Until I lived in Asia, I can honestly say I didn’t know the major differences between Japan, Korea, and China. I realize that’s extremely narrow-minded of me but since living in Japan, I’ve grown a lot because of having to make such a drastic change in my mindset about these countries.
However, after talking to family and friends in America as well as my ESL students around the world, I’ve come to understand that I am not alone in my confusion between the three countries.
When you first live in Japan, it’s very important to understand the differences between Japanese and other Asian cultures, as well as what it’s like for Asian foreigners who live in Japan.
Once you can understand the different culture better, you start to see why people in Japan live life the way they do; and it, in turn, makes living in Japan a much more fulfilling experience.
Here are just a few of the many differences I noticed between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean culture from my perspective as an American living in Japan. I’d like to add that these are purely my observations that I understand come from my own upbringing and a world view built by a particular experience. It’s not my intention to judge or promote stereotypes, I’m simply sharing my thoughts—and I hope that you can too in the comments at the end of the article.
Japanese vs Korean vs Chinese mannerisms
I can’t think of a more extreme difference that I noticed between Japanese, Korean and Chinese people than their mannerisms in everyday life. While there are some similarities, for me it is easy to tell that someone was raised in Japan versus China, and sometimes Korea as well.
When it comes to gestures, bowing is one aspect of each culture that most assume is the same, but in fact, it has evolved in each country over the years. In Japan and Korea, a slight bow when greeting each other and a deeper bow in more formal situations are still considered appropriate.
However, in China, the handshake has actually become a common greeting, with only a slight head nod rather than the traditional bow.
I noticed this a little in my experiences with Chinese people, but especially with the Korean and Japanese. Even in my Skype lessons with the latter, we often end the call with a bow out of respect, which is definitely unique from my other students.
Another mannerism that I noticed in everyday life was the volume and tone of speaking. I visited Hokkaido in northern Japan on vacation once and began to see and hear Chinese tourists from a mile away each time I got on a train. Upon entering a train or other public transportation, Japanese and Koreans typically remain eerily silent and even keep their laughter to a minimum. Chinese people, on the other hand, don’t seem to have the cultural custom of quietness in public spaces.
So, you’ll often see people in China laughing and raising their voices, which is a stark contrast to Japan and Korea. I’m sure this has something to do with their long history of such held traditions, but that would take an entire course in Asian history, so I digress.
How does fashion differ between Japanese, Korean and Chinese people?
When considering their appearance in everyday life, fashion between the three countries varies somewhat as well. Modern-day Japanese men and women typically prefer subtle hues, often with dresses and skirts for women and tight pants for men. The Japanese brand Uniqlo, for example, represents pretty well the large spectrum of the daily Japanese outfit. Also, they’re known for their kawaii (cute) culture even in fashion, which is one way that you can tell a Japanese person from other Asians.
Koreans, on the other hand, are known to choose brighter colors more often than the Japanese but still bring in a similar element of the Asian vibe that’s popular across the three countries. You can have a pretty good idea of the bold Korean fashion with the makeup artist Pony and the street fashion photographer Kyunghun Kim.
I was also told once that even despite the Japanese’s constant effort in never leaving the house without looking immaculate, the Korean culture puts even more emphasis on both this aspect as well as brand name items.
In China, fashion varies greatly in urban and rural settings, but overall they take a more Western approach to their clothing and accessories. In my interactions with Chinese people, I always noticed their t-shirt and jeans, which is something that seemed like an anomaly in Japan or with my Korean acquaintances. Check out Mr. Bags or Becky Li, two of the most famous Chinese influencers, if you’re curious about China fashion trends.
What are the main differences between the Japanese, Korean and Chinese languages?
When you start to recognize the differences between the three languages, things will start to make more sense to you about their distinct cultures. To me, a person’s language and way of speaking says a lot about their culture; and you can really learn a lot about the person’s background when you start paying attention to how they speak.
If you have studied Japanese, you know that the entire language consists of only 5 vowel sounds and about 100 different syllables with very few variations. “A I U E O” becomes totally clear even to the untrained ear when listening to a Japanese person speak. In addition, each Japanese word either ends in a vowel or “n,” making it easy to pick up on Japanese even if you haven’t learned the first word.
Korean, on the other hand, can end words in consonants other than “n” and have a total of 10 different vowels and 19 consonants. They do have a simple syllabic and vowel system similar to Japanese with an alphabet called “Hangeul” which makes it much easier to read and write. But before learning more of the language it was always easy for me to tell the difference by the increased number of consonants—here 14.
From a purely grammatical point though, Korean and Japanese share many similar sentence structures and words.
Even though China’s languages share vocabulary similarities with Japanese and Korean, the spoken language seems like it could not be more different. Not only does Mandarin, the official standard for China, contain multiple vowel sounds for each English equivalent, but their mannerisms and personality come into play as well. They seem to raise and lower their intonation and tone increasingly, and combine consonants where Japanese or Korean wouldn’t.
Without dissecting this country’s incredibly detailed and historic languages, it’s safe to say you can still pick a Chinese person speaking out of a crowd based on their distinctions from Japanese or Korean.
Respect for the elders is present across all three societies
Something that is less emphasized in the West, but a common socio-cultural element across almost every Asian country is their very strong sense of respect for the older generation.
Filial piety is indeed a very important element of the Chinese Confucianism that spread up to Korea. In Japan, we even celebrate the respect-for-the-Aged day, 敬老の日, “keirou no hi”, as a way to catch up with our elders sometimes miles away from their children and grandchildren.
The respect for the elderly can also be found in the language with “the levels of speech.” While it is not true anymore in Chinese due to the variety of cultural revolutions the country faced, it is still very important that you respect those levels of speech and honorific titles in Korean and Japanese. Where you would usually speak casually to your grandma back home, you will have to be careful about choosing a specific honorific title with a specific verbal form if you want to speak to a Korean or Japanese elder.
The Japanese “Kohai-Senpai” system in the work environment—also found in the Korean society—is something that can be linked to this respect for the elders, as well as the love for linear hierarchy.
After analyzing only these four differences and similarities between the cultures, it’s easy to start to see the uncountable differences between the three countries. So, before you quickly assume “Japanese,” “Korean,” or “Chinese,” take a step back and remember that each person comes from a unique country that is their own. They each have their own culture, an incredibly long history, and deserve to be distinguished because of it.
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