Japanese, Korean, Chinese… What’s the Difference?
By Kelsey Leuzinger
On November 7, 2014
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 races.
When you first live in Japan, it’s very important to understand the differences between Japanese and other Asian cultures. Once you can understand them better, you start to see why Japanese 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 to help you separate them in your mind, and hopefully gain more respect for each one individually.
I can’t think of a more extreme difference that I noticed between these races than their mannerisms in everyday life. While there are some similarities, it is easy to tell that someone was raised in Japan versus China, and sometimes Korea as well.
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 is 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 these two, 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 their speaking. I visited Hokkaido, Japan on vacation once, and began to see and hear Chinese tourists from a mile (er, kilometer) 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, on the other hand, don’t have the cultural custom of quietness in public spaces.
So, you’ll often see people in China and Hong Kong 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.
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 short shorts and skirts for women and tight pants for men. 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 pop Asian fashion that’s popular across the three countries. I was also told once that even despite the Japanese’s constant effort in never leaving the house without looking immaculate, the Korean culture putseven 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. When I visited Chinatown or even Hong Kong, I always noticed their t-shirt and jeans, which is something that seemed like an anomaly in Japan or with my Korean acquaintances.
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.” They do have a simple syllabic and vowel system similar to Japanese, but before learning more of the language it was always easy for me to tell the difference by the increased number of consonants.
Even though China’s languages are the origin for 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 out of a crowd based on their distinctions from Japanese or Korean.
After analyzing only these three differences 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.