified Chinese while Taiwan and Hong Kong continue to use traditional Chinese. While some characters look the same in simplified and traditional Chinese (like 人), others may look very different (like 汉/漢).

The introduction of simplified Chinese has greatly increased the literacy rate in mainland China, especially in rural areas. However, there are still arguments saying that traditional Chinese is not that difficult and there are many values lost in simplified Chinese. What do you think?


Moving on to the land of the rising sun! By the 4th century, Japan had started to adopt Hanzi into Japanese, which became Kanji, a key component of modern Japanese language that is dreaded many Japanese learners.

Later, Japanese people also developed their own two syllabic writing systems: hiragana and katakana, those cute rounded and pointed symbols you see in Japanese writing. So, in today’s Japanese language, kanji, hiragana, and katakana comprise its main writing system.


Chinese characters entered the Korean peninsula a bit later than the Japanese island, sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries AD. These words were called Hanja, or Chinese characters incorporated into Korean with Korean pronunciation. Unlike Kanji, Hanja eventually faded away from the Korean language in the late 19th century with the popularization of Hangul, the Korean alphabet and writing system. So, in modern everyday Korean, you don’t see Hanja very often, except on some very rare occasions. The good news is, if you have just started learning Korean, Hanja does not need to be a concern, which will certainly save you a lot of time!


List of Similar Hanzi, Kanji and Hanja

Just like student, étudiant(e), and estudante, Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja can be very similar in terms of meaning and pronunciation. Take a look at this list of similar Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja and you’ll see why!

English Chinese(Hanzi,汉字) Japanese(Kanji,漢字) Korean(Hanja,한자)
cuisine 料理 liào lǐ 料理 りょうり ryouri  요리 yoli
family 家族 jiā zú 家族 かぞくkazoku 가족 gajog
school 学校 xué xiào 学校 がっこう gakkou 학교 haggyo
time 时间 shí jiān 時間 じかん jikan 시간 sigan
sun 太阳 tài yáng 太陽 たいよう taiyou 태양 taeyang
reason 原因 yuán yīn 原因 げんいん gen’in 원인 won-in
attention 注意 zhù yì 注意 ちゅうい chuui 주의 juu-i
park 公园 gōng yuán 公園 こうえん  kōen 공원 gongwon
library 图书馆 tú shū guǎn 図書館 としょかん toshokan 도서관 doseogwan
cafeteria 食堂 shí táng 食堂 しょくどう shokudō 식당 sigdang
police 警察 jǐng chá 警察 けいさつ keisatsu 경찰 gyengchal
recent 最近 zuì jìn 最近 さいきん saikin 최근 cheogeun
world 世界 shì jiè 世界 せかい sekai 세계 segye
famous 有名 yǒu míng 有名 ゆうめい yūmei 유명 yumyeong
habite 习惯 xí guàn 習慣,  しゅうかん shūkan 습관 seubgwan
secret 秘密 mì mì 秘密 ひみつ himitsu 비밀 bimil

Want to search more common words between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean? You can use this tool here to search more yourself!

List of “False Friends” in Chinese and Japanese

Just like pain and pain (meaning bread in French), gift and Gift (meaning poison in German), embarrassed and embarazada (meaning pregnant in Spanish), there are also false friends in CJK languages, especially between Chinese and Japanese.

Chinese  Meaning Japanese Japanese Meaning
私  private, selfish or personal 私  し Watashi I, me, myself
niáng mother; woman むすめ musume daughter; girl
汤  tāng soup (in Classical Chinese: hot water) ゆ yu hot water; hot spring
腕  wàn wrist うで ude arm
手纸 shǒu zhǐ toilet paper 手紙 てがみ  tegami a letter 
勉強  miǎn qiǎng the action of forcing somebody to do something 勉強 べんきょう benkyō study
先生  xiān sheng sir, mister or teacher 先生 せんせい sensei teacher
马鹿  mǎ lù Cervus canadensis 马鹿 ばか baka Fool, idiot
爱人 ài ren a spouse, wife/husband  愛人 あいじん aijin a lover or mistress

Questions about Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja

Are Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja the same thing?

Yes and no. They are of the same origin, but used differently, much like “alphabet”, “alfabeto”, and “alfabet”.

After reading about the common histories between these writing systems, I hope you feel a bit more comfortable differentiating between them. Kanji and Hanja originated from Chinese characters but they differ in pronunciation and usage. They don’t always use the same set of Chinese characters and those used in Korean (hanja) and Japan (kanji) are distinct from those used in China in many respects. 

First, they look much more similar (but might not be the same) to traditional Chinese characters than simplified Chinese characters. Second, they typically  (but not necessarily) have similar meanings, but often quite different pronunciations.

Above is a chart that shows these three types of Chinese characters. They are of the same origin but look slightly different. 

Does Korea Still Use Hanja?

Not really. The invention of Hangul has freed Korean people from relying on complicated  Chinese characters in day-to-day conversations like in Japanese. But in Korea, Hanja is still used to some extent. For example, the government uses Hanja for its official documents, and the military and police forces use Hanja for some of their communications. You can also still see hanja used in certain situations like: ads, names, abbreviations, traditional proverbs, etc. Korean people also use Hanja when they want to show respect for someone’s name or to make a word sound more formal.

So… should Korean learners know Hanja? In short, it’s not necessary but can be helpful. Many agree that learning Hanja is not a necessity for Korean learners, especially beginners. As a matter of fact, many Korean native speakers don’t even remember much of the Hanja they learned back in school. On the other hand, learning Hanja can absolutely help you gain a deeper understanding of the Korean language and culture. It is especially helpful in recognizing root words and making vocabulary acquisition easier!

Watch the video to hear more about what Koreans say!

Do Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja have the same pronunciation?

Most of Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja sound quite similar. As Kanji and Hanja were borrowed from Chinese to serve entirely new languages, their pronunciation changed to suit Japanese and Korean respectively. So, as a result, they may look similar on paper, but cannot be mutually understood in spoken language. By the way, Chinese is the only tonal language among the three, so oftentimes it sounds pretty different from Japanese and Korean.

Click the video below to hear how pronunciation of Chinese, Japanese and Korean language evolved!

Are the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages mutually intelligible?

In spoken languages, no. As a matter of fact, even Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Wu, Shanghainese, etc.) are mutually unintelligible in spoken language, let alone Japanese and Korean.

But in written texts… maybe. Take a look at these news headlines written in Japanese. The majority of the characters used are kanji (as is the case in most formal writings), which is mutually understandable for Chinese speakers.

You can learn more from a discussion here

Which Asian language should I learn

Seeing as though you’ve made it this far in our article, you might just be interested in learning Chinese, Japanese, or Korean yourself, right? But which one to learn?

As learning a new language will take a lot of effort and practice no matter which one it is, we suggest you take some time to evaluate which language is the best for you to learn before actually moving forward with it. The answer may vary depending on what type of learner you are, your personal interests, or your learning goals. We have also written about the best languages to learn in case you are interested in our humble opinion!

Now, if you still can’t decide which Asian language to learn first, maybe consider their levels of difficulty. Wecompared the difficulty levels of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese language in another article. Take a look if you are interested. Here are the main findings:

Japanese Korean Chinese
Writing system ** * ***
Pronunciation * ** ***
Grammar *** ** *

Consider what you are good at and then decide which language to learn. For example, if you are good at grammar but have trouble with pronunciation, Japanese is your best choice.

As Japanese and Korean are quite similar in terms of grammar (both using an SOV sentence structure), you can even learn them together by using Korean textbooks to learn Japanese. However, we would advise you to get good at one first and then use this language laddering process to learn the other.

If you are still struggling with which one to learn first, I would suggest starting with Chinese. Although it’s relatively difficult to start because of its writing and pronunciation systems, it can facilitate ease of learning other Asian languages that adopted Chinese characters, especially in vocabulary.

Where to Learn Asian Languages

The best place to start learning Asian languages is the LingoDeer App! LingoDeer is the best app specially designed for learning Asian languages and more. It teaches you right from square one and makes sure you learn your characters, vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar as you progress naturally. Rated 4.8 out of 5 on App Store, it’s your go-to place to start learning Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and more!LingoDeer App functions


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1 year ago

How is the Japanese writing system easier than the Chinese? Traditional + kun/on-yomi + kana is easier?

1 year ago
Reply to  Porky

To be honest, both Japanese and Chinese writing systems are quite complicated. But kanji only consists of part of the Japanese writing system and kana is just phonetic. Kanji is seen way less often than Hanzi in Chinese.

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12 days ago

[…] Hanja also plays an important role in the Korean language in general. Hanja is like the Japanese Kanji where a single character, mostly coming from the Chinese alphabet, is assigned to a specific noun or verb. Both Hanja and Kanji are ideograms that were adapted from the old Chinese characters. Since Hanjas are characters used to describe a noun or a verb, they can also be used as names. Also, they share the same character between Japanese Kanji and Chinese Hanzi but differ in pronunciation. For example: […]