How similar are Chinese and Japanese characters? Are they readable for speakers of either?

All this assuming traditional character.

A Chinese friend said that when he goes to japan he can read all the signs even though he doesn’t speak any Japanese.
I have heard from some that learning Japanese after Chinese was easy and vice versa. However, I read elsewhere that knowing Japanese made life more difficult when trying to read Chinese.

Our good buddy polyglot George Languages are mixing! Japanese is spilling out during Chinese class! - YouTube , a Japanese interpreter, is having some trouble keeping his kanji separate from his Chinese. lingosteve also said that he is having trouble keeping his korean grammar separate from his Japanese.

One blog I read suggested that learning Chinese and Japanese simultaneously is the way to go.
The other suggested that when you decide to learn Chinese after learning Japanese (which I plan to do in the future), to learn exclusively through pinyin until you are more advanced in the language.

The real question is with words. do character combinations make the same words or are they completely different? is knowing the Kanji helpful or harmful in switching to Chinese?

This whole thing is so fascinating since the idea of a pictographic language is still so crazy to me.

readable to* I think.

國破山河在 guó pò shānhé zài 國破れて山河在り


Steve is probably the best one to answer this, since he’s a very skilled reader of both languages, but here’s my opinion as an intermediate reader.

Yes, its a fascinating topic, and one whose answers eluded me for a long time. I started Mandarin about 2 years after starting Japanese. My Japanese reading ability wasn’t very good at that time, and Heisig himself suggested to me in an email that I wait until I had a good grasp on kanji before learning hanzi. But I couldn’t wait to start Mandarin, so I learned with pinyin only for something like 3 years. In hindsight, I think it was good advice, but I took it way too far. My level at that point was probably already good enough to start learning hanzi with minimal confusion. Also, I’m now of the opinion that mixing up languages always occurs when my level is low, and always disappears when it’s high, and as long as there is a good stagger between starts there is minimal impact.

Most kanji are traditional hanzi, some are simplified, some are old versions of hanzi, and a few are uniquely Japanese. As for meaning, although there are many false friends and different nuances, the majority are basically the same. Can Chinese and Japanese understand each other’s written languages? Everyone I’ve ever asked this question has said that they can to a certain degree. I think a Japanese person reading Chinese would be like me trying to read the google translation of a language that it doesn’t handle very well. Most of the words are recognisable, so even if the order is messed up I can often (usually?) understand the general gist.

You asked how often compounds are the same. I’m not sure, but my feeling is about half the time. Different compounds might keep someone from understanding meaning, but the fact the characters are usually the same often trumps this problem.


I think about how my mind will ever be able to read characters at a natural reading pace, since the general meaning of a character often is not obvious to the meaning of a word it forms with other characters.

However, I look at words like kyou, kyuu (today, remembering romaji spelling is actually hard)

I look at the word for Today. Japan, and Now.


I see these and immediately know they are ima, kyou, and nihon despite having of the same kanji
Three different pronunciations and I didn’t memorize them at all, just by seeing them enough in the reading material.

However, I know that in Chinese the word for today uses the sky character instead. On one hand it doesn’t seem that confusing, but on the other if it is possible to get to a good enough level where Chinese and Japanese are ingrained in the mind separately to where you don’t have to re study to switch back and forth if you ever need to.

(I assume you meant to use 日 rather than 今 above in order to show 3 different readings for 日)
Yes, different pronunciations, sometimes many, for almost every kanji makes reading Japanese very difficult for me, because not being phonetic means I have to memorize the pronunciation of each word. Actually we have to do this to some degree for every language, just more so for Japanese.

But keep in mind that the need to phonetically sound out words is a temporary step in reading, and we eventually are able to recognize and pronounce words and even phrases at a glance. So this phonetically sounding-out stage is just a temporary crutch. My point was merely that it’s a lot longer for Japanese than other languages.

Mandarin doesn’t present the same problem, imo, as the vast majority of characters in high usage vocabulary only use one reading.

Regarding being able to easily switch between the two languages, it’s not a problem once you get out of the beginner stage. It’s easy for me right now, for example.

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