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Can Japanese Read Mandarin?

Can Japanese people communicate with Chinese people through their Kanji writing system?


It has been almost three weeks since I came to Beijing. Despite not studying all that much Mandarin, I wasn’t all that worried. I had a reckless confidence that I would be able to easily communicate with Chinese people through writing, because in Japan we use Kanji (漢字), which translates literally to Chinese characters, and I thought nothing was “impossible” for me in China as long as I could read and write Kanji.

It didn’t take me long to realize this was incorrect. There were, indeed, plenty of difficult situations.

Chinese is, of course, not Japanese.  It is rare for Chinese people to understand what I write in Kanji. I still sometimes wonder why they can’t understand a word I write, while I can read the Chinese characters emblazoned around cities…well, mostly. Even if they do understand and write something as an answer for my question, I often can’t read their hand-writing. I know it’s not their fault but it is still frustrating.

Even when I can read the Chinese characters I need to be careful, as they often have different meanings from Kanji, and there are so many characters I have never encountered before, not to mention the various dialects in Chinese.

So let’s make a comparison of the two languages.

These are words with the different, but similar forms, which have the same meaning. The list below shows Kanji on the left and the Simplified Mandarin Chinese on the right. Note first, however, that a single Japanese character can have multiple syllables, whereas the Chinese characters are all just one, but they can have different tones.

Vehicle 車 (Kuruma) vs 车(chē)

Bird 鳥(Tori)vs 鸟 (niǎo)

Bridge 橋(Hashi) vs 桥(qiáo)

Teeth 歯(Ha) vs 齿 (chǐ)

As you can see, there is not so much difference but you might not be able to tell they mean the same thing if you had never seen them before. The situation is complicated by the fact that they sometimes have a totally different meaning when used to form a word.

手紙 (tegami / shǒuzhǐ)

This phrase means a letter in Japanese, while a toilet paper in Chinese. 手 (shǒu) means ‘hands’ and 紙 means ‘paper’ in both languages, but what 手 indicates may make the difference when used with 紙.

愛人(aijin / àirén)

In Chinese, this word simply means one’s spouse. In modern Japanese, however, it implies a lover. So if you say you have 愛人 in Japan, that would basically cause you trouble even if you just mean you have a spouse. Be careful!

老婆 (rouba / lǎopó)

This is also a potentially trouble-making word for Japanese and Chinese travelers. When you say 老婆 in Japanese, it only means ‘a very old lady,’ like a really old lady. In Japan, people respect their seniors, so you never want to call anyone 老婆. In contrast, in Chinese, this word simply means ‘a wife’ regardless of how old she is. Regardless of whether she is just 20 years old, a young Chinese wife is your 老婆.

According to Prof. Liwei Chen of Seijo Univerwsity in Japan, while 84% of words have the same meaning in both Chinese and Kanji, only 2% of them have different meanings despite the same form – still enough to get people into trouble.

It is true that they are distinct and different languages each have their own beauty, even though Japanese have a huge advantage compared to many other languages when it comes to learning Chinese, because of the similarities of the characters.

It is also true that, as the word can be written exactly same both in Japanese and Chinese, they no doubt share some of the same culture / 文化 bunka/wénhuà.

To understand how this situation came about, it helps to look at some of the history.

Origin of Chinese Characters

Despite ongoing historical debates over the exact origin of the Chinese writing system, the Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) used during the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1050 BCE) is generally regarded as the earliest form of Chinese writing. Shang court officials would use turtle shells as a way of foreseeing the future of the country. They inscribed on shells questions they had regarding their circumstances – the questions could be about hunting, warfare or other important facts of life, and the results were basically determined by how the shells cracked when heated up.

Sample text in the Oracle Bone ScriptMore info on the Oracle Bone Script here

The next important phase of the evolution of Chinese language was the Qing Emperor’s standardization of the writing system in the 3rd century BC. As the first emperor of the unified continent, he had his officials invent a certain set of characters later called the Small Seal script (小篆/xiǎozhuàn). This was necessary to strengthen the empire’s unity, for there were already many variations of Chinese writing in existence. However, this Small Seal script was changed again by Qing officials, when they sought efficiency in their writing to deal with a massive amount of court work. As a result of reducing strokes and improving the workflow, Lishu (隸書) script was invented.


Comparison between the different forms here

As the picture above shows, Lishu looks almost identical to the present forms of Chinese characters used in the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan. Chinese characters had already reached maturity as a writing system millennia ago. As one of the forms derived from Lishu in 200BC, Kaishu (楷書)/Standard Script is used nowadays in many areas such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. After China’s simplification of characters in 1945, this style began to be called Traditional Chinese compared to China’s new style called Simplified Chinese.

Famous writing styles used in calligraphy like Xingshu (行書)/ Running Script, and Caoshu (草書)/ Grass Script are also largely inspired by Kaishu.

This is where it is easiest to see the connection to the Japanese language.

Kanji, the Chinese character system used in Japanese, is also more similar to this traditional style than to the simplified one, and that’s one of the reasons Japanese people cannot really effectively communicate via writing in China – when Chinese was simplified, it did not occur in Japan, so the characters diverged from one another.


PhotoFlower in Xingshu Style, here


Flower in Caoshu here

The origins of Kanji

Japanese people started using Kanji from the end of 4th or early 5th century. With over 1,600 years of history. Kanji evolved under its own unique circumstances, as did the many forms of Chinese writing.

While adapting Kanji as a means to write, Japanese have also created their own style of writing to fully express their language and emotion. Kana-moji, the simplification of certain Kanji with a focus on the phonetic sound rather than meaning, was invented for this reason.

The invention of Hiragana and Katakana early in the 9th century was very significant, not only because Japanese people still use them along with Kanji every day, but also because they allowed Japanese to freely express their delicate sense of beauty and variety of emotions. It certainly contributed to the birth of the Monogatari/story as a literary genre in Japan, which includes the world famous The Tale of Genji.

How the Chinese characters transformed into Hiragana here

The unique combination of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana helped Japanese succeed in reducing the number of Chinese characters they use to more of an extent than the reduction in China. Also, in its long history of using Kanji, Japan has originated its own Kanji, to which Chinese writing does not have any equivalent.


Why not actually LEARN Chinese?

Image courtesy of 山口芳水

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