Linguistic Difference Between Chinese and Japanese

Is there any difference between Chinese and Japanese? At first glance, it might seem that the Japanese are descended from the Chinese. But that’s not the case. Despite certain similarities, these two languages are vastly distinct.


Each has its own set of complexities that may differ from one another. Unless you’ve learned Chinese or Japanese, you may be perplexed about what the distinctions are.

We’ve put together this fast guide to clarify the key linguistic differences between Chinese and Japanese.

5 Difference Between Japanese and Chinese Languages

It can be difficult to distinguish Japanese and Chinese people and cultures to Western ears and eyes.  It will be easier to differentiate between the two once you learn the fundamental differences.

1. Difference between Japanese and Chinese Tone;

The tones come first. The context of your words varies in tonal languages depending on your “pitch accent.”

The tone is an important part of the Chinese language and pronunciation. Mandarin Chinese, the most frequently used dialect of Chinese, has four tones.

Difference between Japanese and Chinese Tone

Ma, for example, can mean four different things depending on the tone (m – mother, má – hemp, m – horse, and mà – arrest).

Japanese does not use tones. And has a much simpler pronunciation. Each syllable has the same length and consists of a consonant and a vowel. As a result, Japanese has a more monotonous tone than Chinese.

2. Difference between Japanese and Chinese writing;

If you remove romaji (the use of Latin letters like the ones you see now), the Japanese had three writing systems. Then there are the Hiragana and Katakana scripts. Hiragana and Katana are almost identical in terms of character count and tone. Katakana has distinct looks.

Hiragana – あいうえお

Katakana – アイウエオ

Kanji – 山 川 海

Borrowed foreign names and terms such as “Starbucks” and “McDonald’s are written in katakana. Hiragana is used to fill in the gaps between the kanji that are needed for grammatical structure.

In Chinese, there is only one writing system, Hanzi. However, in 1949, China introduced a new writing system known as Simplified Chinese. This was a simple version of traditional Chinese characters helps people learn how to read.

It’s possible that the Japanese borrowed their writing system from the Chinese script. However, the grammatical and vocabulary variations between Chinese and Japanese are so significant. Japanese have been forced to adopt and treat characters not only for their meaning but also for their phonetics.

3. Kanji vs. Hanzi

Even though they use the same writing system, hanzi and kanji represent completely different languages. As a result, the Chinese pronunciation of a hanzi differs from the Kanji Japanese pronunciation.

Many of the Japanese Kanji characters are derived from Chinese Hanzi, and many of them are identical. In the 1950s, China simplified their Hanzi (characters), but the Kanji remained unchanged. So they are the traditional Hanzi, which are no longer used in China.

Kanji vs. Hanzi

While kanji and hanzi are identical, the number of ways a single character can be read differs significantly. There are only two ways to read a hanzi in Chinese, but there are several more in Japanese.

The character for sun or day is read as nichi, jitsu, hi, bi, or ka in Japanese. In Chinese, however, the same character can only be read as rì.

4. Forms of Etiquette;

In comparison to Chinese, Japanese grammar adds multiple aspects of politeness to the grammar itself. Keigo refers to formalized forms of expression. And there are three types based on formality: the honorific form, the polite form, and the humble form.

While speaking Japanese, it’s important to be aware of the effective manner of politeness for each social situation. There are two ways to read Japanese texts: Onyomi, which is derived from Chinese pronunciation. And Kunyomi, which is the original, indigenous Japanese reading.

The proper pronunciation will vary depending on which Kanji characters are present in a text, making it difficult for native Japanese speakers to read aloud.

5. Structure of Grammar;

Since it only uses Hanzi characters, Chinese grammar is more simple than Japanese. In Chinese, verbs do not conjugate and only have one form.

Because of the hiragana writing system, the Japanese have a much wider range of conjugations and particles. The basic form of sentences differs as well.

Different sentence structures are used in Chinese and Japanese. If Chinese is an SVO (subject, verb, object) language, Japanese is an SOV (subject, object, verb) language.

Difference between Japanese and Chinese Structure of Grammar

Many academics believe that modern Japanese is more similar to classical Chinese than modern Chinese. In fact, the SOV structure can easily be find in classical Chinese.

Fortunately for learners, all Japanese subjects have the same conjugations, and there are very few irregular verbs. The simple forms of Japanese verbs often end in u.

“The Japanese deliberately and consciously borrow — in this case from China,” says Columbia University’s Robert Oxman. Then they establish a uniquely Japanese cultural synthesis.”

A contrast of Japanese and Chinese;

Chinese is one of the most common languages globally, with native speakers numbered in the millions. China, Taiwan, and Singapore all have it as an official language. Chinese is one of the world’s oldest living languages, with roots dating back nearly 3000 years.

– 918 million people speak Chinese (as of 2019)

– The foremost wide spoken language.

The Japanese language is more recent. It emerged as a result of China’s dominance and the emergence of Buddhism. It is the official language of Japan and the world’s eighth most spoken language.

– 126.2 million people speak Japanese (as of 2019)

– The eighth most widely spoken language.

Final Thoughts;

Even though Chinese and Japanese share many letters, the grammatical rules, pronunciations, and even words are completely different from each other.

For language learners, the Japanese and Chinese writing systems can be intimidating. Leading them to rely much too heavily on Rmaji and Pinyin. For English speakers, Japanese conjugations may be intimidating. However, learning proper pronunciation in both Japanese and Chinese could be the most difficult aspect of both languages.

Tones, on the other hand, are the more complicated part of studying Chinese. Some students who studied Chinese after studying Japanese say that dealing with different translations in Japanese is more complex than dealing with Chinese tones.

Both languages are rich in nuance, and it may take some time to become accustomed to them. But it’s there that their beauty lies.

Nonetheless, I’d like to repeat John Pasden’s assessment: when comparing the two languages, he claims that learning Japanese grammar is more difficult than learning Chinese grammar. And mastering Chinese pronunciation is more difficult than mastering Japanese pronunciation. The challenge appears to “flip flop” over time.

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We can’t leave it to chance to communicate with a native Japanese or Chinese speaker because of these same complexities. If you need Chinese translation or Japanese language services, it’s best to hire a native linguist or an international professional who has practical experience using the language daily.

TheLanguageDoctor ensures that only the most qualified linguists are assigned to each project based on their experience, education, specializations, clearances, and certifications.

Get in touch with us at, or 1 (202) 544-2942.

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