Difference Between Kanji and Chinese

Kanji vs Chinese

To a westerner, Chinese and Japanese languages appear to be very similar. Learning these languages pose many conundrums among which the similarities between Chinese characters and Japanese characters remain uppermost. Some of the characters in both Chinese and Kanji are identical thus making it difficult for the students of these languages. However, despite overwhelming similarities, there are differences that will be highlighted in this article.


Chinese is not a single but a family of languages that are very similar and thus appear to be same to outsiders. Mandarin happens to be the most spoken among all Chinese languages with nearly a billion people speaking this language. In Chinese, the written language is made up of thousands of characters that are pictographic or logographic in nature and every character represents an object or a concept. These Chinese characters are called Hanzi which become Kanji when they are used in Japanese writing system. These Chinese characters are used in many other countries also such as Vietnam and Korea. Hanzi become hanja in Korean language while they are called han tu in Vietnamese language.

To a new student of Chinese, it may be very confusing when he sees tens of thousands of characters but, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that basically there are only a few thousand (3-4) characters with minor variations making up for the rest of the characters. If a student can master these many, he can very well understand the rest of the characters to master the Chinese language. Words in Chinese are made up of two or more characters.


Written Japanese makes use of different scripts. Kanji is one of them. It is mostly made up of characters from Chinese language that have been adopted and later adapted according to Japanese culture and traditions. It may surprise many people, but Japanese had no script of their own in ancient times. Japanese people came in touch with Chinese characters through imports from China in the form of coins, seals, letters, and swords. These objects had Chinese characters written on them that made no sense to the people of Japan at that time. However, Chinese emperors in 5th century sent a Korean scholar to Japan to explain the meanings of these characters. These Chinese characters were used to write Japanese texts. Gradually a system of writing called kanbun evolved that made heavy use of these Chinese characters. In later times, different scripts got developed in Japanese writing system but Kanji remains a prominent system of writing in Japanese till date.

Kanji vs Chinese

• Initially, Kanji had same characters as in Chinese, but with the passage of time, changes took place that got incorporated into the Japanese writing system and led to Kanji characters becoming different than the old Hanzi characters.

• Though many characters remains the same in kanji, their meaning is totally different from Chinese.

• Despite Japanese being totally different from Chinese, Chinese characters are used to write Japanese texts, which may be surprising for some.