Do Chinese and Japanese Understand each other’s Language?

Sometimes when we are looking at a map of these two countries in Asia—Japan and China, we think that they are neighbouring countries. Yes, they are so close to each other. But most of us are mistaken in thinking that they share the same languages. It happens when at some point you are looking at TV, in magazines, and even some newspapers and you say “oh,Japanese and Chinese writings looks similar!” Differentiating the difference between them is hard. There have been many queries into this very question. They are asking whether the two countries understand each other or if they share the same language?

Well, the answer is NO. When it comes to express their language verbally, it seems hard for them to understand each other.  But it is also true that some educated Chinese and Japanese speakers can read each other’s written language.Since countless (Han Chinese characters) partake in both writing systems, this is possible. Even though it’s not 100% exact (many bogus contrasts do exist because of social dissimilarities or basically because of a section of time).

We can’t say that it is all about the origin of these two languages because they are continually evolving. And we know that modern Japanese and Chinese today are results of their evolutions over history. That’s why in some cases, these two languages have their influence in each other.

How different are Chinese and Japanese?

To discuss further the differences between the two languages, we will be talking about how they differ. Below are the differences between the Japanese and Chinese languages:

1. Tones vs Pitch Accent

Whenever someone is talking in Japanese and Chinese, it doesn’t have phonetic similarities of any means, as every Chinese language are tonal (aside from Shanghainese and some other inventive Wu dialects).Like their different neighbouring dialects, such as Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai, while Japanese uses the pitching highlight somewhat abnormally, like Shanghainese additionally utilizes this system, as we stated earlier. There are four tones in Chinese Mandarin and one neutral tone; however, the Japanese accent system has a pitch (rising and falling intonations) just like with the paradigms of Korean, Norwegian, Swedish, and Serbo-Croatian.

For example, in Chinese, a similar sound can have up to 5 unique meanings depending on the same tone:

 () mā: 1st tone, mother (noun)
 () má: 2nd tone, hemp (noun)
 () mǎ: 3rd tone, horse (noun)
 () mà: 4th tone, to scold (verb)
 () ma: neutral tone, yes/no question ending (particle)

In any case, Japanese has a lot of simpler system: a lot of sounds can have up to 3 different meanings, contingent upon which syllable is focused (first syllable, second syllable, or accent-less). For example the word はし (hashi) that can be rendered in Kanji (Sinograms), depending on the accent, (it will obviously contrast on the region as well, yet we’ll be talking inthe standard Japanese speech below):

 (chopsticks) — accent on the 1st syllable:  /haꜜsi/ háɕì
 (bridge) — accent on the 2nd syllable:  /hasiꜜ/ hàɕí
 (edge) /hasi/ — accent-less: hàɕí

2. Phonemes

Japanese and Chinese languages both have very few phonemes. The standard Japanese has fewer phonemes only about 110 sound combinations. This is different in standard Chinese who has around 420 sounds combinations. While in English that is a massive number of about 158,000 possibilities. That is why it is tough for a native English speaker to pronounce all of these words effectively.

3. Vowels

Japanese, then again, has just 5 vowels: ä, i̥, ɯᵝ, e̞, o̞.

Mandarin Chinese has 10 vowels: ͡ɨ, ͡ɯ, a, o, ɤ, ɛ, i, u, y, ɚ.

It is evident from the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) interpretations, even the most essential vowels, for example, /an/and/u/that are always present in most human tongues that vary in these two languages as pronounced by their respective native speakers.

4. Consonants

When we talk about the consonants in both languages, Japanese is again fewer.They have only 18 consonants while Chinese Mandarin has 25 consonants.

Mandarin has unique numbers of consonants that are new to many Western European language speakers such as retroflex sounds that can be seen constantly at the beginning many syllables. Such as:

  1. pīnyīn: zh, ch, sh, r
  2. IPA: tʂ, tʂʰ, ʂ, ʐ/ɻ

Many of the monolingual Chinese speakers don’t know how to differentiate the typical English voice and voiceless pairs.For example, b/p, d/t, g/k, z/s, etc. It is because in Chinese Mandarin the voiced sounds are missing. But it was stated that Shanghainese had said distinction, and Shanghainese speakers can distinguish them in English. It was also stated that Chinese have a clear distinction assigned to aspirated and unaspirated consonants just as the/p/sounds in ‘port’ (aspirated) and ‘sport’ (unaspirated).

The standard Chinese Mandarin lateral sound in /l/ is a definiteEnglish /l/as pronounce in ‘let’ and ‘light’ (however, it’s not the dark or velarized English/l/[ɫ] which shows in words like ‘pole’’ or ‘cool l’).

On the other hand, Japanese is considered to be reasonably easy to pronounce due to its small repertoire of sounds and the fact that, except for /n/ by many learners. In Japanese, it is not accepted to pronounce consonant words without a vowel /a, i, u, e, o/ on the end of it. In Japanese, all the voiceless stops /p, t, k/ are only slightly aspirated (like a cross between the aspirated English stops and the unaspirated Spanish stops).

The /r/sound in Japanese is the same as Korean/r/;it was literally undefined. It means that it varies between the range of r/ and /l/ sounds just like in English. For example, the [ɾ] in ‘better’ (North American English), ɺ] like ‘daddy’ (North American English), or [l] in ‘lot’ in Standard English, or [ɾ̠] like ‘rat’ in Scottish English. The uncertainty in/r/and/l/ (they’re viewed as one phoneme in Japanese have troubled the monolingual Japanese speakers in distinguishing them in different languages that do make a distinction for these sounds.

By chance, there’s another variety to it– numerous Japanese speakers who wish to pass on a vulgar nuance in speech would even roll their R to deliver the trilled/r/regularly found in Spanish and Italian.

5. Grammar and Syntax

The Japanese and Chinese basic sentence structures are very different!

In Chinese, the word request is dependably SVO (subject – action word – object), much like that of English.

For Example:

I drink water.
Pīnyīn: Wǒhēshuǐ. 我喝水

In Japanese, the word order is SOV (subject – object – verb), like that of German subordinate clauses.

For Example:

I water drink.
Watashiwamizu wo nomimasu. 私は水を飲みます。

Sentence structures do not exclusively vary. However, verbs likewise contrast significantly.

Chinese, being ananalytic language, comes up short on any type of conjugations and emphases; thus, verb tenses don’t exist. The verbs are expressed generally in their angles (perfective, imperfective, progressive, and so forth.), utilizing a particle previously or after them. If clarification is required, a temporal adverb will be included before it (today, at this moment, a year ago, and so forth.). Sometimes, passive voice can also be utilized when the doer of the activity isn’t clear.

For Examples:

  1. I’m eating right now. Literally, I [progressive aspect particle] eat:  Wǒzàichīfà 我在吃饭。
  2. I ate yesterday. Literally, I yesterday eat: Wǒzuótiānchīfà 我昨天吃饭。
    She was asked (by me). Literally, she [passive voice particle] (I) ask [perfective aspect particle]:  Tābèi (wǒ) wèn le. 她被()问了。

Chinese nouns and pronouns don’t change their structures either, so there is no distinction in structure between a particular and a plural noun or the noun/pronoun in the nominative (abstract) case or the accusative (objective) case. To indicate possession, the genitive molecule 的 (de)– like the ‘s in English– will be included right after the holder.

For Examples:

  1. A cup of tea, literally, one cup tea: 一yìbēichá. 杯茶
  2. Three cups of tea, literally, three cup tea:  sānbēichá. 三杯茶
  3. He sees me, literally, he sees I: tākànwǒ. 他看我
  4. My car, literally, I’s car: wǒ de chē. 我的
  5. Your car, literally, you’s car: nǐ de chē. 你的

Japanese, nonetheless, being an agglutinative language, has a significant complex verb conjugation system just as twelve particles (that occasionally look like the English prepositional words) demonstrating noun cases. The verbs are recognized continuously.The past and non-past (present and future tenses have a similar structure in Japanese) tenses, with different conceivable aspects (perfective, imperfective, progressive, and so forth.) just as voice (active, passive) and formality (honorifics).

For Examples:

  1. I’m sleeping at home (said to a friend).
    Literally, (I [topic particle similar to a subject] – usually dropped in speech) home [locative particle similar to ‘in’] sleep [informal non-past progressive]:
    (Watashiwa) uchi de neteru. (私は)うちで寝てる
  2. I was sleeping at home (said respectfully).
    Literally, (I [topic particle similar to a subject] – usually dropped in speech) my house (formal) [locative particle similar to ‘in’] sleep/rest (formal) [humble past progressive]:
    (Watashiwa) jitaku de yasumaseteitadakimashita. (私は)自宅で休ませていただきました。
  3. I’m at the store now.

Said to an elderly or someone of higher social status:  Ima, mise niorimasu. 今、店におります。

Said to a stranger of the same age or equal social status:  Ima, mise niimasu.今、店にいます。

Said to a friend:  Ima, mise niiru. 今、店にいる。

Can Chinese Read Japanese

and vice versa

If at some point you heard somewhere that Japanese couldread perfectly in Chinese, the chances of this happening would be very slim.Unless they studied the language; it is not likely that a Japanese can read Chinese fluently.

It seems many people often wonder, asking if the Japanese read Chinese? And can a Chinese speaker can read Japanese? We will be clarifying here for that question. And to make it more clearly we’ll do that vice versa.

Years ago, Japan lacked a native writing system. For that reason, the country began borrowing Chinese characters from Korea and China in the early fifth century, and even now the exchange continues. But we need to take note that even though they arepartly shared, the two languages are mutually intelligible, differing in so many areas such as their grammar and syntax.

Chinese is an uninflected language that seems like it is handled in English. So, its word endings don’t change in grammatical function or degree of politeness. In English, we have this subject-verb-object (SVO) order; the same in Chinese. But, in Japanese, it appears in subject-object-verb (SOV) order which is different fromChinese.


  1. Japanese: I banana (+object marker) ate.
  2. Chinese: I eat (+action-completed marker) banana.

So, it is really important to say that unless a Japanese speaker has sincerely studied the Chinese language its right to say that he can understand the Chineselanguage. To conclude if a Japanese speaker can read Chinese is when he can understand the whole and read everything in Chinese writing. Also, we can’t say that a Japanese doesn’t understand the whole word in Chinese. It is because it is also true that the Japanese can look at signs, menus or a printed text in Chinese and recognized lots of familiar words in them.

For example, when going out to eat 中国料理 (chūgokuryōri, Chinese food) they might order 餃子 (gyōza, small filled dumplings aka pot-stickers) or 春巻 (harumaki, spring rolls).

Even if it is pronounced very different, many of the words that they use every day are mutually understandable to both language readers. Such as;

  1. Buddhist temple: tera
  2. Bridge: hashi
  3. Shoes: kutsu
  4. Rain: ame
  5. Chair: isu椅子
  6. Telephone: denwa電話
  7. School: gakkō学校

These two languages have a lot of trouble in their comprehension. For example, in modern Chinese, the word for car is not 自動車 (jidōsha) but a 汽車 (qiche). Another exampleis the word for photo is not 写真 (shashin) but 照片 (zhaopian, and the word for book is not 本 (hon) but 書 (shu).

To make it more confusing, 汽車 (kisha) in Japanese is not a car but a steam locomotive.

Another problem in both languages that concerns differences is in the ways that kanji have been simplified.  Both the Japanese and Chinese languages reformed their written languages. It is different from the traditional characters that are still being taught in Taiwan. It was first reformed after World War II and followed during the communist revolution in 1949. However, the changes in both languages aren’t similar. Japanese aren’t able to recognize many simplified Chinese characters that are used today in Mainland China. It includes the changes in writing the City of Guangzhou (Canton or Kōshū in Japanese) into 广州, which opposed to 広州 in Japan and 廣州 in Taiwan.

Yes, the two languages share several of historical roots. Like when some educated English speaker invokes Latin expressions like; “caveat emptor,”which means “Let the buyer beware.”Or “mea culpa,”that means “through my fault.”Also in idioms, sayings, and aphorisms that originated many years ago in China. Such as, 疑心暗鬼(gishinanki, a suspicious mind will jump at shadows) and 弱肉強食 (jakunikukyōshoku, survival of the fittest), that have been pop up regularly in Japanese conversation.

There are also few of educated Japanese who are familiar with some extracts from Chinese literary works. For example, hearing someone say 春眠暁を覚えず (Shunminakatsuki o oboezu), is an elegant way of saying you overslept. It came from 春眠不覚暁 (Chun mianbujuexiao, “I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn,” the first line of a famous eighth-century poem by 孟浩然 (MōKōzen, Meng Haoran).

There are also some Japanese who have a background in humanities that have studied (kanbun), a technique devised to convert classical Chinese into Japanese syntax. There are also Japanese who enjoyed the intellectual exercise of poring over 孫子兵法 (SonshiHeihō, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”), which dates from the fifth century B.C. Its famous passage was, 百戦百勝非善之善者也 (Baizhanbaishengfeishanzhishanzhe ye, “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill).

When the Japanese are using kaubunthe passage that was written above becomes 百戦百勝は善の善なる者に非ざるなり (hyakusenhyakushōwa zen no zen naru mono niarazarunari).

To provide accurate comprehension, modern Japanese textbooks usually include 解説 (kaisetsu, explanation) which says be 戦えば必ず勝つのが最善の用兵ではない (Tatakaebakanarazu katsu no gasaizen no yōhei de wanai, “To fight and achieve certain victory is not the best use of soldiers”).  Through kanbundeveloping an intuitive understanding of classical Chinese will give advantages in learning modern language.

One of the best ways to consider in thinking is that the two written languages started changing many years ago. While many Japanese students are still learning 2,000-plus kanji, their modern language is composing a vast number of foreign borrowings covering everything. Such as,

  1. Video: bideoビデオ
  2. Trousers: zubonズボン
  3. Bread: pan パン

To uneducated Japanese, the Chinese borrowings of foreign words appear excessively mysterious. For example; “pokemon” that is written phonetically as 宝可夢 (baokemeng), using characters meaning “treasure,” “acceptable” and “dream.”

To cut it short, Japanese who have advanced reading skills can easily recognize Chinese phrases. They can grasp many Chinese characters but not to the extent of understanding the whole phrase. But it is recommended for Japanese who want to be fluent in Chinese whether in speaking, or writing, there’s no substitute for studying it. For Japanese who master Chinese will certainly benefit from learning the language.

This could also be the same for a Chinese speaker trying to read Japanese.  They can understand a good portion of what the content is about yet won’t understand everything. It is like reading a logical Russian conversation or writing. All you do is select some recognizable words and try to figure out what it is all about. However,you do not know what it means.

Japanese has three contents. Kanji is like Chinese. While a few things can be easily understandable, the language structure is unique. Many uneducated Chinese can understand Japanese Kanji but not be able to know how to pronounce it.


So, to finalize this comparison, Chinese and Japanese are very different languages especially the spoken languages.Even though there’s a lot of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese into Japanese and a little bit Japanese into Chinese, only in writing are the two languages somewhat intelligible because of the Chinese characters that are used.

Others (Chinese) may have the ability to read Japanese writings. It is because some of the Japanese language is written in Chinese content as said above, which means that it is composed of words in Chinese characters and a few similarities in sound. Since some of the language characters are borrowed from both languages, you don’t have to study Japanese to understand the meaning of the whole sentences.

On some chance that you might see Japanese characters written in kana, it is already accepted that they (Chinese) can understand, but not the whole meaning of the word. Many the Chinese loanwords were taken hundreds of years ago which means that the changes that have occurred in the two languages from that time would make them appear different.

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