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I looked up both 沙 and 砂 in my 学研{がっけん} 漢和辞典{かんわじてん} today. It appears that they share the same list of readings (サ、シャ、すな、いさご). I also see that some words can be written with either kanji. Here are the senses my dictionary lists for 沙:

  1. すなはら。「[沙漠]{さばく}」

  2. すな。いさご。

  3. 水で洗い分けて取り除く。「[沙汰]{さた}」

The dictionary goes on to say that meanings 1 and 2 are normally written with 砂. That makes sense to me--I've never seen すな or さばく written 沙 or 沙漠. (Of course, I'm only a student.)

So then, where the meanings overlap, is 砂 always used? I looked for the answer online, and I found a claim that 沙 to mean sand or desert is mostly used in China, while 砂 is mostly used in Japan. Is this true? Is there any distinction in meaning between e.g. 沙漠 and 砂漠? Are there times when I should write these words with 沙?

I started wondering when I saw how highly ranked 沙 was in the 文化庁 漢字出現頻度表 (Agency for Cultural Affairs kanji frequency list), but I fear I've misled myself.

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Sounds to me like the difference between building up (stone) and breaking down (water). – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Oct 5 '12 at 5:00
My guess is that 沙 has a somewhat high rank because it is used in names. Its type, 人A, would seem to confirm that. Here's a list of names with 沙: kanji.reader.bz/more/%E6%B2%99 – dainichi Oct 5 '12 at 5:35
up vote 2 down vote accepted

沙 and 砂 are almost the same, though 砂 is used to describe bigger 沙. 砂石's 砂 is quite different from 沙漠's 沙. However, today most of people consider 砂 as 沙. You can use them in the same way.

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