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What is the difference between Chinese and Japanese?

Updated on June 29, 2011

Are the Chinese and Japanese languages similar? Let's compare Mandarin Chinese (which is the main dialect in China) and Japanese.

Many people think that Chinese and Japanese are similar because they both use Chinese characters. One might would assume that Japanese is easy to learn for Chinese people, and Chinese is easy to learn for Japanese people. This is true only to a certain extent. The truth is that the two languages are quite different.

I would equate the difference between the two languages to the differences found between English and French. As you all know, just because you know English doesn't mean you can speak French (though it helps a little). Just how similar do you feel these two languages are? Well, it turns out many words in English are borrowed from French, so we can guess their meaning. For example, the word "langue" in French means "language."

However, as you may know, the grammar of French is completely different. This is because English is a Germanic language, while French is a Latin-based language. The only reason there are so many "French words" (like table, nature, etc.) in the English language is because the Normans conquered England in 1066 and brought many of their words.

Now let's get back to Chinese and Japanese. How are they different? First of all, Japanese has a completely different grammar structure (or syntax). The subject is often not necessary in a sentence, and the verb comes after object. The sentence usually goes subject-object-verb.

For example, instead of "I like apples," Japanese would be something like "apples (I) like." Chinese is more similar to English in that the grammar is subject-verb-object.

One could say that basically Chinese characters were superimposed on the Japanese language. This happened in the 6th and 7th centuries when Japan imported Chinese ideas, art, religion, and their writing system. In fact, Japan had no written language up until that time. This is why Japanese looks like Chinese. The Japanese essentially needed a writing system, and so they used Chinese characters, from which they derived another phonetic system called hiragana. Therefore, Japanese has both phonetic and symbolic elements.

Japanese also has a highly complicated honorific system. This means that you must shift the grammar and vocabulary you use according to whether the person you are talking to is above, equal, or below you in position. For example, if you were talking to your boss, you would have to use a whole new set of words even if saying something simple like, "I have an appointment at 3 o'clock." This is one of the most complicated aspects of Japanese, and even native speakers have trouble with it some time.

Chinese is a tonal language, which means that each sound can be defined by five different inflections, or tones. For example, if you have "ma" this can actually be read in five different ways according to how you raise or lower your tone, and the pitch you say it at. In Japanese, there is nothing like this. For example, the sound "ma" is read in one way only.

In addition, there are no "tenses" per se in the Chinese language. "I eat" can mean "I ate," "I am eating" and "I will eat." It depends on the context and additional words (like "yesterday") for people to understand when the action is taking place. There is no such aspect in Japanese, which has has tenses much like English does.

Perhaps now you believe that there is little that ties the languages together. However, one thing that is true is that a lot of words are similar in Chinese and Japanese. This is either because the Japanese imported the words from China, or because of vice versa (there was a lot of interchange of vocabulary)

Let's take a look at some samples:


Japanese reading: myoji (last name)

Chinese reading: minzi (name)

In fact, in the late 1800's, Japan created a lot of Chinese-style words when translating western words that were flooding into the country after Japan's opening. For example, the word 社会 (shakai) is a translation of the English world "society." Japanese translators used Chinese characters in order to create a neologism that was equivalent to the English word (and idea). Ironically, a lot of these Chinese character neologisms were then imported into China, and are now used as Chinese! So you can see there has been much interchange of vocabulary between the two countries.

To sum up the main differences between these languages, Japanese is more of an indirect language that gives more emphasis to the action rather than the "doer." It is a high-context language, which means that requires different parties in a conversation to know what they are talking about, without mentioning it specifically. Japanese are constantly aware of what kind of social situation they are in so that they can correctly adapt their language. I am not a fluent speaker of Chinese, but from what I have learned of the language, it does not have this kind of aspect and grammatically speaking is a very "simple" language, probably simpler than English as well. The only problem is that it contains thousands upon thousands of characters to learn, a daunting task!

If you speak either of these languages, I welcome your insights into similarities/differences into these languages as well! And if you are planning to study learning either of these language, good luck! Neither is easy!

The basic difference between Chinese and Japanese:


  • 3 alphabets (hiragana, katakana, kanji)
  • phonetic elements
  • less emphasis on the subject of sentence
  • grammar structure of subject-object-verb, often omitting the subject


  • 1 writing system (chinese characters)
  • tonal (5 tones)
  • not phonetic
  • grammar structure of subject-verb-object
  • no past or future tense


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    • poppyr profile image

      Poppy 11 months ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Aw I was halfway through writing a draft for this topic but I see you've already written one. Never mind! Good article :)

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      ssh 4 years ago

      Actually, the differences are greater than those between English and French. English and French both belong to the Indo-European language family, while Japanese and Chinese belong to different ones (Altaic and Sino-Tibetan, respectively). Japanese is actually more related to Turkish genetically, despite having a lot of Chinese loan words. This is sort of similar to the situation with Iranian, which is Indo-European but has a lot of Arabic lab words.

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      emptygolem3 4 years ago

      The difference in the sound of the languages is comparable to the difference between French and German. Chinese (no offense) sounds harsher, while Japanese is more fluid. In Chinese, the zh, ng, and ao sounds are common. None of these sounds exist in Japanese. Japanese uses a vowel pronunciation identical to Spanish. Despite its rough edge, Chinese is often briefer, with words or sentences having significantly fewer syllables. Chinese syllables can end in consonants, while Japanese syllables never end in consonants (with the exception of n) Chinese words are more diverse, as vowels can be inflected in several ways. Japanese has only one way to pronounce each vowel, and as a result of the limited sounds in the language, Japanese has a very large amount of homophones. As for written language, Chinese has its simplified and traditional scripts of around 40,000 characters, with traditional being more complicated in appearance. Japanese has around 2,000 commonly used Kanji, which are characters that (with very few exceptions) were borrowed from Chinese, often with modification. When written or typed, Japanese Kanji is typically much thicker and bolder than Chinese (use google translate and you'll see). Japanese also has hiragana and katakana, symbols that represent syllables. There are 71 of each, with each hiragana having a matching katakana. Hiragana are loopy/cursivey in appearance, and are used for native Japanese words that don't have kanji. Katakana is generally blockier, and is used for words borrowed from other languages. You see katakana a lot with words that apply to technology, and when written in the Roman alphabet, such words look like something a lol cat would write(ex. kompyutaa=computer, aisu kurimu=ice cream, keep in mind that a u is rarely pronounced unless it is in the first syllable of a word) That about sums it up. I speak Japanese and have several friends that are fluent in Chinese, so I know what I'm talking about.

    • ocoonocoon profile image

      ocoonocoon 6 years ago


    • MichaelStonehill profile image

      MichaelStonehill 6 years ago

      Well written elaboration of the topic.