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Part 1

I understand 探す to be to search for something (general)

and 捜す to be to search for something lost

But do people actually care about the difference in nuance when they use it?

I mean do people use them interchangeably like using 捜す for searching (general) and 探す for searching for something lost?

Part 2

Do japanese school children learn the kanji 捜す first or 探す ?

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Regarding Part 2: 探 is a grade 6 kanji, 捜 is a junior high kanji – jkerian Jul 22 '11 at 15:00
cool how did you get this info? – Pacerier Jul 22 '11 at 15:02
jisho.org has information for both kanji (jisho.org/kanji/details/%E6%8D%9C%E3%81%99) (jisho.org/kanji/details/%E6%8E%A2%E3%81%99). Other lists will be similar. – jkerian Jul 22 '11 at 15:16
If you use only 探す, there will be almost no problem. Most people usually don't care about the difference. 捜す is often used with a particular intent. – Gradius Aug 7 '12 at 8:13
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Together with many other questions on this website tagged as 'homophonic-kanji', this is a case where in ancient Japanese when there was no writing system, there was no distinction among these words (i.e., they were a single word), but Chinese had finer distinction, and when Chinese characters were brought into Japanese, different Chinese characters came to be used to describe the same Japanese word depending on the context to match the distinction in Chinese. As a result, they came to be pronounced the same but written differently, and even after thousands of years, in native Japanese speaker's mind, it is often a subtle thing whether they are different words or not. People actually often do have problems distinguishing these, and there are dictionaries and software tools that assist you to distinguish them in kana-kanji conversion.

Quite often, there is a character that is used generally, this case as you point out, which stands as the representative of the words in the group. The character for a specific meaning can usually be replaced by a character of the generic one, but not the other way around.

is taught at the sixth grade. is taught at the seven grade or later. In general, the kanji with the general usage is understood to be easier than the ones with the specific meanings.

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when you say people actually often do have problems distinguishing these, you do mean native japanese speakers? – Pacerier Jul 26 '11 at 18:29

I was taught that 探 is used for "things" and 捜 is used for people.

  • 探求 【たんきゅう】 → quest, pursuit
  • 探究 【たんきゅう】 → inquiry, (re)search
  • 探査 【たんさ】 → investigation

  • 捜査 【そうさ】 → criminal investigation, search
  • 捜索 【そうさく】 → a search for, manhunt

Although after researching this a bit, it does seem that the latter also has the nuance of something being lost or gone, and the former can pertain to something desired.

In my experience, people only seems to respect the nuances as they pertain to either "person" or "thing"; but even then, not super carefully.

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+1 Attacking it from the on'yomi angle might be the best way to define the difference between these two. – Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 18:04

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