Learning Mandarin: How are Japanese characters related to Chinese characters?

If Asian character sets are new to you, you might wonder if Japanese and Chinese characters are the same or similar.

Japanese has a number of character sets:

Hirogana is the simplest set of characters. There is a single character for each basic sound in the language. For example in the name Hirogana itself, there are 4 characters: Hi, ro, ga, and na. Every word can be made up of these characters. The characters have no meaning on their own. There are only 46 characters and 68 additional variants of them.

Katakana is another set with the same number of characters. It is used to represent words from another language. This concept might seem a bit strange to English speakers. If we adopt a French word, we typically write it with the same alphabetic letters as we use for English. (We might use italics and/or add accents or graves but it's basically the same).

Romaji is just a way of writing the Japanese words by using a Roman alphabet like we use.

Kanji is a large set (tens of thousands) of characters where a single symbol or a pair of symbols might represent an entire word. Kanji characters originated from traditional Chinese characters.

Kanji vs Chinese

Now while the Japanese Kanji characters and the traditional Chinese characters will often be the same, the words are mostly different. And the characters might be draw somewhat differently.

In the main image above, note the similarity in the Chinese and Japanese written words, and also note that the PinYin word is very different to the Romaji word. (English-like words below).

This leads to an interesting situation. I spent 5 years learning Japanese at high school and I got to a level of basic greetings, etc. I didn't, however, ever learn enough Kanji characters to be at all literate.

In fact, many older Japanese people also don't know many Kanji characters. I've seen Japanese newspapers where the story on the front page is written using a mixture of Kanji and Hirogana, but the same story is on the back page, written entirely in Hirogana so that it can be read by less-educated people.

But now that I've learned a good number of Chinese characters, I see signs written in Japanese, and while I have no idea what the Japanese word is, I know what the sign means. So ironically, I can understand more written Japanese since I've been learning Chinese, than back when I was learning Japanese.

I might not know the Japanese words, but I recognize the written characters as "fish market" in both of the languages shown above.

Traditional Chinese

Part of the reason those words above look different is that the Chinese is actually Simplified Chinese. Japanese Kanji was based on traditional Chinese characters.

Now compare the Japanese to the Traditional Chinese:

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

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