The other day I was watching the latest “Wheel of the Worst” episode by Red Letter Media and the topic of trying to tell if text is in Japanese or Chinese came up. Here’s a look:
I actually recommend the whole episode, it was one of my favorites!
Anyway, so the question was: is the text on this VHS box written in Japanese or Chinese or something else?
The answer is that it’s Japanese, but I can understand why they (and others) wouldn’t know how to tell the difference. So here are two super-quick ways for the average Joe to tell if text is Japanese or Chinese.
The first way is to look for this little guy:
If you see this の (pronounced “no”) in a bunch of text, 99.9% of the time it’s going to be Japanese. So look for this character! For example, in the VHS box image above, you can see a couple of these の characters, indicating that the text is Japanese.
Here are some examples from games – try to look for the Japanese のs:
If you can’t find a の, then the next trick is to look for “simple and curvy” writing mixed in with the “Chinese-looking” writing. The の is a curvy and simple character, for example, but Japanese uses a lot of others too, like: う し ち つ ひ め ん and more. So If you see any curvy and simple writing like this, it’s a really good sign that it’s Japanese text.
Here are some more game examples of simple, curvy text mixed in with Chinese-looking writing:
It’s not as easy as the の test, but it’s not too hard once you know what to look for in general.
The confusion between Chinese and Japanese is understandable – it partially stems from the fact that Japanese imported the Chinese writing system a really, really long time ago. But Japan went on to create a few more writing systems of its own, so modern Japanese mixes several types of writing. The tricks above are ways to spot those other writing systems without actually knowing them.
Keep in mind that these are just basic tests, though. If there are no のs and there are no simple, curvy characters, then it could still be either Chinese or Japanese – you’ll just need to know more about the languages to differentiate them at that point.
So now that you’re armed with those two tips, let’s put it to the test! Try to figure out which of these is Japanese and which is Chinese:
Now let’s leave the realm of games and expand our horizons a bit:
Now let’s just go to actual real-life:
Could you figure them all out?
Okay, so let’s take a look at that Red Letter Media pic again:
There are a lot of straight, complex-looking characters in there… but you can also see のs in there, plus lots of simple curvy characters mixed in with it all, which indicates it’s Japanese.
In summary, this is all meant to be a super-simple litmus test – I’ve skipped over lots of technicalities (including the multiple types of Chinese writing), avoided explaining exceptions (long kanji compounds, the Chinese-adopted の, etc.), and oversimplified everything (not even mentioning Korean, etc.). If you can already tell the difference between the languages, that’s cool; these tips are more for people who have no knowledge of any of the languages, like the Red Letter Media guys. Still, I’m sure there are much better tips than what I’ve suggested here, so if you have any suggestions of your own please share them in the comments!
Anyway, I hope this helps clear things up at least a little for some people. And the next time you’re at an Asian grocery store or restaurant or whatever, try putting these tips to the test and see if you can identify the languages! Unless you already know the differences, of course 😛