7 Differences Between China and Japan that Travelers Should be Aware of

29 May

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Note: The following is not an anaylsis of political or government differences, and it is not a judgement of which country is better to visit or live in. These are just some differences a traveler to the region will likely notice if they visit both countries.

Historically, orientalist tendencies in Western Literature, Art, and Media have lumped East Asia together, as if it’s one, giant exotic weird country, with a culture that encapsulates everything the West is not. But as anyone who is from Asia, has studied it, or has visited it will know, this perception is racist baloney. These days, Asia has regained its place on the global political stage, after many of its countries struggled economically during the 20th century. My prediction is that more and more Westerners will become at least aware that there are major differences between Asian countries and their cultures. But it is important not just to acknowledge cultural differences, but to know what they historically have been, are today, and to be aware of why they exist, and understand how these differences can be mis-interpreted or misrepresented through the western lens.

As a western backpacker visiting this continent in the year 2016, there is no way I can ever understand every cultural difference between or within Asian countries. But what I can offer is my observations that other travelers have observed too, and my thoughts on how tourists should understand these differences. It is not just about knowing what differences and mannerisms you’ll observe in each country, it is about how a respectful visitor understands these mannerisms and their differences, and how tourists can be respectful –  And I’ll start with some observable cultural differences that travelers should be aware of between China and Japan.

1: Languages and Language Barriers

While Chinese and Japanese share a similar writing system made up of thousands of characters, the languages sound extremely different from one another when spoken, even if a few of the Chinese-influenced words are pronounced somewhat similarly in Japanese. So let’s break down the major differences between Chinese and Japanese:

Chinese is tonal. The tone at which a word is spoken (think the difference between saying “yes!” and “yes?”), affects the actual meaning of the word. This takes some getting used to, and it is often difficult for westerners to learn.

Japanese is not tonal, and emphasis on any particular syllable is avoided. The closest thing to a tone or emphasis that Japanese-speakers give certain syllables a different subtle “pitch” depending on dialect, if a word is the same as another word. (In the Tokyo dialect, for example, the word “Ima” meaning “now” has a slight downward pitch at the “i” , differing it from “Ima” meaning “western-style living room”). Foreigners who attempt to learn Japanese shouldn’t worry too much about pitch, you will probaly be understood.

Chinese has one writing system of thousands of chracters, meaning different things. It takes longer for westerners to learn to read and write than Japanese. The romanization of Chinese, pinyin, is sometimes used menus and signs, but to really read the language, you have to know the characters.

Japanese has three writing systems (Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana), and it can be easy to write if you know the sounds and pronunciation of the words, since you can write them in the two alphabet forms, Hiragana and Katakana. The tricky part is reading Japanese, since many signs and menus will use Chinese characters (kanji), which is considered the more formal way to write something. For this reason, being able to write Japanese in the way a native speaker would is a whole different level of skill than being able to speak it, or write it with just hiragana and katakana.

For a traveler visiting either country independently, make an effort to learn at least some of the basic phrases in the language. In China, the language barrier is far bigger, with english being spoken only in the most touristed areas. In Japan, although kids learn English in school, people can seem shy to practice it, especially outside tourist areas and big cities. Learning Japanese goes a long way, even in big cities. It’s not only respectful to learn the language, it could make or break your ability to buy the ticket to catch that last bus or train out of wherever you’re going.

The other important thing to cover is dialects. Mandarin has many different dialects, and Cantonese is usually considered to be its own language. Though the dialects can be very different depending on region, and many consider them to be different languages, most people will understand standard mandarin. In Japan, there are two main dialects to be aware of: The Tokyo Dialect and the Kansai Dialect. The Kansai dialect is spoken in Kansai, whereas the Tokyo dialect has become the standard in most other regions. Okinawa also has its own distinct dialects that some see as different languages. In general, the Kansai dialect is seen as more youthful and lively, hence why many Anime voice actors use the Kansai dialect. But travelers with the Tokyo dialect will still be understood.

2: Treatment of people who aren’t of East Asian descent

This section is based on the experiences of westerners traveling here, as I am unfamiliar with the experiences of foreign East Asians in either country, and have heard mixed things.

In China, particularly in rural places, westerners often find themselves to be subjects of intense curiosity. Many times, they get asked to be in photos by Chinese people. Younger people can be very enthusiastic to practice English. Sometimes, people will yell “Hello!” at random westerners who walk down the street.

Many westerners who have lived in both countries find it easier to make friends in China than in Japan. Partly, China can seem more outward looking because of its recent rise and opening to western economic ideas since the 70s, but also, China has a much longer history of trade with outsiders than Japan, which remained in isolation (Sakoku) for a long time, before the Meiji Restoration.

It is not true that no one in Japan is curious about westerners, but many travelers find that Japanese people keep their distance from westerners more, as if they see it as more being polite and humble (“I’ll stay with people from my culture, but I’ll be polite and gracious to yours by letting you do your thing”). Sometimes, this can be interpreted as if the Japanese are a strange, mysterious people with weird ideas. In reality, it is more out of shyness and a perceived sense of cultural distance. These attitudes can be traced somewhat to Japan’s history of isolation. Even the grammar of the Japanese language reflects that foreigners are always considered in the “out group”, no matter how close they are as friends or romantic partners with a Japanese person.

3: Etiquette in Public Spaces

Through an Anglo-American lens, mainland Chinese are often seen as rude in public spaces. People in mainland China, especially older generations, often seem to talk more loudly, cut in line, and spit on the ground. The action of talking loudly is due to the need to emphasize the tones in the language, and doesn’t necisserily mean people are arguing. But this mannerism, along with other mannerisms, have really hurt the perceptions of Chinese tourists abroad. It is important to deconstruct the other mannerisms and understand where they come from. Prior to the revolution, and the opening of China to outsiders after the revolution, China was one of the poorest regions on earth. Many villagers lived in a state of “survival mode”, with literacy very low, and trust in authorities also very low. The western version of “civil behavior” was something that was unfamiliar to many Chinese, but versions of that behavior were still encouraged by Mao and his government. But the rapid change in society made it difficult for new ideas of acceptable behavior to stick. What Japanese and Westerners called a “civil-society” was not established in mainland China to the extent it was in Taiwan and Hong Kong. And, while the wealthy cities became more westernized, the behavior of many people didn’t become westernized. Among younger people, however, western ideas of “civil-behavior” are catching on.

Japan, on the other hand, comes across as the complete opposite of China when it comes to etiquette. Waiting patiently in line is done without question, talking on trains hardly ever takes place, and people generally are far more quiet. 

Another very imporant thing to go over is the concept of social hierarchy. In China, there is some social hierarchy, and certain words in the language change depending on it. But it is less important than in Japan. The handshake in China is the greeting gesture, unlike the Japanese bow, the depth of which depends on the hierachal status of who they are speaking to.

Japanese peoples’ mannerisms, grammar, and vocabulary is often dependent on their social status relative to the person they are talking to. If you’re talking to a boss, or senpai (it’s a word which has been bastardized by an anime meme, but it really just means someone who is of an upper class status relative to you), you use far more formal language. If you are talking to a friend, or a Kohai (someone lower than you on the social ladder), you use less formal language. Foreigners (Gaijin), however, are in the “out group”, and the language and mannerisms used to address them will reflect this.

4: Diversity and regional differences

Let’s be real: a country with over one billion people is bound to be far more diverse than one with 127 million people. Even so, China remains misperceived as homogenous by many westerners. The statistic that 92% of Chinese are Han Chinese is extremely misleading. Within the Han Chinese ethnic group, there is a huge amount of regional variation in food, dialects, traditional festivals, and architecture. Some scholars argue that the differences between the provinces are bigger than the differences between Western European countries. The remaining 8% is made up of numerous other ethnic groups; the Zhuang, the Tibetans, and the Ughyurs being the most well known. Although around 40 other ethnic groups also exist. Add in the hui communities (Chinese muslims), and China is a much more culturally diverse country than many people perceive it as.

It would be wrong to say there are no differences between regions of Japan. Certainly, there are local food specialties and unique events around different regions of the country. But it is nowhere near as regionally or ethnically diverse as China.

5: Dining

Food in China and Japan are very different. Let’s start with the obvious: there is far more variety of flavors, regional cooking traditions, and ingredients under the umbrella of Chinese food. Chinese cuisine is far more likely to be spicy or sour, for instance. Sichuan, Chongqing and Hunan are the most well known regions

Japanese food is subtle and delicate in taste, and in many cases, there are smaller portions. There is very little spicy food. Presentation in Japanese cooking is far more valued – the components of the meal on a plate need to be arranged nicely and look good. In China, its not uncommon to see huge portions – although this is largely because the food is meant to be shared.

When it comes to dining etiquette, Chinese meals are meant for groups to share. There are many customs around this, like how the first person to pour tea has to pour it for everybody.

Japan has a lot more restaurants that are geared for solo dining, a classic example being the ramen counter. If you’re a solo traveler, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid eating Chinese meals alone (don’t miss out on the great food!), but you may get some weird looks.

Also, as a side-note, be very careful with street food in China, and only drink bottled water. Don’t eat at cheap restaurants unless they have a lot of Chinese customers (a large number of families at a restaurant is a good way to tell). This way, you’re going where locals know it’s safe to eat.

6: Religion, Spiritual Practices, and Martial Arts

China has three main spiritual practices which have influenced its culture over the years: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. There are also numerous animist religions still practiced by minority groups in certain places. In Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism are the main religions, but Confucian values are culturally influential too, even if you don’t see confucian temples in many places like you would in China.

For a growing number of people in these countries, religion is not “practiced” in the traditional sense. It is increasingly rare to see monks in either country. But the values that these religions hold are evident in how they have shaped the national psyche, and many people harbor an interest in these religions, even if they don’t practice them.

The Martial Arts of both countries are numerous. Globally, Japan is most well-known for Karate, Judo, and Sumo. Chinese martial arts are far more varied in origin, from region to region, or even from village to village. Unlike with Karate, there is no major, official, international organization for managing and defining the practice of martial arts in China.

7: Pop Culture and its Global Influence

Japanese media and pop culture exports are far more well-known worldwide, the most well known examples being Anime (cartoons) and Manga (comics). In the west, they have gone through on-and-off periods of popularity within the boundary of “geek culture”. Hollywood is now in the process of planning anime adaptations too, such as Ghost in the Shell, the filmmakers of which were criticized for the decision to have a non-Asian person (Scarlett Johannsen) play the protagonist. Still, if these adaptations prove popular, they may drive more westerners to be interest in Japanese pop culture as a whole. Japanese popular music, J-Pop, has been eclipsed by K-Pop in the west, but still has some niche popularity.

China has its own pop culture too, but it is not well known in the west by any means. Many of its most well known elements, however, have not come from the mainland. Like J-Pop in Japan and K-Pop in Korea, China has C-Pop. The main sub-genres of C-Pop are Cantopop (from Hong Kong), Mandopop (from Guangdong), and Taiwanese Pop (Taiwan). In general, as the mainland regions of China have been growing in economic power, the gap between the genres has been narrowing. Outside of China, however, Chinese pop remains not well known. While Hong Kong dominated cinema between the 1960s and the late 80s, this has declined, and there is effort being made to increase the publicity of mainland cinema. Chinese cinema has featured many kung fu films, but also has pushed the boundaries into other genres too.

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Overall, these are the main differences that are most important for travelers to know. This is by no means an exhaustive list of differences, it is only an overview of the major ones. It is.

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