difference between japanese and chinese

How to Tell the Difference Between Japanese and Chinese Language and Culture

To many people, it may be difficult to tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese culture. However, the two countries are as different as American culture and Indian culture. Once you have identified the basic differences, it will be easier to distinguish between the two cultures. Understanding a bit more about the social cues and the language of Japan and China will help you better understand the profound differences between these two ancient cultures. 

In this article, we will highlight three key differences between Japanese and Chinese cultures: social manners, cuisine, and language. 

1. Difference between Japanese and Chinese social manners

  • Rules of etiquette

Although both cultures are quite polite, the Japanese emphasize manners and social hierarchy more than the Chinese do. In Japanese society, you should never be casual or familiar with someone significantly older than you or someone who holds a higher social rank. There is not as strict an emphasis on this in China as there is in Japan.

While both nations are formal with older people, the Japanese are also formal even with people who are only one or two years older than them. For example, if you were a freshman at a Japanese university, you would be polite and formal with fellow students who are in their second or third year of university. 

The Japanese also observe high levels of self-discipline and decorum in public. You can hardly ever see Japanese people arguing about something or expressing their anger in public, whereas Chinese people don’t hesitate to let their emotions show. 

  • Greetings

Chinese and Japanese people bow their heads when greeting someone for the first time. The difference between the greeting style of the two countries is that Japanese people tend to be more strict about bowing, in that they usually consider seniority and the age of the person they’re greeting. You can replace a bow with a Western-style handshake in China unless you greet someone older than you. Chinese people may also nod their heads to show respect while shaking hands. Meanwhile, in Japan, a short nod of the head would be considered rude, unless you greet a close friend who is similar in age to you, or younger. 

  • Public behaviors

If you listen to a Chinese person and a Japanese person speaking, you can easily tell which nationality they are depending on how loudly they speak. Japanese people appreciate a calm demeanor and respect privacy in public places. For example, they will frequently turn their phone to silent mode on public transportation and tend not to have conversations. If they need to speak in public, they will use hushed tones. On the other hand, the Chinese don’t have any cultural prohibition against speaking loudly in public places. So if you see a group of Asian people laughing, talking, and answering their phones loudly, they’re likely to be Chinese. 

  • Gestures and nonverbal communication

Chinese and Japanese cultures rely extensively on gestures and nonverbal communication. In particular, the Japanese tend to place great emphasis on strict social hierarchies. The deepness of the bow and the distance between you and your partner says a great deal about your relationship. You can distinguish between a Chinese and a Japanese person by watching how close they stand when they talk to another person and how respectful and submissive their body language is. 

Another example of nonverbal communication is that to Chinese people silence is often considered as an agreement to do something. If someone disagrees with something, they will more likely talk around and emphasize the negativities before telling you what they would rather do. In a similar situation, if a Japanese person is silent and offers no comments on an issue, you can’t be sure if they are agreeing with the situation or not. A common way to express disagreement for Japanese people to point out how “difficult” doing something would be.

Since the Chinese language is tonal, the Chinese can not rely on their tone of voice to express their meaning. This makes gestures and body language far more important. But to Japanese people, nonverbal communication is more of a sign of respect and politeness. 

2. Difference between Japanese and Chinese cuisine

Many people mix up Chinese and Japanese food because there are many similarities between them, such as. However, there are many notable differences between Japanese and Chinese cuisine in ingredients, cooking methods, and flavors.

Let’s talk about common ingredients used in these cultures. The Japanese tend to consume a lot of raw dishes, particularly seafood, while the Chinese often fry things. When it comes to meat, Japanese people tend to use beef, chicken, and fish, while Chinese people love pork, chicken, beef, and fish. Though rice is widely used in both cuisines, it’s cooked in different ways and has different uses. 

For example, the Japanese use seafood as the main dish, rice as the side dish, while the Chinese use rice as the core ingredient. Chinese cooks usually fry and mix rice with vegetables, eggs and sauce, while the Japanese often steam and serve vegetables separately. The Japanese’s minimally-seasoned seafood is widely loved because of its unique flavor profile called umami. The term umami refers to the savory taste – a light salty or savory flavor that’s not too empowering. Here are the most common Chinese spices, herbs, and seasonings: garlic, spicy peppercorns, hot mustard, five-spice, powdered spring onion, soy sauce, star anise, cumin, fennel, bay leaves, oyster sauce, rice wine, and spicy bean paste. In contrast, the most common Japanese ones are bonito fish flakes, soy sauce, mirin (sweet vinegar) miso, seaweed, light fish broth, chili pepper mix, sesame, black pepper, ginger, and wasabi (Japanese horseradish),. You can notice that Japanese food tends to have light seafood flavors, while the Chinese prefer spicy flavors. 

Japanese cuisine tends to showcase more subtle flavors than Chinese food. Japanese foods represent a part of their culture: light-tasting, healthy for the heart and waistline, whereas the Chinese love spicy and flavorful dishes. 

Chinese cuisine tends to use more strong and spicy flavors, herbs, spices, and seasonings

3. Difference between Japanese and Chinese language

  • Japanese and Chinese writing

While the Japanese have three different written scripts, there is only one Japanese language. Meanwhile, China has only one script but many different languages that use the same script. Both the Japanese and Chinese written languages use Chinese characters (known as hanzi in Chinese and kanji in Japanese). 

These hanzi (Chinese characters)  are logograms (which are symbols representing a word without expressing its pronunciation) developed for the writing of Chinese. They have been adapted to write other East Asian languages and remain a key component of kanji ー the Japanese writing system. Hanzi characters are a part of the oldest writing system, and they are still widely used. Due to China’s monumental role in history, Chinese characters are used by many East Asian countries and they are among the world’s most widely adopted writing systems, used by over 1 billion people.

Read more: 

The most basic Chinese characters that every Chinese beginner needs to know. (Source: Pinterest)

Because of its popularity worldwide, learning Chinese brings you many opportunities, from studying abroad to broadening your career, getting a higher salary, or accessing the ancient, rich culture of this powerful nation. There are many ways for a beginner to learn Chinese. You can sign up for an online or offline course, join a Chinese club or learn by yourself. 

One of the most effective ways to learn Chinese is using flashcards. You can write hanzi characters on one side of a small piece of paper, and then its meaning on the other side. Try to learn at least 5-10 words per day, make sentences with them, and don’t forget to revise them every day. 

Are you still now sure how to start? Try Pandanese. Pandanese is a new online language platform that helps users master Mandarin mnemonics with amusing flashcards and a spaced repetition learning method. Once you sign up, you will receive a batch of new words every day. Each flashcard comes with a Chinese character, its meaning, and a fun story that refers to the meaning and helps you remember better. 

Now that you know a bit about written Chinese, let’s talk about key features of written Japanese. Besides kanji, the Japanese use two phonetic alphabets called hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is the more cursive and widely used form of these two kana (syllabic writing systems, and are mostly used for word inflections (i.e. changes to verb endings, etc.) and grammatical structures of a sentence. If you see hiragana characters in a piece of writing, you’re probably looking at something written in Japanese. Here is a comparison of the hiragana and katakana Japanese writing systems: 

A comparison between hiragana and katakana characters. (Source: Quora)

As you can see in the picture, hiragana characters are curvy, light, and easy to tell apart from the angular, complex kanji. Meanwhile, katakana is used for loan words transliterated from another language such as English.

  • Japanese and Chinese speaking

Though Chinese has various dialects, they have one thing in common: all of them are tonal languages. This means that a person’s voice changes (rises or falls) depending on what they’re saying. To Westerners, spoken Chinese often sounds like it flowing, like a song. 

Japanese is quite the opposite, as it’s a relatively monotone language. However, Japanese speakers may change the tone of their voice to express emotion or intention, just like how the English speakers raise their tone at the end of a sentence to indicate a question. 

The Japanese language has only five vowel sounds (fewer than English) and about 100 different syllables that can be arranged in limited ways. On the other hand, Chinese has multiple vowel sounds depending on a vowel’s position in a word and the tone in which it’s said. So, if you hear fewer vowel sounds or less variation between words, you are likely listening to a Japanese speaker, and if you hear a lot of vowel sounds, you’re probably listening to a Chinese speaker. 

What do you think is the most notable difference between Japanese and Chinese culture? Let us know by sharing a comment! Find out more interesting facts about Chinese culture on the Pandanese blog.

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