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The real relationship between Japanese and Chinese

It is a common misconception that the Chinese and Japanese languages are related. Never mind that Chinese is just a VERY general term for perhaps hundreds of dialects spoken in China that at times are barely intelligible to one another, it is simply not true. Chinese, in reality, was about as different from Japanese as maybe any other language. Japanese is a fairly unique language as it doesn't have a definitive relative. Let us discuss this issue.

Prior to the 3rd century, Japanese had no writing system. China, on the other hand, already had a civilization advanced past its time, with a well-established writing system of characters, called Hanzi. The Japanese decided to borrow Chinese characters as a way to give their language a written form. The problem was, Chinese and Japanese are very different languages. Chinese, for example, does not have tense or conjugation. Japanese, on the other hand, has myriad conjugations of its verbs that can express different tenses, moods, and level of formality. To add insult to injury, Chinese phonetics are more complex than Japanese phonetics. Worse yet, Chinese is a monosyllabic writing system; each character (or word) contains one syllable. Japanese words can be multiple syllables. So how did the Japanese use a writing system that seems to ill-accommodate their language?

This is not a unique phenomenon. Many languages have resorted to Latin script, Arabic script, and Cyrillic script for giving their languages a writing system. But of course, using a foreign writing system not developed specifically to a language is a rather difficult process. Of course, tweaks have been made to writing systems throughout the years. The relationship between Chinese and Japanese is no different.
To accommodate differences, the Japanese used Chinese characters not just for their meaning, but also for phonetic purposes. As cursive became more common in writing the characters, the phonetic characters began getting more simplified in appearance. That is where hiragana and katakana came from; the simplified versions of cursive characters. Ex (from character to hiragana): 世>せ, 不>ふ, 安>あ, 女>め. Hiragana is now used for grammatical purposes, such as help in conjugating verbs, as well as phonetic purposes and particles to determine components of a sentence clearly. Katakana is used for 'spelling out' foreign loan words, like computer (konpyūtā コンピューター).
With the arrival of Chinese characters, many words, concepts, names, and meanings that did not originally exist in Japanese were introduced. As a result, many Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese), were adopted and pronounced as close as possible to their original Chinese phonetics. The phonetics are closer to Cantonese than Mandarin though. Ex: 未来 (mirai: future) comes from 未來 (meiloi in Cantonese). The word Kanji itself is one of these derivatives 漢字 (kanji: Chinese characters), comes from 漢字 (hanzi). Many of these characters were also present in terms that DID exist in Japanese, so they had two pronunciations. As a result of this, most Kanji have more than one pronunciation, known as 音読み (on'yomi) and 訓読み (kun'yomi), the former being Chinese reading and the latter being Japanese reading. How a Kanji is pronounced depends on if it is a compound with other Kanji, the hiragana that succeed or precede it, or if it is a standalone.

Fast forward to around the last hundred years. The Japanese have accommodated Chinese characters to their language. They now have three writing systems, each serving a different purpose, and different ways to pronounce Kanji based on the word, all of these documented of course. Their language was now standardized. However, China soon became a Communist government shorter after WWII. In an effort to raise literacy rates, the Communist government went about to simplify many Hanzi, so they would be easier to learn to write. Some were based on cursive styles of characters or archaic versions of characters. In most, the general character looks about the same, such as from 語 to 语. Now, the situation between the writing systems of Japan and China gets more complicated. Chinese now has two versions of its writing system: traditional and simplified.

As of now, there are five possibilities for Kanji and Hanzi.
-The traditional, simplified, and Kanji all are identical
Ex: trad. 子, simp. 子, kanji 子
-The simplified character is the odd one out
Ex: trad. 親, simp. 亲, kanji 親
-The traditional character is the odd one out
Ex: trad. 來, simp. 来, kanji 来
-The traditional, simplified, and Kanji are all different
Ex: trad. 圖, simp. 图, kanji 図
-The Kanji is the odd one out
Ex: trad. 佛, simp. 佛, kanji 仏

The history of a language says a lot about how that language works. Japanese has been experiencing Chinese influence for hundreds of years. Kanji is integral to the Japanese language. It is a bit of a misnomer to call Chinese characters as such when referring to Kanji; they are not Chinese to the Japanese. They are Japanese. Japanese may have been influenced by Chinese, but it is no more related to Chinese than it was before it borrowed Hanzi, setting a chain reaction of change and experimentation.

July 26, 2015


[deactivated user]

    Awesome post! Also, the Japanese also had a Kanji simplification process in the 1950's,

    By the way, the character situation becomes even more complicated when you count in Kokuji (Kanji made in Japan), Kukja (Hanja made in Korea. ex 乭), and all the other characters unique to every country.


    Thank you! And you're right. I forgot about Kokuji. I feel it makes sense, though. Since Kanji/Hanzi are logograms, made up of radicals, I don't see why new characters can't be made with new radicals to represent new words.
    Take for example: sardine (鰯: iwashi). It uses fish (魚) and weak (弱), to mean 'weak fish', where as in Chinese it is 沙丁魚 (sha ding yu), which is based on 'sardine'. But, now I believe new characters cannot be introduced to Japanese; every new word has to be either in hiragana or katakana now.


    Thanks for posting. I always wanted to learn more about the beginnings of Kanji!



    The view from outside gives me chance reconsidering general knowledge. Some people say original Japanese doesn’t have so many vocabularies because numerous kanji compounds came from Chinese when we borrowed “Hanji.” But I don’t think so. As you say, Japanese have adapted the writing system to the language again and again, and new words from Chinese fused to our language together.

    Lately I opened a book about Japan mythology and Emperors’ legends (『古事記 kojiki』) . It was written by a vassal of the Emperor in the 712 year, you might know about this, the sentences are all described with Kanji. The grammar is atypical Chinese but the way of reading aloud is naturally Japanese and On(音) and Kun(訓) are mingled. The adaptation would be exhausting work. Reading it is terribly difficult not only to modern Japanese but also to people lived 300 years ago. Maybe just like literature written in Latin has not been read, the literature had been forgotten by common people of those days. A Japanese classical scholar in the 18th century deciphered it for about 35 years. We can understand this literature even now thanks to his annotation. In this way, Japanese struggled with finding the best way to express the language at the point of its writing system.

    Sometimes I imagine if the vassal and the scholar could look at duo, what impression would they have? English and Japanese are also very different. In my opinion, creating a system understanding both languages directly is epochal attempt and reminds ancient time Japan met Chinese.

    (My English typing is very slow and my explanation probably includes wrong English. If you would want correct information, please continue searching yourself. Thanks for posting this topic :-))


    Kanji is integral to the Japanese language.

    I don't agree. Japanese is written perfectly well for blind Japanese to read using Japanese braille which (obviously) does not use the kanji.

    Moreover, I'm sure there were many scholars in Korea and Vietnam who made similar statements about their native versions of the Chinese characters being ‘integral’ to their respective languages, however both languages have now discarded them, Korean for Hangul and Vietnamese for a Latin alphabet.


    I disagree. Kanji is extremely useful when it comes to homonyms and nuanced words especially in literature. Consider the following examples:

    1) 花が高い 鼻が高い

    2) 雪の華  雪の花

    3) 青 蒼


    This is not a unique phenomenon. Many languages have resorted to Latin script, Arabic script, and Cyrillic script for giving their languages a writing system.

    especially Azeri which resorted to all three within the same century! These links have more info:





    Very interesting... it shattered a lot of misconceptions of mine on the topic, a Lingot for you ;-)

    [deactivated user]

      Wonderful post!! Very interesting.


      Thanks for clearing that up. I always thought that Japanese and Mandarin were quite similar. Thanks for the mini history lesson too! :)


      At first I was just confused but now I'm officially confused.


      “Japanese is a fairly unique language as it doesn't have a definitive relative.” – no. It is already known that Japanese and languages from the Tupi-Guarany trunk, like Tupi, are related. This was presented and studied in this book [1], for example. There is a plenty of words that are still very similar in those languages and can alone statistically prove this.

      [1] – http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio%3Atibirica-1970-notas/Tibirica_1970_NotasConfrLingJaponesAmerindio.pdf


      This is mostly wrong, during the Qin Dynasty Emperor Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇 was obsessed with immortality so he sent a man named Xu Fu ( 徐福) to go find the elixir of life (which of course there was no such thing) and Xu Fu knew this but he also knew if he sailed back empty handed he would be executed so he and his crew sailed to find a new land to settle and they found Japan where the they mixed with the indigenous people who were close to a Hawaiian, New Zealand ethnicity and the Japanese recognize Xu Fu (Jofuku in japanese) Xu Fu used the Chinese writing and together they created their own writing which did evolve over time, most of the explanation is right they did "borrow" it but it is not true that they have no relationship whatsoever.

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