Korean vs Japanese – How to Distinguish the Two

Korean vs Japanese

In this language post, we go undergo the challenge of assessing Korean vs Japanese. Given their geographical closeness, you may assume that Japanese and Korean are very similar languages. Moreover, the two cultures certainly have a long history together. However, the two languages are very different, as indeed are their cultures.

Japanese is spoken by 125 million people worldwide, and Korean is spoken by 77.2 million people worldwide. Clearly, both are very widely spoken and popular, particularly Japanese, which is growing in popularity as language learning apps become more common.

In this article, we will be detailing the differences between the two languages. We will be looking at the characters, dialects, tone, and even looking at some common idioms and expressions. We have also included our top picks for language courses for each of them. These will help you see for yourself what makes these languages so popular.

Where they’re spoken

Korean and Japanese are spoken widely, all over the world. Of course, they are also spoken in their respective countries – Korea and Japan. The controversial history between Japan and Korea means that any discussion of the difference between their language will always have political undertones, especially when trying to compare and contrast them. The fact is, in Japan, there are many speakers of Korean, and in Korea, there are many speakers of Japanese (as well as vice versa, of course).

Japanese is the de facto first-language of Japan. By this, we mean that it is not an official language with an official status, but it is widely acknowledged as the main language there. It is also officially recognized by Palau and Angaur.

As well as this, many countries that were occupied by Japan in the past (Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, and parts of the Philippines) would have also been made to speak Japanese as it was the language of the Empire.

Korean is widely spoken in both North and South Korea and is acknowledged as the official language of both countries. It is also officially acknowledged in the Yanbian Prefecture and Changbai County in China. As a minority language Korean has recognition in parts of Russia and other parts of China.

That being said, whilst there are only a handful of places in which Korean and Japanese are recognized as official languages, they are both spoken on every continent around the world.

The characters

The characters and scripts used in Japanese and Korean writing may both look similar and indistinguishable to the untrained eye but they are very different! They both have different writing systems. The Korean writing system is the Hangul (also known as the Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea). On the other hand, the Japanese writing system consists of three different ones, the kanji, the katakana, and the hiragana. The kanji system is made up mostly of adopted Chinese symbols.

Both of the languages use some form of the native script as well as the adoption of Chinese characters for their writing. However, it is far less common to find Chinese characters (hanja) in the Korean language. The exception is when it is used as a means of clarifying homophones. This happens on television subtitles, historical studies, and legal documents. In North Korea in particular, the use of hanja has been removed because of the Sinic influence.

Kanji and kana are the most commonly used systems in Japan and both are combined together. As we know, the kanji is the name given to the adopted Chinese symbols. The kana is actually a combination of two different systems used together to represent the same sounds. They have composed primarily of syllables and each used for a different purpose.

While hanja cannot be used to write Korean words, the Japanese equivalent kanji can be used to write both native Japanese words and Sino-Japanese words.

The spoken languages

Korean and Japanese also differ when they are being spoken. That is, they use different sounds. You may think that this means nothing in the bigger picture. Surely if you have the bases of the word or sentence right then people will still understand what you mean. However, this is not true.

In both Japanese and Korean, the use of pitch is very important and can change the meaning of your whole sentence immediately. For example, the Korean word 눈 can mean both ‘snow’ and ‘eye’. The only difference is the pronunciation which has a longer vowel sound for ‘snow’. The tone is also very important in the Korean language, but we will explore this in greater detail in the next section.


In Japanese, the way the language is spoken and the pitches used can also be important. However, unlike Korean, they are not tonal. They do have a similar issue to Korean with many words looking and sounding the same but having different meanings. In Japanese, we know that kanji( 漢字 ) means Chinese characters, but did you know that kanji( 感じ) also means ‘feeling’? Instances like this are extremely common in both languages.

It is often said that Japanese and Korean are very similar languages. Now, this is true to some extent but you can’t forget that Japanese and Korean have completely different writing systems. More importantly,  they have different sounds that go along with them.

There are more Korean sounds than there are Japanese sounds. The good news is that the Korean language uses all of the same sounds as Japan (with the exception of the /z/ sound). They just add on a few more extra sounds.

This means that if you can grasp an understanding of the sound in Japanese (this language is known to be the easiest of the languages in Asia for an English speaker to learn), then you are set in good stead to understand the sounds of the Korean language.

The tones

We mentioned in the previous section that tones are very important. Now, the concept of tone is not used in Japanese, but in Korean, it is very important. The tone you use when speaking can completely change the meaning of what you are trying to say. It depends on the pitch you use to say it.

The Korean language uses four tones, this means that a word could possibly have four different meanings, depending on what tone you use. On the other hand, in the Japanese language, there are no tones used (although, as you know from the section above, the language does use pitches to great effect).

Expressions and idioms 

Expressions and idioms are the best parts of any language in our opinion, and both Korean and Japanese are full of some wonderful ones. We wanted to show you some of our favorites in this section of the article.

Korean expressions and idioms 

  • 너무 한가해서 파리를 날리고 있다 (Literal translation: It’s so idle that there are flies flying around.) – This translates to ‘being in a slump’ and ‘having no customers.
  • 제 눈에 안경이다 (Literal translation: Glasses in my eyes) –  Although the literal translation is a little confusing, this is the Korean version of the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’
  • 과부 설움은 홀아비가 안다 (Literal translation: A widower knows a widow’s sorrow) – The translation of this is the well-known English phrase ‘Misery loves company’.
  • 눈이 높다 (Literal translation: eyes are high) – The meaning of this is the act of having high standards or unrealistic expectations, especially in relation to when a person expects too much from a romantic partner or suitor.

Japanese expressions and idioms

  • 猿も木から落ちる。/ saru mo ki kara ochiru (Literal translation: ‘even monkey falls from trees) – This wonderful expression is simply a way of saying ‘nobody is perfect’.
  • 口が滑る (くちがすべる) / kuchiga suberu (Literal translation: A slip of the mouth) – The meaning of this is very similar to the English expression ‘the cat is out of the bag’, meaning to let slip a secret or some gossip.
  • 自業自得 (じごうじとく) / jigou jitoku (Literal translation: One opportunity, one encounter) – This is a similar expression to the saying ‘you reap what you sow’.
  • 異体同心 (いたいどうしん) / itai doshin (Literal translation: Two bodies, one heart) – This romantic expression is similar to the English for ‘two hearts beating as one’.

Learning Korean and Japanese 

Now that you know all about these two wonderful languages we are sure that you cannot wait to get stuck into learning them. Before you go off and pay for a language tutor (or an expensive trip to Japan or Korea) we wanted to draw your attention to two of the best courses for learning each of the languages.

We have researched lots of different language courses (well, obviously, that’s our job!). To us, there are some real stand-out courses available for both Japanese and Korean. These suit learners of all levels from beginner to advanced.

Best course to learn Korean 


Udemy offers quick and easy learning for anyone interested in learning Korean. They have packages ranging from ‘free’ and ‘$129.99’. There are several courses on Udemy that offer Korean that you can find just by searching for them on the website. Our favorite is the ‘Learn Korean! Start Speaking Korean Now!’ course as it teaches the foundations of Korea as a language without you feeling like you are stuck in school learning it. It has 63 different mini-lectures that you can take at your own pace to suit your needs.

Rocket Korean

Rocket Rocket, part of the Rocket Languages series, 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 all aspects of Korean. Rocket Korean offers all users a free trial. Be sure to check out our Rocket Languages review.

image of rocket languages logo


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 your target language in a way that many apps cannot. Be sure to check out our FluentU review.

Best course to learn Japanese

Rosetta Stone

Japanese is spoken a little more widely compared to Korean, and as such, there is a little more in the way of courses available for it. The best one that we have found is by Rosetta Stone. They have lots of free resources available for you online but the star of the show is the paid-for courses you can purchase from them.

They are aimed at beginners and as you learn more you move on to more advanced content. The lessons are short and fit well into the busiest of lifestyles. It also introduces you to reading, writing, and listening skills as well as speaking, giving you a well-rounded education and solid foundation for conversational Japanese (this comes a little later in the course).


Pimsleur Japanese is designed to get you conversational in Japanese as quickly as possible. Its course structure is based on its own successfully proven method. Pimsleur Japanese contains 210 thirty minute audio lessons with plenty of additional review content.

Pimsleur offers all users a free 7 day trial in a variety of popular languages. Check out our written review of Pimsleur Japanese with the corresponding video below.


As you can see, both Korean and Japanese are unique and wonderful languages. Whilst they share similarities, they are both clearly very different.

Given the history between Japan and Korea, it remains that there will be some words that are similar. From their tonal usage to their script, they are not as similar as you may expect for their geographical closeness. Thank you for reading our article; we hope that you enjoy learning these languages for yourself!

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