To the untrained eye, the writing systems for Chinese and Japanese can appear indiscernible from one another. 

Both languages make use of letters, symbols and syntax which are drastically different from English and other Western languages, and each script contains multiple versions depending on where it is used, who uses it, and other contexts.

How is Chinese writing different from Japanese writing?

It is considered a faux pas to confuse the two in conversation, although you can quickly avoid this awkward error by familiarizing the characters, conventions, forms, and other features to help you tell Chinese writing apart from Japanese writing.

What is Chinese Writing?

The written Chinese language, hanzi (漢字), is among the world’s oldest scripts – persisting in different forms throughout four millennia. Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, is a fairly recent invention to standardize the language throughout the country.

Chinese characters are blocky and composed of multiple strokes. Each character represents one or more syllables and can contain different meanings, depending on the tone in which it is spoken. 

The simplified version of the script, featuring approximately 2,000 characters with simpler strokes, is used most prominently in mainland China. The traditional version is still used frequently in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

What is Japanese Writing?

Contemporary Japanese writing uses a combination of three scripts – kanji, hiragana and katakana.  

Kanji (漢字), was the first Japanese script. It is a descendant of the Chinese system, and likewise uses Chinese characters to represent different words or ideas. Over the centuries, the Japanese have given the symbols new meanings and created their own logograms as well.  

While kanji was usable, it was cumbersome to teach and learn. In the Heian era, women courtiers developed hiragana (ひらがな) – a curving and flowing phonetic script where characters represented sounds instead. 

Katakana (カタカナ) is angular and jagged. It was originally used to help remember the pronunciation of kanji, and is now used to spell out foreign-origin words.

Differences Between Chinese Writing and Japanese Writing

History

Hanzi is far older than any of its Japanese written counterparts. It developed from hieroglyphic-like symbols from as early as 1250 BC and later spread throughout East Asia, forming the basis of other languages’ writing systems – most relevantly, kanji.

The Japanese adopted and assimilated hanzi during the 5th century, culminating in the creation of kanji. Both hiragana and katakana would develop as alternative, and later complementary systems to kanji.

In the 20th century, hanzi and kanji separately underwent a period of standardization and simplification to unify its users’ different demographics and help accelerate their respective countries’ progress in producing a literate population.

Scripts and Character Sets

Present-day Mandarin Chinese can be written using either the traditional script – using the original form of its characters, or the simplified version produced in the 1950’s that aims to make writing easier by reducing the number and complexity of strokes. 

The use of each character set is mutually exclusive. Outside of continental East Asia, the traditional version is most commonly used.

Modern Japanese can be a mixture of kanji, hiragana and katakana. Hiragana with some kanji form the backbone of most day-to-day written communications. Kanji contains much of the language’s vocabulary, while hiragana and katakana adapted to fill in missing words or loanwords. 

Appearance

Written Chinese is characteristically blocky and dense in lines and strokes, which can make sentences and paragraphs appear crowded. 

In contrast, the triad of Japanese scripts is composed of simpler and more flowing characters, and produces more spacious text overall. The Chinese characters that kanji employs use the traditional script.

Hiragana is easily distinguished by its curves and wavy lines, looking more feminine as a script. Katakana, inversely, uses sharp angles and strong lines.

Simplification

The People’s Republic of China developed Simplified Chinese to streamline the teaching of the national language across the country. It reduces stroke count and difficulty through various means, such as borrowing the shape of a character’s cursive form.

Japan also developed shinjitai as a simplification of its kanji characters. 

Because these reforms to both languages were done independently, this has resulted in three distinct Chinese character sets – traditional hanzi, and the simplified hanzi and kanji forms.

Pronunciation and Meaning

Although hanzi and kanji share characters, there is absolutely no guarantee that similar characters are spoken in either language in the same way.

Kanji may also contain multiple wholly different pronunciations. Meanwhile, most hanzi are only pronounced in one way.

As Chinese is tonal, hanzi may convey other meanings based on rising, falling, or flat tones. Spoken Japanese, by contrast, is flat and monotonous. 

Comparison Chart: Chinese Writing Vs Japanese Writing

AreasChinese (Hanzi)Japanese (Kanji/Hiragana/Katakana)
HistoryDeveloped first, as early as 1250 BC. Originated as hieroglyphs and word-pictures.Adopted from hanzi in the 5th century and later developed into kanji, hiragana and katakana.
Scripts and Character SetsTraditional or simplified hanziTraditional or simplified (shinjitai) kanji, hiragana and katakana
AppearanceBlocky, square-shaped, made of multiple strokes.Kanji – similar to hanzi; hiragana – curvaceous and flowing; katakana – angular and sharp
SimplificationSimplified hanzi reduces stroke count and complexity.Simplified kanji – or shinjitai.
Pronunciation and MeaningTonal – meaning changes based on tone. One base pronunciation for most symbols.A character may have multiple pronunciations and meanings.

How is Chinese Writing similar to Japanese Writing? 

As kanji and its derivatives can trace their roots back to early traditional hanzi, both writing systems share several common features. 

Chinese characters are a mainstay of each script. Both of these systems can write their symbols in several ways – left to right, top to bottom, or occasionally right to left.

Written Chinese and Japanese also use the same symbols for their numbers, although they pronounce these differently. 

As a side note, Japanese also uses the “ka” particle to turn sentences into questions. Hanzi employs “ma” instead.

FAQ

Is Japanese written left to right?

The Japanese writing system is quite flexible and can be written in a variety of orientations.
Japanese can be written horizontally (yokogaki ‘横書き’) in either direction. For most learning courses and textbooks, its characters are placed from left to right. Right-to-left text was once popular, but is now used to convey a retro or old-timey feel.

Vertical writing, or tategaki (縦書き) is just as widespread as yokogaki. Either form can be used at your discretion. Symbols are written top to bottom, and from right to left.

Which Japanese writing system is used the most?

Japanese children learn hiragana first – on its own or with some kanji, it is the predominant writing system within the language. Kanji is still used due to its large vocabulary, while katakana is specialized for loanwords, expressions and sound effects.

Conclusion 

The appearance, different varieties, and conventions of written Japanese and Chinese can disorient new learners and non-speakers. By now, however, their distinguishing features have become much more apparent.

Hanzi is the basis of kanji. It uses blocky characters, exists in traditional and simplified forms, and changes meaning based on a speaker’s tone.

Kanji, and by extension, hiragana and katakana, are more spacious and flowing. Kanji has a simplified form – shinjitai. They are spoken in a flat tone, and characters can have different meanings.

References