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They both mean "ship/boat". Are they completely interchangeable? Do they signify boats of different sizes or uses (people, cargo, etc.)? Is only used in compounds to describe metaphorical "boats" of abstract usage, like [風船]{ふう・せん}?

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The interchangeability between [舟]{ふね} and [船]{ふね} , in theory, is close to non-existent. In real life, however, it is left to the judgement of each individual. Generally speaking, the more educated or well-read you are, the less interchangeable the two will become.

In school, we are taught to use 舟 to refer to a small boat, usually (but not necessarily) hand-rowed. 船 refers to a larger boat than a 舟. For this, 船 can be used for a much wider variety of boat sizes. It is all about the physical size, not the purpose of the boat (passengers. cargo, etc.).

Metaphorically, both 舟 and 船 are used as well.

舟:[助け舟]{たすけぶね} = "timely help or support", [舟]{ふね} = "a small boat-shaped dish on which foods (like takoyaki and sashimi) are served", etc.

船:[飛行船]{ひこうせん} = "blimp", [宇宙船]{うちゅうせん} = "spaceship", etc.

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    そうなら、「小舟」と「小船」はどれだけのもの?
    – istrasci
    Feb 28, 2014 at 15:28

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