There are many words in French that are spelled identically to or very similarly to English words but the meanings are not the same. These words are called faux-amis (false friends) because they trick you into assuming the meaning and then you discover the meaning is sometimes quite different.

For example:

''rester'' means ''to stay'', not ''to rest''.

''quitter'' means ''to leave'', not ''to quit''.

''monnaie'' means ''loose change'', not ''money''.

''librairie'' means ''bookstore'', not ''library''.

Anyway I have discovered a similar phenomenon between Japanese and Chinese.

''人参'' means carrot in Japanese but Ginseng in Chinese.

''棚'' means shelf in Japanese but shed in Chinese.

''麒麟'' means giraffe in Japanese but it is a kind of mythical creature in Chinese.

I feel these are kind of faux-amis between the Japanese and Chinese language.

My question is: Why don't the characters used for Japanese Kanji have the same meaning as those used in Chinese ?

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    Ginseng and carrot are rather similar vegetables, and 麒麟 can in fact refer to the legendary qilin in Japanese (many people who were exposed to it through Japanese media know it as the 'kirin'; it just also refers to giraffes. (I don't believe the information in this comment qualifies as an answer.)
    – Angelos
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 15:44
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    Duplicate of japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/2779/… ?
    – user4032
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 11:31
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    @Kantura, slightly off-topic, but I think the classic example of the Chinese-Japanese discrepancies is 手紙 (in Chinese written as 手纸).
    – Tuomo
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:39
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    @Tuomo in Chinese written as 手纸 this is a bit misleading and is equivalent to saying “In English, colour is spelt as color”. Avoid Simplified Chinese when demonstrating Chinese words; it’s a writing habit adopted by a certain group of people, far from universal, and especially useless on a Japanese forum.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 23:19
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    @droooze, sorry being misleading, just wanted to add "手紙" (=means letter in Japanese and tissue/toilet paper in Chinese), to the list in the original question.
    – Tuomo
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 0:07

1 Answer 1


To borrow a little from an older, related answer:

When the Japanese adopted Chinese characters as kanji, the main goal was to find characters with sufficiently similar meaning to existing Japanese words. As a result, there was some natural drift in the meaning from the original Chinese, along with the occasional mix-up or misinterpretation.

Additionally, this all happened long enough ago that both Chinese and Japanese moved on as languages, mostly independently of each other. So for some words the Japanese may actually reflect the traditional Chinese meaning more closely than the modern Chinese (and of course there are many modern Chinese languages/dialects which don't all ascribe the exact same meaning to the same characters too).

The kirin/qilin one is particularly interesting, since it seems that giraffes were brought to China during the Ming dynasty, and they were probably called qilin then (on the assumption that they were the mystical creature, similar to how dinosaurs and dragons may have been conflated at some point). For whatever reason, it was more useful for the Japanese to refer to giraffes than the magical creature, and so the meaning shifted appropriately (as it did in Korea).

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