Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reading Chinese (in Japan!)

Another trip, another (Mandarin) discovery ...

I have just spent a couple of weeks in Japan - my last trip having been three years ago. At that time, I probably knew only about 12 Kanji (Japanese characters, which were originally borrowed from Chinese about 2000 years ago), whereas this time I know about 100 times as many characters.

I was curious to see how my Chinese reading skills would work in Japan.

Here is the background:
  • I have been studying the Simplified Chinese character set - whereas of course Kanji would be closer to the Traditional Chinese character set
  • I am referring here to recognising individual characters, and piecing together enough of them to get the general meaning of what I'm reading
  • After all, I'm not a fluent Chinese reader, so I couldn't exactly expect to manage Japanese without a hitch.
And here are some quick observations about my experiences understanding:
  • In spite of the above points, I was still able to follow much of the Kanji which I read in signs, menus, posters, etc.
  • Even when signs were a mixture of Kanji and Hiragana (the one phonetic alphabet of Japanese), I sometimes found that the core meaning came from the Kanji. (For example, if you look at the picture below (sorry for the bad lighting, I took it in a shrine) in the right-column you can recognise the characters 帽子 (hat) and 脱 (take-off) -I'm sure you can work out what you have to do!

  • Sometimes the Kanji means exactly the same as the chinese, for example 注意 (zhù​yì, see below)
  • And whereas the character 天 (tiān)​ is used in day-based words in Chinese (昨天: yesterday,  今天: today,  明天: tomorrow), in Japanese the 天 doesn't appear, and instead 日 is used in it's place  
  • Sometimes the Japanese have different words for common objects to what the Chinese use, even though you can still read the Japanese version and work out what they mean. For example (Chinese/Japanese):  'car' (汽車 = gas vehicle / 自動車 = automatic vehicle), 'emergency exit' (紧急出口 = urgency exit / 非常口 = extreme doorway), 'no smoking' (吸煙禁止 / 禁煙), 'train' (火車 = fire vehicle / 電車 = electric vehicle), 'push' (on doors) (推 / 押), 'fire extinguisher' (灭火器 vs 消火器) etc.

Finally, here are some fun observations:

  • The Japanese love the word 注意 (zhù​yì, meaning 'notice' or 'caution') - I saw it all over the place - either stand-alone or at the end of the sentence
  • I discovered that the Chinese word 先生 (xiān​sheng​, or 'mister') is the same word as Japan's "sensei".  Similarly, Japan's "onsen" (the famous style hot baths, usually from spring water) is written as 温泉 (wēn​quán)​, which is of course "hot spring" in Chinese
  • In China the word for 'tap' is 水龍頭 (water dragon head) whereas in Japan they call it 蛇口 (snake mouth)

  • Before I knew that 自動車 is the Kanji for 'car', I was seeing the following words (see below) a lot: 自動車x除x. I read this as "automatic vehicle blah blah" - and for some odd reason I started thinking about those automated parking lots in Japan, where you drive onto a platform, and that takes your car away in a space-efficient manner. When you return for your car, you select the bay number, and it comes out again, almost like a vending machine :-)   So I had assumed the sign below made reference to there being one of those automated parking bays being in the vicinity - only to discover that it's not meant to imply 'automatic car-park', but rather just 'car-something'. (I'm sure the above paragraph is confusing to you, the reader. Please treat it as a stream-of-consciousness description of little import.)

Conclusion? Learning to read Chinese has use even outside the Chinese-speaking countries. It was fun to see that for myself.

If you know of other differences or similarities between between Chinese and Japanese, please drop a note for us below. And if you don't, then pretend you do and just make something up!


  1. Hahaha, I used to love doing that!! If you remember I was initially going to study Japanese, so looking at Japanese signs and freaking out when I see things like 子 and other Chinese characters. Makes me go nuts xD

    You know that Japanese put verbs at the end right? (At least I think that's how it goes; Chinese is S-V-O while Japanese is S-O-V, if I remember correctly) so seeing 注意 at the end of the sentence explains a lot :)

    Are you going to take up Japanese, Greg? :O


    P.S. I got a 4 out of 5 on the U.S.'s Advanced Placement Chinese test, so I can officially be a tutor for it in college and I'm 'very qualified' to become fluent in the language. :)

  2. Hey Kara - let me start by saying that I'm not going to take up Japanese! Mandarin is tough enough without having competition for my time from another language :-)

    I kinda deduced the S-O-V by reading signs. I was out the one night with a Japanese work colleague, who confirmed it ...

    I asked the waitress for her name (don't judge me! :-) and she replied "Kana des". I repeated "Kanades, what a nice name!" - and my colleague had to correct me by saying "No, just Kana. 'des' is roughly how you say 'it is'."

    And well done on your test. I suspect that will put you in demand if you choose to follow that route even more. Congrats!

  3. Lolz okay well I hope when you do become fluent in Mandarin you'll do something just as challenging :)

    Thank you! Unfortunately I don't want to make Chinese a career. I want to be a psychologist (and a music composer on the side) so nope, I'm out of luck with Chinese, but I'll take it if anyone offers it ;)

    I won't judge :D Lolz oh gosh. Hey look, at least you'll be able to correct a colleague on his or her Chinese one day doing the same thing ;D

    "It's not 小明啊,it's just 小明。 啊 is roughly used for emphasis."


  4. You know, these are the moments where personally I feel very happy.
    Learning Chinese is like solving a puzzle. With every piece you figure out, Mandarin becomes more interesting.

  5. I agree completely! I think that's what has been keeping me interested. I don't feel like I'm reaching a plateau, and if I do stagnate on something, then I just pick up a different angle. I at least feel like I've done all the 'edge pieces' of this puzzle - now to fill in the middle bits ...