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Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing – How to Tell Them Apart?

Westerners accustomed to the alphabetic languages are likely to get perplexed by the similarities between the CJK characters (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). Despite their resemblance, people from these three countries can immediately distinguish the scripts from one another. In this article, we will compare the Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing systems and characters.

Korean vs Japanese vs Chinese Writing System - Brief History

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are three major languages widely spoken in East Asia. Among the three, the Chinese have a comparatively longer history and a long-lasting influence on the other two. Since Chinese characters predate Korean and Japanese characters, we will start with Chinese. In fact, not only is Chinese the oldest language compared to both languages, but it is also the world’s most ancient language that has been continually used for thousands of years. In the following passage, we will compare Chinese vs Korean vs Japanese writing in terms of history, character shape, and text formatting.

Chinese

Chinese is a group of languages and dialects spoken by Han Chinese and many other ethnic groups in China. Although the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar may differ, these Chinese languages use the same Chinese writing system dating back to 5,000 years. If you are interested in the evolution of Chinese characters or the history of Chinese language, you can read more in our blog. Read on for the details of Japanese vs Chinese writing

Unlike alphabet-based languages like English, Chinese adopts a writing system made up of character components, aka logographs or logograms, with each having its individual meaning. The number of such characters could total up to over 100,000, making Chinese one of the most challenging languages to master. 

Japanese

Japanese culture and its writing system were heavily influenced by ancient Chinese.  The Japanese didn’t have a writing system for a long time. The ancient Japanese first made contact with the Chinese around 206bc-220ce during the Han Dynasty and gradually adopted Chinese characters. It wasn’t until the 5th century that the Japanese invented their own writing system based on the Chinese writing system model. 

In modern times, the Japanese writing system consists of logographic kanji (adopted Chinese characters), syllabic kana (Hiragana and Katakana), Rōmaji, and Arabic numerals. 

Kanji are logographic characters taken from the Chinese writing system and are used for writing native content words or those that originated from Chinese. 

Kana uses the combination of two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The former is primarily used for native/naturalized Japanese words and functions as grammatical elements. The latter is designed for loanwords, foreign words and names, scientific names, onomatopoeia, and emphasis. 

Rōmaji refers to the Japanese romanization system, the Latin alphabet mostly used for Latin-alphabet acronyms, Japanese names for brands intended for global use, and foreign names/phrases in commercial/scholarly contexts.

Korean

Due to Korea’s proximity to China, the Korean language is unsurprisingly also influenced by the well-established Chinese culture. Chinese characters arrived in Korea around the 1st century BC. Korean first appeared in historical texts as a spoken language without its own script, with all the written documentation kept in Classical Chinese. 

The ancient Korean used Hanja, the Chinese characters adapted to Korean, to transcribe the Korean language and record its history. Hanja has been used as the main script for Korean for over a thousand years. Until the 15th century, the Korean king Sejong the Great developed an alphabetic writing system to increase literacy among most of the population. Instead of thousands of Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet comprises ten main vowels and fourteen main consonants. 

How to Tell Japanese vs Chinese vs Korean Writing Apart?

Does Japanese also use Chinese characters? Does Chinese have an alphabet? Don’t worry! We will dive into the specifics later. But first, let’s take a close look at each of the three characters in the image shown above. Are they indistinguishable to you? If yes, you’re probably not familiar with Asian scripts, and you not alone!

It’s natural for Latin language speakers to get confused since Chinese, Japanese, and Korean all use Chinese characters in their writing system. The Chinese characters have different yet similar names – “hànzì” in Chinese, “kanji” in Japanese, and “hanja” in Korean. Put aside the Chinese character, the character shapes of the written script of each language are distinct from one another. 

Korean vs Chinese vs Japanese characters shape - What are the Differences?

If you identify square, complex, and dense characters, you’re looking at Chinese characters, whether simplified or traditional ones. All Chinese character strokes must lie within the constrained square perimeter of each character, leaving a consistent, uniform line of the script.

Recognizing Japanese script is easy – Japanese hiragana is loose and curvy lines, and the Japanese characters are much simpler than Chinese or Korean characters. Taking the character “の” as an example. It comprises only one curvy stroke, which is not seen in either Chinese or Korean. Even if some Chinese characters are merged in the script, if you spot the character “の” that’s most likely Japanese. 

To recognize Korean script, you only need to look for the circles and ovals embedded in the text. Korean writing consists of open squares and open circles and ovals, which are unseen in Chinese and Japanese writing systems. Despite the fact that the Japanese script comprises curvy lines, no such complete circles were seen within the Japanese characters. So if you catch sight of these ovals and circles among lines of the script, that’s Korean writing for sure.

Difference between Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing - Text Formatting

Besides the character shapes, you can also distinguish Japanese vs Korean vs Chinese writing based on the orientation of the script

If you find the text is written vertically, you would probably be looking at the Japanese script. In vertical Japanese writing, the column text is read from top to bottom, starting at the top-right corner, which was borrowed from ancient Chinese writing. Although vertical writing still exists in modern Chinese, horizontal writing is more widely used. When the text is written horizontally, all three scripts are read from left to right, just like in European languages.

Another useful technique to tell the three scripts apart is to look for spaces between words. Just like European languages, Korean script uses space to separate different words. However, neither Chinese nor Japanese put space between words. So if you can’t determine the script and spot spaces between words, you can confidently rule out Chinese and Japanese – that’s Korean. 

If the techniques above fail to provide a definite answer, you can analyze the punctuation marks of the script as a last resort. Korean writing system adopts Western-style punctuation marks such as commas and periods. Both modern Chinese and Japanese use period “。”, yet the comma is different – Chinese uses “,” and Japanese use “、”. Chinese also uses question mark “?” and exclamation point “!” in some cases. 

Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing Chart

 

Chinese

Japanese

Korean

Square characters

×

×

Curvy and airy characters

×

×

Circular characters

×

×

Vertical writing

×

Horizontal writing

Spaces between words

×

×

Punctuation (Period)

.

Punctuation (Comma)

,

Translation Tips - Japanese vs Korean vs Chinese Characters

The sentence structures of the CJK languages are drastically different from one another. So when it comes to translating Japanese, Korean, or Chinese characters, it’s best to use experienced translators native to these languages. If you happen to have such a need, please contact Wordspath. As a professional language service company located in East Asia, we have specialized in translating from and into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and along side other languages covering a wide range of subject matters. Wordspath only works with native translators who are skilled at handling technical and cultural intricacies behind every line of the script, ensuring accuracy and consistency.

Summary

Despite the similarities in appearance, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have their own writing systems. But Japanese and Korean characters are all based on the Chinese character model. There are plenty of ways to distinguish the three scripts: character shape, the orientation of the script, spaces between words, and punctuation marks. You can also compare the script against the Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing chart above to get a quick conclusion.

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