The Difference between Japanese and Chinese Characters

In the last issue, we discussed the difference between written and spoken Chinese. This time, let us take a look at the relationship between written Chinese and Japanese.

Kanji Characters? A Writing System Shared by Japan and China

The Japanese and Chinese languages both use an extremely sophisticated writing system that uses kanji ideograms. Although the number of kanji characters that are actually used is overwhelmingly larger in Chinese than in Japanese, about 70-80% of the characters used in both languages are used to express the same meaning. Although the number is much smaller in comparison, let’s take a look at those kanji that have different meanings in both languages.

Kanji that Look the Same but Don’t Necessarily Have the Same Meaning

Many Japanese people think when traveling to a Chinese-speaking region that even if they do not speak Chinese, they may be able to get by if they communicate by writing. If you are trying to convey something simple, written communication might allow you to get by. However, it is important to remember that 20-30% of the kanji used have different meanings in Japanese and Chinese. What would happen if you wrote a succession of kanji, which look the same in Chinese, without being aware that they mean something different in Chinese? Not only would your meaning not get across, you may also bring about a misunderstanding. Therefore, much care must be taken when resorting to writing kanji to communicate with a Chinese-language speaker.

我孫子 (JA: Abiko; CN: Wo Sun Zi) = Place-name?

I once heard a Chinese student studying in Japan say, “I live in a place with a strange name.” When I asked, “Where do you live?” the student responded, “Abiko.” Abiko, which is written 我孫子 in Japanese, is just another proper noun in Japan, the name of a place. However, when a native Chinese speaker looks at the three kanji and reads it in the Chinese pronunciation (wo sun zi), the words become a phrase that means, “my grandchild.” Let us suppose that a Japanese person familiar to a certain extent with Chinese writing knows that “自(Zi)” means “from”. So, he writes, “我来自我孫子” to say “I come from Abiko.” Would that meaning come across or would they be surprised to learn this person came from his grandchild?

Wo lai zi Abiko. Vs. Wo lai zi wo sun zi.
(I come from Abiko.) (I come from my grandchild.)

Examples of Kanji that Have Different Meanings in Japanese and Chinese

A few examples of basic kanji characters that mean different things in Japanese and Chinese are as follows.


[Japanese kanji][Meaning of the Japanese kanji in Chinese][Chinese kanji with the same meaning as the Japanese kanji]
汽車 Kisha (train) Automobile 火車 (Huoche)
聞 Kiku (to listen) To smell 听 (Ting) in simplified Chinese
聴 (Ting) in traditional Chinese
結構 Kekko (well, fine) Structure, composition 相当 (Xiangdang)
我慢 Gaman (endurance, tolerance) I am slow (subject and predicate) 忍耐 (Rennai)

Professional translators and interpreters would obviously not make these mistakes, but it might be interesting to remember these examples as a topic of conversation.

Languages and Their Unique Development

Let us say that an ethnic group that speaks the same language is split up for some reason, and the two groups become isolated from each other. They say that when something like this happens, the languages spoken in the respective groups always take different turns in their development. For example, the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, which is the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, developed into the different languages that are now spoken in India and European countries. The birth of the various Chinese dialects may have a similar origin.

While the example above relates to a very large-scale divergence in languages, the same kind of thing can be said of the differences that now exist between the kanji used in Japan and China.

Kanji ideograms were created in China. They were then transmitted to the Korean Peninsula and Japan, where they underwent unique development. Among the kanji used today we can find kanji that were born in Korea and kanji that were created in Japan. In our next issue, we will take a look at the latter, those originated in Japan. Please stay tuned for our next installment in this series!

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