Due to the logographic nature of the Japanese alphabets and their historical origins from China, Japanese people can make out the meaning of written Chinese text to a certain extent, however, spoken Chinese is virtually incomprehensible to Japanese speakers.
Can Japanese speakers understand spoken Chinese?
While Japanese has imported some vocabulary from Chinese, the way both languages are spoken is fundamentally different. Thus, the average Japanese person will not be able to comprehend a spoken conversation in Chinese.
This is because Chinese is a tonal language, while Japanese is largely monotone. (Although there are subtle differences in Japanese pitch accent when you start getting more advanced.) Chinese speech is based around the usage of 4 major tones. This system is known in Chinese as pinyin, and enables Chinese speakers to easily distinguish between homophones. Because of this, the pronunciation of Chinese words is fundamentally different than Japanese words even regarding words that Japan imported from China. Japanese vocabulary and grammar was constructed in a way that does not have a way to distinguish easily between homophones in speech. For this reason, it is very difficult for Japanese speakers to understand anything in Chinese, even when using similar vocabulary.
Can Japanese speakers understand written Chinese?
Due to the logographic nature of the Japanese alphabets and their historical origins from China, Japanese people can make out the meaning of written Chinese text to a certain extent. In many cases, Japanese speakers can make out the meaning of characters but not their pronunciation.
Logographic? What’s that? Think about the character below. What does this mean? How do you pronounce it? It entirely depends on the context. It could be a ‘number sign’, ‘pound’ or it could be a hashtag, etc. This is somewhat similar to how Chinese kanji characters are read.
So why can Japanese people understand the meaning of characters, but not their pronunciation? Before having had any contact with China, Japan up to that point had no written alphabet. The Chinese alphabet (known as Kanji in Japanese. Literally means Chinese characters) was created roughly 3,300 years ago during the Shang dynasty. As China would become the central most prominent power in Asia, and would form the backbone of many Asian civilizations, Kanji would eventually migrate across the continent and beyond. It is believed that Kanji character were brought to via Chinese immigrants through the Korean peninsula to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th century. This created a number of really interested phenomenon, because Japanese as a language was very established at this time. While there wasn’t a formal writing system across Japan, part of which is because of Japan’s history of civil-conflict and divided nation states, Japanese has a very established unique linguistic culture and history that had flourished independently up to this point from the influence of China.
This created some pretty fascinating divergences linguistically. The Chinese language was imported into the language of Japanese which was in many ways incompatible with Chinese both linguistically and culturally. After all, I did mention that Chinese is tonal while Japanese isn’t, which is an absolutely massive linguistic difference. These differences would lead to the division of traditional Japanese and newly imported Chinese pronunciation that is still extremely relevant in modern Japanese today.
Japanese people should be able to understand Chinese vocabulary…right? About on-yomi and kun-yomi
The pillar of this division can be seen with utilization of two separation versions of pronunciation for most words. The original Japanese pronunciation for words is called the kun-yomi, and the pronunciation that is based off of ancient Chinese pronunciation is known as the on-yomi.
There exists a problem…
The Japanese alphabet doesn’t contain the same sounds as Chinese, so many of these on-yomi original Chinese pronunciations were converted to their closest possible equivalency in the Japanese pronunciation. For example, the word for library in Japanese is toshokan, which is an on-yomi word that is derived from the Chinese túshū guǎn. While the pronunciation between these two words is…similar, enough of these minor differences have added up throughout history to create increasing more divergent forms of communication.
You can see this dynamic in the use of Kanji as well! One of my favorite examples is how the usage of the word tegame (手紙) has evolved from it’s Chinese origins. In Japanese logic…
手 (hand) + 紙 (paper)
= 手紙 (Letter)
As in a letter that you mail. Seems reasonably self-explanatory right? You could maybe event guess that, right? Well…in Chinese they also use these two character together. They use 手紙 too! Do you know what it means?
In Chinese 手紙 means toilet paper…because you grab the paper…with your hand…to wipe your butt!
Ahhh…TP! The harbinger of doubt! Sanitary!…sanitary??? and educational!!!
Seems pretty self-explanatory right? I think this example demonstrates the point that no matter how close to language may appear to be, differences in linguistic nuance taken hold over thousands of years can compound themselves resulting in often gargantuan levels of change.
Japanese and Chinese have diverged over time, and Chinese especially has changed dramatically in the past century.
Nowadays, taking a look at any language settings on virtually every device will give you two options regarding mandarin Chinese; Simplified or Traditional. The Chinese government, as in the People Republic of China government, has implemented several measures in the past 50 years to ensure a higher literacy rate across all of continental China. One of these measures was to simplify the 10’s of thousands of Chinese character’s required to memorize if one is so understand most written Chinese texts. China has taken significant effort to reduce the number of stroke’s in the majority of characters, and has achieved a more easily memorized set of characters for the population to learn. At least, that is the theory. When I personally dabbled in memorizing some simplified Chinese characters, I found their logic to be somewhat inconsistent to the rules traditional characters had followed, and thus, the Japanese side of my brain would short circuit at the sight of any simplified characters.
But wait…there’s more…
China isn’t the only country that speaks Chinese. Taiwan (how dare he call them a country, China thinks to themselves…) was established as a nation after the democratic nation after the Republic of China (which was a democratic power) was defeated by the CCP, or Chinese Communist Party in 1949. With the Republic of China exiled to Taiwan, the nation became a democratic power, and Taiwan and the-then China of 1949 would begin to diverge further and further apart. The point being, Taiwan uses (supposedly more complicated) traditional Chinese characters, while China uses a new simplified alphabet. This makes things more complicated for Japanese speakers.
Can Japanese speakers understand both simplified and traditional Chinese?
Japanese took influence from early Chinese characters which are much more similar to the traditional Chinese characters that Taiwan and other Chinese speaking countries use today. China simplified their list of characters beginning in 1949. These characters are different not only in their logic, but also in their overall appearance. However, Japan imported the original Chinese characters, meaning the more complicated one’s. For this reason, it is actually easier to read texts written in traditional Chinese because of similarities to Japanese Kanji characters, despite them being more complicated.
Thus, a Japanese speaker would be able to read more Chinese characters in Taiwan, for example, than they would be able to understand in modern China, because Taiwan still uses traditional Chinese characters. However, the tonal nature of mandarin Chinese is vastly different from Japanese, so Japanese speakers likely would not be able to understand very much at all if they were to listen to a conversation in Chinese. The characters were traditionally similar, are diverging, but spoken Japanese and Chinese was never similar aside from some borrowed pronunciation. Even these pronunciations were altered heavily to match the Japanese tone’s and natural pronunciation of the time, and have continued to diverge farther and farther apart over time.
So, if you are a Chinese speaker and want to communicate with a Japanese speaker and you both can’t speak English, it would probably be best for you to try to write everything down.