湯 in Japanese refers to "hot water." In Chinese, it means "soup." How common are kanji with different meanings in Chinese? Also, why do differences occur in the first place? Were the meanings in both languages originally the same and gradually diverged over time?

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    This question sounds a bit too open-ended... Aug 21, 2011 at 4:59
  • I'm sorry. Is there any way I could make it more specific? I'm trying to understand the occurrence of this phenomenon (specifically, how often and why it happens).
    – Alan C
    Aug 21, 2011 at 5:03
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    @Alan: Not really. I'm not saying that it's a bad question per se (and I wouldn't mind seeing any answers myself), it's just a bad question for this site. Aug 21, 2011 at 5:27
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    @DaveMG: This is not directly related to this particular question, but let me point out that this website is not only for Japanese learners, although you always claim that it is about learning Japanese. From FAQ: “Japanese Language and Usage - Stack Exchange is for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language.” Aug 21, 2011 at 12:00
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    @DaveMG: I personally find that sometimes it is clearer using another language to discuss a fine point of Japanese, and English is my only choice for “another language.” Aug 21, 2011 at 13:01

7 Answers 7


When the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan, the Japanese people tried to incorporate the Chinese characters, or Kanji, to the words that means the closest thing in the Japanese language. For example, the word たべる, which is a word that probably existed before monks from China introduced Kanji to the Japanese people. When Kanji is finally introduced, the Japanese people find that the the kanji 食 has the closest meaning to たべる, hence how 食べる is now written with the kanji 食. Inevitably, some meanings did not translate exactly the same when it was introduced to the Japanese language and some differences did arise. Now how exactly did this difference arise, it's open for debate.

Notable differences you will see are examples like 勉強 which means "to study" in Japanese, but it means "reluctance" in Chinese. 大丈夫 which means "Are you alright?" in Japanese and "Grown-up man" in Chinese. 手紙 which means "letter" in Japanese, and in Chinese it means "toilet paper" (I just learned that recently too). 高等学校 which means "high school" in Japanese and "college" in Chinese. As for words with individual Kanji, I can't think of many right now, but I suspect they exist as well, but majority of them I believe are compound Kanji words.

There is another more obvious cases of difference in Japanese kanji and Chinese kanji, and these are known as 和製漢字 (wasei-kanji, not to be confused with 和製英語 wasei-eigo), which means Japanese created kanji. 峠 is one such example. However in this case the Kanji itself does not exist in the Chinese language.

Now, if your goal is to communicate effectively in both languages, it's important to know that majority of the time Kanji in Japanese and Chinese does actually means, or almost means the same thing, what you do need to know is that Kanji will not be used in the same context to say the same thing in Chinese and Japanese. For example, 食 does mean food in both Chinese and Japanese, but you will probably not see Chinese people use the word 食 to mean "to eat" like how the Japanese do. But in the ancient Chinese,食 also means "to eat".For example 食之无味 。And in Cantonese 食 still means "to eat" today.For example 食饭。These are differences in usage, not necessarily differences in meaning.

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    You should be more specific about which varieties of Chinese you're talking about. In Cantonese, for example, 食 is still the most common word for ‘eat’, as it was in classical Chinese. The same is true of 飲.
    – Zhen Lin
    Aug 21, 2011 at 14:52
  • @Zhen Yeah maybe that was not exactly a good example, as I'm no expert on the Chinese language myself, although the point is still valid. It's even the same case for languages like French and English as well with certain words which means the same and even with the same spelling but used in different contexts.
    – Ken Li
    Aug 21, 2011 at 19:44
  • The Han-Viet or Sino-Vietnamese character for "to eat" is also 食. Vietnamese and Japanese borrow from classical Chinese so most words retain their old meaning Oct 31, 2013 at 0:25

湯 does mean hot/boiling water in Classical Chinese (but not in modern varieties like Mandarin or Cantonese or Min where it means "soup"). The Classical Chinese reading is preserved in the saying 赴湯蹈火 "to step through hot water [and] tread on fire".

  • And 揚湯止沸. Even if someone only speaks Japanese they could probably deduce the meaning: throw/wield up hot water to stop it from boiling.
    – dvx2718
    Sep 9, 2021 at 4:00

A nice list can be found in sci.lang.japan FAQ (which is itself worth reading to people learning Japanese).


I know that 鮪 (まぐろ, tuna) means "蝶鮫" (ちょうざめ, sturgeon), and that 鮭 (さけ, salmon) means 鰒 (ふぐ,fugu) in Chinese.

It seems that the mistakes comes from reading the descriptions of the fish without seeing actually what the writer meant. Then, interpretation errors let to putting a fish name on another fish.

Source: 日本人の知らない日本語, volume 1.

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    I love the tv version of it, but I don't trust what it says 100% - see my geisha question for example.
    – Golden Cuy
    Apr 8, 2012 at 0:56
  • I don't know any Chinese. A quick lookup on goo.ne.jp tells us that 鮪 can mean (2) (古い書物では)チョウザメ (but, at least today in Mandarin, also サバ科の魚). The entry on thr Chinese wikipedia for サケ類 is 鮭魚. This page さかな.jp (shift-jis) says 鮭:中国では「(黄河に棲む)ふぐ」サケは形が良いことから、魚へんに圭(三角形にとがった、形が良いという意味)の鮭を「さけ」と読む(国訓). 学研漢和大辞典 lists ふぐ as the second meaning. It warrants further research, but there is some truth to these statements.
    – blutorange
    Aug 16, 2014 at 6:33
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    no one use 蝶鮫 or 鰒 in Chinese. 鮪 & 鮭 is exactly what Chinese use, same as Japanese.
    – Val
    Aug 10, 2017 at 8:00

The most interesting cases in my opinion is 走{はし}る.

In Japanese, you know it means "to run". However, in Mandarin, 走 means "to walk", but in classical Chinese and many modern Chinese dialects (e.g. Cantonese), it still means "to run".

I know there are a few similar cases (meaning in Japan carried on a lost usage found in classical Chinese) but I can't recall them from top of my head.


约瑟夫 in Chinese is (according to Google Translate) Joseph. But in Japanese, this is something you really shouldn't get a tattoo of! Assuming it as as offensive as the English translation is.


I know this was asked a long time ago, but i will answer in case someone else wants this info.I'm more of a Chinese learner looking to also learn Japanese. So if anyone can correct me, feel free to. Here are some words I've seen that have the same or almost the same character and the same meanings. Sorry I didn't include tones for all of them, I got lazy.

歌, means song, is Gē in Mandarin, uta in Japanese
色, color, Sè in Mandarin, Iro in Japanese
白, white, Bái, Shiro
花, flower,Huā,Hana
空, sky, Kong, Sora (Kong can also mean empty, or air in chinese. To mean sky, tiankong is more specific)
愛, love, Ai, ai. (This character is only the same when using the traditional chinese character. The word is the same other than the falling tone in Mandarin)
雨 Rain, yu3, ame.
鳥 Bird, Niao3, Tori (once again, traditional character only. The simplified is different)
虹 Rainbow, Hong, Hiji
美 Beautiful, Mei3, Utsuku
何 How, He2, Hani
太陽 Sun/Tai4 Yang4, Tai yo1 (only the same in traditional chinese, is similar in simplified)

Here are some that are really similar but not quite the same: 学习 Learning/Xuexi vs. 学ぶ Learning/Manabu. The first character is the same, second is not

透明 Transparent/Tou ming vs. 透明な Transparent/ to mei na (Japanese has one more character)

黑 Black/Hei1 vs. 黒 Black/Kuro (The box in Chinese is different, but otherwise the character looks similar.

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    Your comparison of 学习 vs. 学ぶ really misses the point. 学ぶ is a native Japanese verb (kanji + hiragana verb ending), but 学习 is exactly the same (except the simplified second character) as 学習, which is used in Japanese; they all have the same meaning. Apr 26, 2017 at 14:11
  • And just so you know(you may know this already), 天空{てんくう} is also used in Japan.
    – dvx2718
    Sep 9, 2021 at 4:04

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