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Back in mid-December, 2013, I started assembling materials for a post about the differences between Chinese and Japanese writing.  I think that someone (I forget who) sent me a couple of links that stimulated me to think about this topic, and then I added some things of my own.  That was about as far as I got, though, so the would-be post was filed away in my drafts folder until I stumbled upon it today.

This one is about Japanese words adopted in Chinese:

"New Japanese makes inroads into Chinese vocabulary" (10/7/08) by Mark Schreiber.

This is a subject we've addressed on Language Log before, e.g.:

"Recent Japanese loanwords in Chinese" (7/22/13).

This chart, from sci.lang.japan,  is a collection of words that have the same kanji in Japan and China, but have different meanings in the two languages:

Here is a video clip about such words made by Koichi, the Koichi of Tofugu:

"Japanese Words? Chinese Words?" (6/14/11).

Tofugu is a popular Japanese language and culture blog.  Incidentally, I don't know the meaning of Tofugu.  Judging from the logo on the site, the "fugu" part is from the name of the dopey looking, but potentially lethal, fish that kills those who dine on its flesh when it is not properly prepared.  I'm guessing that the name Tofugu may be composed of "tofu" + "fugu", where the "fu" syllable is doing double duty.  That light-brown stuff on top of the cute little fugu fish in the logo might be a blob of super soft tofu, or it might be something else….

I recall that Koichi is the person who wrote about character amnesia in Japan, a subject near and dear to my heart:

"Kanji Amnesia And Why It’s Okay To Forget Kanji" (8/27/10).

Those who don't know Japanese and / or Chinese may be lulled into believing that if you read the one you can also read the other.  After all, they're both written with hanzi / kanji / hanja, right?  Wrong!  Just because hundreds of different languages are written with the Roman alphabet (including Modern Standard Mandarin written in Pinyin and Japanese written in Romaji) doesn't mean that if you can read one of them you can read all of them.  Chinese and Japanese do not even belong to the same language family, and they have very different grammars and lexicons — for starters, not to mention that, in addition to kanji, the Japanese writing system also includes two syllabaries (katakana and hiragana) plus romaji.

[Thanks to Ted Bestor, Joe Farrell, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Linda Chance, Hiroko Sherry, and Frank Chance]


  1. Matt said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    I think the fugu's body is itself a block of tofu, and the brown part on top is doing double duty as fugu body coloring and soy sauce poured on top of the tofu. (The hard questions, answered!)

  2. Richard W said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

    "As many of you know, the Tofugu name is a combination of the Japanese words for tofu (tofu, obvi) and puffer fish (fugu). Tofu + fugu = Tofugu. "

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    It seems that I did guess correctly that the name tofugu is composed of "tofu" + "fugu". has an explanation as follows:「Tofugu」サイトは、そのままトフグと読みます。ロゴマークは豆腐とふぐが合わさった四角いフグです。Richard W confirms that from the Tofugu site itself. And Matt's suggestions about the shape and coloring are excellent.

  4. Matt said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

    It's noteworthy (especially in the context of this blog post) that 50%-66% of the portmanteau word "Tofugu", presumably carefully crafted to combine approachability and Japaneseness, is actually of Sino-Japanese origin (and the pronunciation of the "to" part is apparently different again from either!)

  5. K Chang said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 2:57 am

    There were THAT many Japanese loanwords in Chinese? Really?

    There's no doubt that Japan got their 百货店 as far back as 1904. However supposed shops in Taiwan were already using that term as far back as 1900, albeit not in the "department store" sense but merely multiple shops under one roof to increase the type of merchandise for "one-stop-shopping", sort of proto-department store / shopping mall. But it was under Japanese occupation at the time.

    Sort of make you wonder HOW did those words make it into Chinese? Was it mainly through Taiwan? Or foreign students in other countries or exchange students?

  6. Jin Defang said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:03 am

    As a relatively new student of Japanese, I was stymied by a translation, and spent at least an hour trying to figure out why it didn't make sense. I eventually discovered that the problem was my assuming I knew the meaning of a two character word then common in the Chinese media— "vanguard [of the proletariat]," Turns out that in Japanese it means "the point of an argument." A blinding flash of the obvious: both are derived from the ancient meaning "point of a spear."

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    @K Chang

    I don't know how many you mean by "THAT many", but the number of words that were borrowed into Chinese from Japanese during the late 19th and early 20th century was enormous. This is a subject that I've written about from time to time on Language Log.

    See, for example, "'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/15)

    For an important subset of Japanese borrowings in modern Chinese, see Victor H. Mair, "East Asian Round-Trip Words," Sino-Platonic Papers, 34 (October, 1992).

    The borrowing was mainly from Chinese overseas students (liúxuéshēng 留学生) and reformers who went directly to Japan. I'm surprised that you were unaware of that. The flood of Chinese students who studied in Japan is a very important part of modern Chinese intellectual history.

    For example, the enormously influential Liang Qichao went to Japan in 1898 and stayed there for 14 years, during which time he absorbed a tremendous amount of Japanese learning and Western learning through Japanese.

    Although I don't think that his mentor, Kang Youwei, ever stayed long in Japan (he did pass through there in 1898 on his way to Canada), he wished to remodel China after Meiji Japan.

    Starting from the early 20th century, notable Chinese who stayed in Japan for significant periods of time are obvious in this list from Wikipedia:

    Chen Kenmin, chef regarded as the "father of Sichuan cuisine" in Japan and father of Chen Kenichi
    Go Seigen, professional Go player
    Sun Yat-sen, politician
    Lu Xun, writer
    Qiu Jin, feminist
    Shosei Go, professional baseball player
    Chiang Kai-shek, politician and general
    Song Jiaoren, revolutionary and political figure, founder of Tongmenghui
    Jiang Baili, general
    Guo Moruo, poet and political figure
    He Yingqin, general
    Wang Jingwei, revolutionary and political figure
    Tai Chi-tao, political figure
    Chen Duxiu, co-founder of Chinese Communist Party
    Li Dazhao, co-founder of Chinese Communist Party
    Zhou Zuoren, writer
    Huang Fu, general and politician
    Chen Qimei, revolutionary
    Zhou Enlai, politician

    There are plenty of monographs and research articles on the subject of noteworthy late 19th-early 20th century Chinese who studied or resided in Japan if you wish to pursue them.

    To close this already overly long comment, I'll just mention a few dictionaries and studies that you might want to look at if you're interested in Japanese borrowings into Chinese:

    史有为, ed. 汉语外来词

    刘正[土+炎], 高名凯, 麦永乾, 史有为, ed., 汉语外来词词典

    史有为, 异文化的使者 — 外来词

    I can also strongly recommend the long-running series of studies on borrowings in modern Chinese that have appeared in the Chinese Language Advancement Bulletin 語文建設通訊 sponsored by the Chinese Language Society of Hong Kong 香港中國語文學會 and the two wonderful dictionaries of loanwords in recent Chinese compiled by Huáng Héqīng 黃河清 under the auspices of that society and with the collaboration of Yáo Déhuái 姚德懷.

  8. Jeff W said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

    The borrowing was mainly from Chinese overseas students (liúxuéshēng 留学生) and reformers who went directly to Japan.

    Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury covers this topic in the history of modern China with a chapter-by-chapter focus on some of the individuals involved: Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-Sen, Chen Duxiu, and Chiang Kai-shek. If you search exile on the official website for the book, you can see items dealing with some of the individuals in the context of their experiences in Japan.

  9. K Chang said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    Thanks for historical lesson. I majored in EE back then and my language skills are largely self taught / family taught and recent history was not one of the subjects I am familiar with, esp Asian history.

  10. Jim Breen said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

    I have read that the Japanese word for photograph (写真) has been adopted in Hong Kong with the meaning of pornography.

    I have also read that 相手 (Japanese for companion) means homosexual in Chinese.

    I can't confirm either of these.


  11. Fluxor said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 12:34 am

    I believe 写真(寫真), which originally meant 'portait painting' in Chinese, is one of those words that was exported to Japan, then re-imported back to into the sinosphere. Its popular usage with its re-imported meaning seemed to have started in Taiwan/HK beginning in probably the early 90s, then onto the mainland afterwards. This word appeared most commonly on nude photo books (寫真集 — photograph collection) that were done in the typical style of Japanese nude photo books at the time. One in particular, which featured a young HK starlet, got a lot of publicity when it was published — 李麗珍寫真集. Thus, the general public often, but not always, associate this re-imported word with nude/semi-nude/racy photography.

  12. Richard W said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 1:37 am

    @Jim Breen:
    As you know, Jim, in Japanese, 相手 also means, more broadly, "somebody with whom one is paired up" (to play tennis, to marry, to dance with, to have a conversation, etc.)

    In Chinese, 相手 can mean "to read somebody's palm". It's used that way in this example: 相手之法,先看掌型,次观八卦,掌有厚薄,指有长短,纹有深浅,…

    Here is a dictionary entry for 相手:

    In the Chinese word 相手, 相 means "to appraise by scrutinizing physical features" and 手 means "hand". In the Japanese word 相手, the meaning of 相 is more like "mutual" and 手 is "person".

    Incidentally, I see there is a crab called 相手蟹 (which I suppose is, literally, "palm reader crab").

    Interestingly, it seems to be related to a crab called "Chiromantes dehaani", and if I'm not mistaken, the name of the genus, "Chiromantes" is related to "chiromancy", which means "palm reading"! I wonder how these crabs got their name. Is there something about their appearance or behaviour that earned them their name?

  13. K Chang said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    Possible topic for Prof Mair: Any one know what is this "Wang ts Joa" writing system, allegedly a topolect writing system for Chinese?

    (I know this is not the right way, but how do we suggest topics around here?)

  14. K Chang said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    @Fluxor — Actually 寫真, literally "write real" means to paint a "real subject" instead of making something impressionistic, not merely portraiture. You can 寫真 landscape, building, animals and plants, and so on. The term had been use since the Sung Dynasty, according to historians.

    The Japanese meaning of "racy pictures in book form" was not started until 1971 when Kaga Mariko (かが まりこ) published a photobook that pictured her life… including various nudes, racy, and just pretty photos. Apparently it was banned due to showing of pubic hair. Then photographers tried to push the definition to the limit, and that's how it got linked with porn, and then underage girl porn (i.e. child porn), then Mapplethorpe's collection was published in Japan as "art photography" and that eventually lead to relaxation of the rule. The term then spread to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it became synonymous with celebrity photobook, not necessarily nude, but probably racy, and it does apply to both male and female (what we Yanks would call "beefcake" photos).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    From Miki Morita:

    The same author also developed an application for Japanese leaners called "wanikani," which is apparently the amalgamation of wani (alligator) and kani (crab).

    I think that these terms were created for their funky sound. Wanikani sounds almost like some Hawaiian term!

  16. Matt said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

    Interestingly, the direct antecedent of "shashin" in Japanese is not a concrete nominal sense like "portrait" but rather a more abstract one meaning "to reproduce (visually) something just as it is." There are related words like "ikiutsishi" (written 生き写し) and "shōutsushi" (written 生写し or 正写し or even 写真, not sure about etymology), all presumably nativised derivations of the basic 写真 concept from China.

    So when photographs were introduced, they weren't just called "portraits" (so to speak), they were originally called things like "exactly-from-life pictures" (写真絵) or similar, where 写真 refers to a technique or characteristic rather than an object per se, and it wasn't until later that this was abbreviated to 写真, making 写真 a noun meaning "photograph."

  17. Eidolon said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    @Kye there is indeed a larger corpus of shared kanji/hanzi/hanja words than there is of kanji/hanzi/hanja words with fundamentally different semantics, but it remains the case that one cannot read Japanese just by knowing how to read Chinese. Japanese is not fully written in kanji, after all. That said, literary Chinese as written by Japanese and Koreans in the past are readable by readers of literary Chinese, so there was a time when East Asia had a written lingua franca. In those cases, however, Japanese and Koreans were not writing their own language with kanji/hanja. They were simply writing literary Chinese, even though they didn't necessarily speak it. To this end, learning literary Chinese in the past had much greater value than it does today, as it did, in fact, allow one to read the writing of all three countries.

  18. Kye C Jooba Lee Kim said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    Prof. Federico Masini's book came out in 1993, two years after Prof. Mair's groundbreaking Sino-Platonic papers.

    The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and Its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898
    Issue 6 of Journal of Chinese linguistics: Monograph series
    Author Federico Masini
    Publisher Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1993
    Length 295 pages

  19. Eidolon said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    @Kye I cannot read hangul, but I can read both the Chinese words and the English words, so I'd say less than 2%.

    As to the translated article, I'd refer you to this recent article, which I think evaluates both Federico Masini's work and adds additional details to the research:

    According to the above article, which analyzes 882 Japanese loan words in Chinese, 84.4% of Japanese loan words are translations of Western terms. The author therefore concludes what you already said above: that Japanese loan words in Chinese are primarily the importation of Western ideas through Japan. He also determines that the vast bulk of the loan words are semantic translations via Chinese characters/classical Chinese words – that is to say, Sino-Japanese, rather than native Japanese.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    Dehuai Yao of the Chinese Language Society of Hong Kong suggested that I mention the monograph by Federico Masini, “The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and Its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898” in “Journal of Chinese Linguistics Series”. Translation into Chinese by Huang Heqing is available.

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