I saw the first (河) used for "Hippopotamus", literally mimicking the Greek name (River Horse) but I expected to see 川 in its place...

Also, apparently you can use "河川" to mean river*s* (plural)?

But when would you use one and when the other? Or are these completely interchangeable?

1 Answer 1


When you type in the word, many IMEs will also display a side dictionary with supplemental information. On my PC, for 川 is says: (一般的)川が流れる、川を渡る、三途(さんず)の川. For 河, it says: (限定的)(外国の)大きな川。→川.

Hence, 川 is general while 河 is limited in usage and typically represents (foreign) large rivers. In addition, 河 often refers to the Yellow River (黄河).

That being the case, do not forget that "kawa" is a Japanese word. It existed before the introduction of kanji to Japan. Chinese has multiple words for "river". Japanese "kawa" does not distinguish between 川 or 河 like Chinese. It is the this application of Chinese to express Japanese words that has created this problem.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .