Chinese vs Japanese – How Different Are They?

Ah, that common query – Chinese vs Japanese. Many know what they are and where they are spoken. However, not many of us are familiar with the key differences between these languages.

Chinese and Japanese are two of the most spoken languages in the world. However, they are often confused by a lot of non-native speakers. Chinese is spoken in a number of different countries as the main language, while Japan is the only country that uses Japanese as their first language.

Today we will be looking at the differences between these two languages in regards to their characters, spoken language, and tones. We’ll also take you through the best course to learn each language so that you can begin to understand ⅙ of the world’s population.

Where They’re Spoken

This might seem like a trick question, as Chinese is spoken predominantly in China while Japanese is spoken in Japan. However, both of these languages have spread from their original countries into many more across the world.

China has the largest population in the world with an astonishing 1.4 billion people. With their native language being Chinese, learning this language will make you able to communicate with around one-sixth of the world’s population!

Mandarin is the main language spoken in Mainland China, with over 955 million (67%) of the population speaking Mandarin. Standard Chinese is the official language of China and is otherwise known as standard Mandarin.

Cantonese is another popular Chinese language mainly spoken in Southern China. In comparison to Standard Chinese, only 5% of the population speak Cantonese.

Chinese is not only spoken in China, as more Chinese speakers are moving abroad and creating Chinese communities in over areas of the world. Chinese is considered the official language of Taiwan and is commonly spoken in Singapore.

One of Macau’s official languages is Cantonese, and Hong Kong is known for mostly speaking Mandarin. As you can see, Chinese is the official language of many different countries. However, it is also one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, with Chinese-speaking communities within a great number of countries around the world.

On the other hand, Japanese has been used as a first or second language in no other country other than Japan since the mid-20th century. With that being said, there are still more than 127 million Japanese speakers around the world and it is considered one of the world’s major languages.

An estimated 1.5 million Japanese speakers are living abroad, mainly in North and South American countries. So, the language has been spread out across the world and is commonly heard among different communities.

Chinese vs Japanese: The Characters

Both Chinese and Japanese use the same characters to identify the concepts of words, even if the pronunciation is different. Japanese only formed their own characters in the IV century AD. Before they created their own characters, Chinese characters were used in Japan for Buddhism and philosophy purposes.

In the beginning, only a few educated Japanese people were able to read Chinese symbols. However, after a few years, the Chinese characters began to be used for Japanese speakers to write as well.

While the Japanese language was already formed without a writing system, using Chinese characters also allowed some to use the Chinese pronunciation for the same words. Due to this, the same character can be pronounced in different ways.

So, there are two main ways of pronouncing different characters. On Yomi is where characters are derived from Chinese, while Kun Yomi is the original Japanese pronunciation.

An example of this is as follows:

The Chinese character 山 is pronounced ‘shan’ and translates to the mountain.

This symbol is also used in Japanese, but has two ways of pronouncing it: in On Yomi, you say ‘san’, while in Kun Yomi you say ‘yama’.

You would use the On Yomi pronunciation if the character is accompanied by other characters to form a composite word, while you’d use the Kun Yomi pronunciation if the character is alone.

For example, if the character 山 contained the name Mount Fuji, you would use On Yomi and pronounce it ‘Fuji San’ as the name is created from three characters: 富士山.

What’s more, Chinese speakers only use Chinese characters while Japanese speakers use two spellings: hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ). So, Chinese and Japanese characters are very similar because many of the Japanese characters were derived from Chinese writing.

Chinese vs Japanese: The Spoken Languages

Speaking Chinese involves intonations which can be much more difficult to learn than Japanese, as there are no tones to learn when it comes to this language. Speaking Chinese without the different tones would make it very difficult to understand as Chinese speakers depend heavily on tones to convey what they are saying.

On the other hand, Japanese speakers need to learn how to change their pitch between words. This is still not an easy job, but it can be considered easier than Chinese tones. For example, the word hashi can either mean ‘chopsticks’ or ‘bridge’ depending on the pitch you use.

There are five vowels in Japanese that have sounds that all feature in English. This is one of the reasons why Japanese is considered the most natural Asian language to learn for an English speaker.

The Tones

It would not be possible to provide a concise overview of Chinese vs Japanese without discussing tones. The tones of a language change the meaning of what you are saying depending on the pitch of your accent. Many people consider the tones to be the most difficult aspect of Chinese to learn. While Mandarin only has five tones to learn, Lukang Township Taiwanese has eight tones. Standard Chinese has four tones to learn.

Unlike Chinese, Japanese is not a tonal language and therefore you do not need to learn different tones for each syllable of a word. While pitch will alter some pronunciations of the words, the general context of what you are saying will allow someone to understand what you’re saying.

There are 45 syllables in the Japanese language, each of which is pronounced the same way no matter where they appear in a word. Many people believe that Japanese is easier to learn than Chinese as you do not have to worry about the different tones in your dialect.

Expressions and Idioms 

Both Chinese and Japanese speakers use their own expressions and Idioms to convey their tone in the language. Below we have compiled a list of Chinese and Japanese expressions that you can learn to use in your everyday life.


  • 脚踏实地 (jiǎo tà shí dì) – To step on solid ground. The meaning of this expression is to work hard and focus to proceed in a steady fashion.
  • 九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yì máo) – Nine cows and one strand of cow hair. This idiom is similar to the English ‘a needle in a haystack’, meaning that it is difficult to find something.
  • 一见钟情(yí jiàn zhōng qíng) – Love at first sight. Generally used for people, but can also be used to describe inanimate objects.


  • 砂を噛むよう (すなをかむよう) – Like chewing on sand. This idiom indicates that something is boring and tedious.
  • 猫も杓子も (ねこもしゃくしも) – Even cats and rice ladles. This expression is similar to the English ‘everyone and their mother’ and refers to everyone that you can think of.
  • 月とすっぽん (つきとすっぽん) – the moon and a soft-shell turtle. The expression means that two things are as different as the moon and a turtle, that they couldn’t be more unalike.

Best Courses to Learn Chinese – Rocket Chinese

Rocket Chinese, part of Rocket Languages, is a language learning app that uses audio lessons, interactive exercises, and readings to get you to a conversational level in a foreign language. Through its structured and proven successful process, you will begin to understand more about the language you are learning.

In our opinion, Rocket Chinese offers one of the most comprehensive information for beginners learning the language. They teach Mandarin, which is the most commonly spoken language in China, and often referred to as Standard Chinese.

Best Courses to Learn Chinese – Chinese Zero to Hero!

Chinese Zero to Hero! follows the HSK Standard Course, taking you from HSK 1 to HSK 6. It includes more than 270 hours of learning material, bringing you from complete beginner to advanced level.

There are a number of courses that can be purchased individually, which is ideal for learners not wanting to start from scratch or purchase the courses all at once. Enter the Promo Code “TL10” to receive 10% off any course or purchase.

Best Course to Learn Japanese – FluentU

FluentU is a language-learning platform that brings language learning to life through language immersion with real-world videos. It provides users with an immersive learning experience through commercials, interviews, music videos, tutorials, and more.

By teaching through video, FluentU helps you to interact with Japanese in a way that many apps cannot.

Best Course to Learn Japanese – Pimsleur

Pimsleur is an audio-based course that focuses on oral language, and they offer plenty of different language courses to learn. The lessons are offered in both women’s and men’s voices so that you can learn how different genders pronounce the words differently.

Pimsleur offers 150 30-minute lessons in Japanese, and you can even use the driving mode to learn in the car. There are different levels of subscriptions to choose from according to your expertise level.

Be sure to check out our video review of Pimsleur Japanese below. You can also read the corresponding article here.


We hope this Chinese vs Japanese article has provided you with a comprehensive understanding of the key differences between these languages.

Chinese and Japanese are two of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, so it makes sense that more of us should be fluent in the language, or at least know a few of the most common expressions and idioms.

The Japanese characters were derived from the Chinese characters, which is why the written language is relatively similar. However, the spoken language contains many differences and Chinese speakers would not be able to understand Japanese and vice versa.

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