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I only know that both mean "easy". But when would I use 簡単{かんたん} or 易しい{やさしい} respectively?

  • The only difference I'm aware of is that 易しい isn't normally used as an adverb. Use 簡単に rather than 易しく. – user3856370 Jun 11 '15 at 22:23
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As always, "translated words" can often get in the way of understanding the words in the context of their original language. You would need to "forget" for a moment the word "easy". That is just too easy a definition.

There is some interchangeability between the two words, especially in more informal speech, but there actually exists a difference in meaning between the two, making the words uninterchangeable in many situations.

「簡単」 has to do with an objective kind of simplisity and brevity.

Suppose I wrote my answer to this question in just two short sentences. That would certainly be a 「簡単な[回答]{かいとう}」, but not necessarily a 「易しい回答」. It is simple and brief, sure, but is it "user-friendly"? If you did not feel my short answer helped you understand the matter much, you would not call my answer 「易しい」.

People sometimes have to have a 「簡単な」 dinner, write a 「簡単な」 email, do a 「簡単な」 bedmaking or car wash, etc. for a lack of time or other reasons. Point is you do not call any of these 「易しい」.

Following me so far?

「易しい」 is often more of a subjective opinion.

It is originally the same word as 「[優]{やさ}しい」= "gentle", "friendly", etc., which is why I used the term "user-friendly" a while back. 

If you find, for instance, this explanation of mine easy to understand so far, you could call it 「易しい」, but since I have already written more than a few sentences, you would not call it 「簡単」. I would feel like I have wasted my time if anyone called it 「簡単な[説明]{せつめい}」.

So, as I stated in the beginning, in informal real-life settings, native speakers (myself included) sometimes do use the two words interchangeablly, but there is a not-so-small difference officially and historically.

5

Overall:

簡単(な) means "simple"

易し(い) means "easy"


簡単(な) means "simple" rather than easy. For instance, simplified Chinese characters are known as 簡体字 (simplified characters) using the first kanji of this compound. Simple is an excellent English translation for the word, and it meets the meaning and feeling of the word well.

易しい is firstly an adjective. You can use it as you use "easy" in English, rather than "simple" for 簡単. For instance saying a test is easy, or that it's easy to achieve some goal, like an easy test, all use this word. 易し refers to the "easiness" of something, using the same さ suffix seen in 長さ and 大きさ to describe "-ness" of some qualitative adjective.

A 3rd choice you left out that also helps us understand 易しい better is 易{やす}い. The same kanji is used in this as 易しい, and the word is appended to the end of verbs to say that something was easy to do. 例えば

日本語が分かり易いです (英:Japanese is easy to understand)

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