Can anyone here help me understand the difference in nuance between 区別 and 分別 (in terms of the 'classification/distinction' meaning)? I have checked dictionaries but they seem pretty much the same in this case. I would have considered them interchangeable had I not just gotten a question about the difference wrong in a mock test.

  • 2
    Can you share the example from the mock test?
    – user1478
    Nov 11 '16 at 14:55
  • Sorry, it is in the Kanzen Master N2 Kanji book, which I don't have with me at the moment. I will search it out when I get home.
    – Corks
    Nov 11 '16 at 15:14
  • For the life of me I can't find it now, but I do remember that it was about rubbish division, which makes sense given the answers I have received.
    – Corks
    Nov 12 '16 at 16:08

Basically 分別 is used only in the following two types of situations:

  • separating trash (flammable, recyclable, etc); read [ぶんべつ]{LHHH}
    • 燃えるゴミと燃えないゴミを分別する
    • ゴミの分別収集にご協力ください
    • 空き缶は分別してリサイクルしましょう
  • distinguishing the right and the wrong as a sensible adult, discretion; read [ふんべつ]{HLLL}
    • 物事の分別が分かる年齢になった
    • 良いことと悪いことの分別をつける
    • 大人としての理性と分別を身につける

According to BCCWJ these two usages are almost equally common. There were a few other examples using 分別 (apparently about philosophy or psychology), but I think you can safely ignore them.

区別 is "distinction" in general.

  • 3
    It's definitely worth noting that for the first bullet 分別 is read 「ぶん・べつ」, while for the second bullet it is read 「ふん・べつ」.
    – istrasci
    Nov 11 '16 at 18:20
  • 読みとピッチ足しちゃったんですけど書き方とかマズかったら直してください・・
    – Chocolate
    Nov 11 '16 at 23:27

区別 and 分別 are very similar in terms of the meaning 'classification' or 'disctinction', however, when looking at the raw/chinese meaning of '区' and '分', we can see that they have a slight difference.

'区' -> Distinct, zone

'分' -> Divide, separate

In that sense, 区別 is more about 'distinction', identifying qualities, differences and classifying them as types.

善悪の区別 -> Distinction between right and wrong, the 'good' and the 'evil'

色で区別 -> Distinguish by color

分別 is more about separating and sorting, almost physically.

ゴミを金属類や紙類、ビン類等に分別 -> Separate garbage into metals, paper, bottles, etc.

ごみの分別 -> Separation of garbage

  • Thank you for your answer. Looking at it that way it does make sense.
    – Corks
    Nov 12 '16 at 15:57

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