Can Japanese read Chinese, and vice versa?

« previous post | next post »

In The Japan Times (9/12/16), Mark Schreiber writes:  "Can Japanese speakers really read Chinese? It depends on what you mean by 'read'".

Jim Breen comments:

Not a bad article. There certainly is a perception among some Japanese that they can "read" Chinese, but I suspect it's not as strong as the perception among some Chinese that Japanese is merely a Chinese dialect (and where they differ it's the Japanese getting it wrong).

Some Japanese instructors at Monash said that quite a lot of international students from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia enrolled in Japanese as an elective, thinking it would be easy since it was just a dialect of Chinese. Some skipped most classes (after all they knew it already), and when they did come argued with the instructors (who persisted in getting it "wrong".) Needless to say quite a few flunked and the word got around that it wasn't an easy option after all.

The term M. mìyuè / J. mitsugetsu 蜜月 ("honeymoon") is alive and well in Japanese, although much less common than either shinkon ryokō 新婚旅行 ("honeymoon [trip]") or hanemūn ハネムーン. It's often used in compounds like mitsugetsu jidai 蜜月時代 to describe periods of good relations between countries, where of course shinkon ryokō 新婚旅行 is hardly appropriate. M. bōlí / J. hari 玻璃 ("glass") is not unknown in Japanese, but it's a bit old-fashioned, and the usual word is garasu ガラス.

That said, a good knowledge of hanzi gets you off to a flying start, at least with written Japanese. People I know working in JFL teaching in Japan have commented that the students from the PRC are really in a different league.

And how well can Japanese read Chinese?  Not very well, I would say.  The languages are quite different in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and practically every other respect.  Being able to recognize several hundred or even a couple of thousand kanji will not get you very far when it comes to making sense of whole passages.  Even if you've studied kanbun*, it won't help you very much in reading modern Chinese texts.

[*From Wikipedia:

Kanbun (漢文, "Chinese writing") is a method of annotating Classical Chinese so that it can be read in Japanese that was used from the Heian period to the mid-20th century. Much Japanese literature was written in this style, and it was the general writing style for official and intellectual works throughout the period. As a result, Sino-Japanese vocabulary makes up a large portion of the lexicon of Japanese, and much classical Chinese literature is accessible to Japanese readers in some semblance of the original. The corresponding system in Korean is gugyeol (口訣/구결).]

Jim remarks:

I feel kanbun in Japanese education is a bit like Latin in British,education — at some stage you have to do it but everyone forgets it.

How will this all play out in 2020 when the Olympics are held in Japan, and there will be large numbers of attendees from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, and other Asian countries where Chinese characters are in evidence?    One thing they need to be made aware of right away, at the basic level of familiarizing oneself with hanzi / kanji / hanja vocabulary, is that there are an awful lot of faux amis out there.  One of the most notorious is M.  / J.  手紙, which means "letter" in Japanese, but means "toilet paper" in Chinese.  See here for other examples.



27 Comments

  1. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 2:58 am

    At a conference in 2006 in China, a colleague from Japan bought a probably semi-popular book on the Cretaceous flora & fauna of Liáoníng – feathered dinosaurs & stuff – and assured me he could read it. I suppose in this particular genre the sentences don't actually get very complex, and there's no nuanced storyline to keep track of, so it's mostly a matter of vocabulary, and if he knows enough kanji he should understand a great deal…

  2. A. said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 3:12 am

    I suppose in this particular genre the sentences don't actually get very complex, and there's no nuanced storyline to keep track of, so it's mostly a matter of vocabulary

    Yeah, that's not particularly unlikely. I am Italian and am trying to read Maltese Wikipedia articles about academic topics I'm familiar with and I'm understanding most of them, even though I would most likely not understand a damn thing about a colloquial everyday conversation.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 3:16 am

    I am Italian and am trying to read Maltese Wikipedia articles

    That's actually a good analogy!

  4. RP said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 3:23 am

    "I feel kanbun in Japanese education is a bit like Latin in British education"

    It's been some decades since a significant proportion of British pupils learnt any Latin.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 5:40 am

    @RP. Yes, I meant to make that Latin reference in the past tense. Given the ossification of Japanese education policy I suspect it will be decades before kanbun fades away.

  6. Vanya said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    Being able to recognize several hundred or even a couple of thousand kanji will not get you very far when it comes to making sense of whole passages.

    I learned Japanese first, and when I first got to Taiwan I could fairly easily puzzle out menus, street signs, maps, shop signs, many advertisements, and even the occasional newspaper headline and magazine cover. I could "read" Chinese probably in the same sense that an English speaker with no Italian can "read" Italian. At least I never felt lost or overwhelmed in a hanzi-only environment the way many Americans often seem to. I suspect that is what many Japanese are thinking of when they say they can "read" Chinese.

    It was also largely my impression when I lived in Japan (in the 80s) that the average Japanese person had fairly little interest in Chinese literature or culture, and it may be some Japanese really did (or do) just assume they could read Chinese if they wanted to, without having ever tested that assumption. But one topic, along the lines of David's comment about genre vocabulary, might be Buddhist religious texts. Is there enough common religious vocabulary that a Japanese Buddhist can make sense of an older Chinese religious text? I could see a Japanese Buddhist being convinced that she can "read Chinese" if she has only minimal exposure to other Chinese texts.

  7. Jonathan said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 11:22 am

    David Marjanović: That reminds me of when a professor in college assigned Hausdorff's Grundzüge der Mengenlehre to us in German, with the cheerfully helpful: "The German is so clear you don't need to speak it."

  8. Anonymous Coward said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

    Most chanted Japanese Buddhist texts are in Chinese anyway.

  9. Eidolon said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    It's unlikely that mainland Chinese can read any significant passage in Japanese due to the prevalence of katakana, hiragana, etc., the existence of many false matches, and the fact that the Japanese use traditional characters with their kanji, so I am not sure as to why they would have a large advantage with respect to learning Japanese.

    As for the other way around, Japanese well-educated in kanji can probably read traditional Chinese texts, but that is because they specifically learned to do it, and not because their spoken language gives them an advantage in reading it. Most Japanese, however, have not taken the time to do so, and would have just as much trouble reading Chinese as Chinese do Japanese.

  10. V said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    The first sentence in the linked article states 'If you haven't at some point been told, "We Japanese can read Chinese," you're probably in a small minority.'

    Where are all the people who are supposedly saying this?? I lived in Japan for a couple of years, returned to the US recently and maintain contact with folks there, and have never heard any Japanese person (who hadn't studied Chinese) assert that they can read it. If anything, I've only heard people comment on how hard it seems like it must be, and how their eyes would glaze over because there are too many kanji.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

    @V

    I agree with you. My Japanese friends — including those who are quite learned — always tell me that they cannot read Chinese and don't even try to pick their way through Chinese texts to get the gist. They seem as willing to try to read Chinese as Americans who don't know any German would be to read German texts.

  12. Jenny Chu said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    The first time I went to Japan, I had a similar experience to Prof. Mair's but in reverse. I knew some (Traditional) Chinese characters, learned in Hong Kong, and recognized many of them in Japan. Thus I also did not feel particularly overwhelmed by foreignness, and was proud to "puzzle out" several texts.

    But: because I had always had the impression of Japan (formed by US popular culture) as uniquely baffling/inscrutable, I was pleasantly surprised, and this bolstered my impression of being "able to read". I anticipated being utterly confounded, and was not as mystified as I thought I would be. So, how positive the answer to "How much can you read?" ends up is also a matter of expectation. "Well, it turns out I really could piece together quite a few words, much more than I expected!" vs. "I could only read menus and newspaper headlines, but not really psychological novels, not nearly as much as I expected."

  13. JS said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    Reverse experience from V: never, ever heard a Chinese student who thought Japanese would be easy to learn as a result of its being "a dialect of Chinese"… or that it would be easy at all, really, aside from the character learning aspect. In fact, in my experience, the impression that Chinese and Japanese are similar languages is exclusively Western; natives are much more invested in their differentness. And their hardness, of course, which I would suggest is the mindset underlying the impressions of the Monash instructors.

  14. Elessorn said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    Chinese speakers unquestionably have a massive edge in learning Japanese. As do Korean speakers, for different but overlapping reasons.

    Because functional literacy in a Japanese environment requires Kanji proficiency, being fluent in characters is an obvious huge boost. As Jenny Chu implied, affective filters of all sorts hugely influence the individual experience, of course, and some people's eyes will inevitably glaze over at anything less than perfect comprehension while others can take in stride the initial flood of disorientation beyond which a surprising amount of comprehension is possible. This is true even for tourists– when it comes to actually trying to learn Japanese, the advantage native control of any variant of the character system gives you is decisive. There is no comparing the ease of character acquisition and retention, which is of course one of the heaviest burdens on all other learners. (Of course there are interference effects, especially given all the multiple Japanese readings of kanji and kanji phrases, but the advantages dwarf the disadvantages.) The simplified/traditional differences, moreover, not to mention false friends, are definitely oversold: the proper way to think of these are as barriers to *effortless* comprehension. Any literate Chinese speaker actually motivated to study Japanese will not find them a huge problem.

    These, however, are in a sense environmental advantages, and in my experience not in the long term as helpful as the Chinese speaker's leg-up in acquiring vocabulary. The Sino-Japanese element is so pervasive in modern Japanese that without any effort, Chinese speakers from the start have an intuitive grasp of the word-formation principles (structure, roots, etc.) of a massive portion of the Japanese lexicon. It's difficult to convey the extent of how helpful this is, but it's something like what an English speaker's advantage in learning Spanish or French might be if (a) they had a far more thorough active understanding of Latin roots (even without specialist training), (b) Latin derivatives accounted for an even larger portion of English vocabulary, and ( c) the phonetic shapes of Latinate derivatives were much more standardized and predictable.

    Interestingly enough, this latter advantage is definitely shared by Korean speakers, even without the characters. And given their own language's far greater similarity to Japanese, they tend to, anecdotally, have the greatest advantage–on average–in becoming competent *speakers* of the language.

  15. Doc Rock said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

    In 1964 in Intensive Japanese at the then Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, we were taught that 玻璃 ("glass") was read garasu ガラス.

  16. Bathrobe said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 4:44 am

    I've come across Chinese (on Quora) who believed that Japanese is a wayward dialect of Chinese. I've also met (Southern) Chinese who thought of Vietnamese as just another Chinese dialect that they could pick up from casual conversation. I don't know whether this is a completely misguided belief or something that might actually hold some water.

    The difficulty posed by kanji differences between Chinese and Japanese is, indeed, way overblown, although glitches are possible. For example, 芸 gei, usually 'skill, art' in Japanese, and 芸 yún 'rue, a plant; library' in Simplified Chinese. Another is 叶 in the verb 叶う kanau 'be fulfilled, come true' in Japanese, and 叶 'leaf' in Simplified Chinese.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:05 am

    Having finally read the article, I notice that the examples of Chinese given appear to be from Taiwan.

    'Subway' in Chinese is rendered as 地下火车 dìxià huǒchē. On the Mainland, at least, the usual term is 地铁 dìtiě.

    The normal term on the Mainland for an emergency exit is usually 紧急出口 jǐnjí chūkǒu or 安全出口 ānquán chūkǒu rather than 太平门 tàipíngmén.

    As for 写真 xiězhēn, it is definitely found on the Mainland, not in the meaning 'photo' but as a borrowing from Japanese with a slightly altered meaning. It refers to personalised photo collections of the type that photographic studios create for customers as a memento of a certain time in their life (baby years, time of youth, etc.).

  18. jo lumley said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    Broadly I must agree with Jim Breen in the main post and Elessorn in the comments that literate Chinese speakers have certain advantages when learning Japanese reading and writing, namely knowing lots of kanji and (crucially) being very used to memorising characters. More precisely, in Japanese language education the terms often used are 'kanji-using' 漢字圏 and 'non-kanji using' 非漢字圏 — the former is obviously not limited to the PRC, nor to Chinese language necessarily. There are certainly ongoing questions about how to (or whether to) teach these two groups together, particularly at early stages. Obviously, 漢字圏 learners do not need the same level of instruction about stroke order and direction, and memorisation techniques for characters that non-漢字圏 learners ideally do need.
    Perhaps a bit simplistically, I have heard it said more than a few times that although non-漢字圏 Japanese learners struggle with characters, 漢字圏 Japanese learners struggle with copious (English) loanwords in katakana. I wonder whether the burden is equal. This does of course rest on the assumption that non-漢字圏 learners are proficient in English already, which is not necessarily the case.

  19. liuyao said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

    Kanji-rich Japanese might be readable/intelligible as much as written Cantonese is to Mandarin (or other topolect) speakers. In fact, the kanji stand out from the text more clearly, and one could piece together the meaning without worrying about the non-kanji part (plus everyone knows the ubiquitous の). Not knowing Japanese or any Romance language, I found Japanese more readable than French or Italian, especially when it comes to street signs. I agree with Jenny Chu's comment that to say it's readable or not has a lot to do with one's expectation.

    I wouldn't say traditional characters pose much of a problem; rather the Japanese simplified ones, such as 仏 and 沢, may give them a hard time at first, but I bet they could figure them out in context very quickly.

    Speaking about how Chinese tourists would experience, it is already happening in large numbers that we don't need to wait until 2020. In four years time, smartphone (or headwear?) translations may be sufficiently advanced that even Westerners may feel comfortable reading street signs.

  20. Train in vain said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

    I wonder if anyone is going to define "read" here. I understand that Chinese characters are not purely pictographic, but let's say for the moment that a character equals a concept, say, "bird." If a Chinese speaker recognizes that character and "reads" the Chinese word for bird, and a Japanese speaker does the same but in Japanese, have they both "read" the character? My non-expert understanding is that there are a lot of characters that retain similar meanings in the Japanese and Chinese character sets, but that is not the same thing as saying that they point to the same words. Both might understand the character for "bird," but would not understand the spoken words for "bird." It seems to me that many of the claims I've read for mutual intelligibility of Chinese writing systems, internationally and intra-nationally, do not distinguish between understanding the same concept and actually having the same word.

  21. Chris Kern said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

    I think the viewpoint is mistaken that identifying words in a text constitutes "reading" at any level. Knowing words in a sentence but having no information about the grammar is not reading, nor is it "getting the gist", as you sometimes hear. At most you might be able to say what the topic of the writing is. Contextual information combined with the characters might get you farther but now we're getting beyond any advantage that is inherent to Chinese characters.

    For instance, in today's featured Japanese wikipedia article on Beryllium, there is the phrase "原子量は約9.012である". If all you understand is that 原子量 means "atomic weight," you can guess that 9.012 is the atomic weight even though theoretically the sentence could be saying "9.012 is not the atomic weight." But that has nothing to do with similarity between Japanese and Chinese.

  22. Chris Kern said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    I think the viewpoint is mistaken that identifying words in a text constitutes "reading" at any level. Knowing words in a sentence but having no information about the grammar is not reading, nor is it "getting the gist", as you sometimes hear. At most you might be able to say what the topic of the writing is. Contextual information combined with the characters might get you farther but now we're getting beyond any advantage that is inherent to Chinese characters.

    For instance, in today's featured Japanese wikipedia article on Beryllium, there is the phrase "原子量は約9.012である". If all you understand is that 原子量 means "atomic weight," you can guess that 9.012 is the atomic weight even though theoretically the sentence could be saying "9.012 is not the atomic weight." But that has nothing to do with similarity between Japanese and Chinese. (And in fact the 約 means "approximately," which might not be communicated — I don't know enough Chinese to know whether it's used that way.)

  23. Andrew said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    I was wondering about that 地下火车 dìxià huǒchē business. The usual term for "metro" in Taiwan is 捷運 jiéyùn, at least in proper names like the Taipei Metro 台北捷運 Táiběi Jiéyùn, but I'm sure 地鐵 dìtiĕ would also be understood. On the other hand I've never heard 地下火车dìxià huǒchē which sounds almost childish to me, but maybe I just haven't heard the variety of Mandarin in which this is used.

    "(And in fact the 約 means "approximately," which might not be communicated — I don't know enough Chinese to know whether it's used that way.)"

    It is also used in this way in Chinese in expressions like 大約 dàyuē "approximately," though I would think this character pops up more frequently in its meaning of 'invite' or 'make an appointment.'

  24. K. Chang said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 5:28 pm

    Personally, I think written Chinese and written Japanese are even FURTHER apart than written Spanish vs. written Portuguese.

  25. liuyao said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 7:47 pm

    No doubt that 約 would be understood by Chinese to mean "approximately" or "circa" next to a numerical value or a date.

    I took a glance at the Japanese wikipedia home page, but to my disappointment I wasn't able to read much. It wasn't kanji-rich enough. To put it to empirical tests may be problematic because one could always select sentences that are completely unreadable, so I thought a Japanese news site or wikipedia would be good. (Same the other way around. Would be good if someone could self test and report here.)

  26. V said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

    @liuyao, as (nonnative but decently proficient) Japanese reader who knows no Chinese, I took a shot at the first two sentences of today's featured article from zh.wikipedia, setting it to traditional characters because I figured that would be more similar to kanji on balance:

    熱帶風暴馬可是1990年大西洋颶風季期間唯一在美國登陸的熱帶氣旋,也是該季的第13個獲得命名的風暴。馬可由10月9日古巴沿北岸的一股冷心低氣壓形成,之後向西北方向移動並穿越東墨西哥灣。

    This is about a tropical storm named 馬可 (no idea what this is a transcription of) which was the only (唯一) storm to land (? 登陸) on the USA in 1990, and was the 13th named storm (? 命名的風暴) of the year. On October 9th, a cold front (?? don't know what 冷心低氣壓形 is) formed along (沿) the north coast of 古巴 (assume that's also a transcription of some place name), and moved northwest to cross (越) the eastern gulf of Mexico.

    So I think I actually got most of it, but I suspect that my comprehension of an "average" Chinese text would be lower than this. I also suspect that this was directly translated from English wikipedia as it's about an event in the US, so it may have an "English-y" structure that unfairly helped me.

  27. Bathrobe said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

    冷心 (cold heart) illustrates one of the problems involved in using the term "reading". In fact, it means just what it says, "cold-hearted". A Japanese reader would (presumably) recognise that this was some kind of "cold-hearted low pressure system", although unless they were experts they would have trouble saying what this would be called in Japanese. The English term is "cold-core low", which you also wouldn't know unless you were an expert.

    For the same kind of system, Japanese uses the term 寒冷低気圧 (cold low air pressure), which it appears is normally rendered in English as "cold low". For "cold core" in a meteorological context, Japanese does have the technical term 寒気核 (cold air core), but this isn't normally used to describe low pressure systems.

    Essentially, 冷心 is "readable" for its general meaning by a Japanese speaker, but they would have to be a meteorologist to have a deeper understanding of the technical context, including the correct terminological equivalent.

RSS feed for comments on this post