I am starting a series called Japan vs. Korea. I have lived in Japan multiple times in different cities for a total of over 3 years. I started learning Japanese when I was 16, lived with a host family, went to a Japanese university for a year, and now I teach English as a JET. Through all my different roles, I have learned a lot about different aspects of Japanese culture and living in Japan. I also got into Kpop, took Korean in college, have a Korean boyfriend, and this year I am moving to South Korea! I am excited about getting to know Korea more, and I want to document my journey as I learn more about Korean culture.
1. Kanji / Hanja
I am gearing up to take the JLPT N1 in July, which means I’m back to studying kanji. When I first started learning Japanese, it took me about a week to memorize hiragana and katakana on my own using flash cards. However, I didn’t take formal classes until college really, so learning kanji on my own was difficult. My professors basically asked me to memorize kanji outside of class and we were tested on it later. This motivated me to really sit down and study them, which is all I’ve found really works. I had a hard time at first, but one thing that really helped me was learning radicals. Even now, when I come across a kanji I don’t know, I can usually work out the meaning and pronunciation based on its radical. I suggest learning radicals early on. Using tools like Jisho.org really help with this, since you can look up kanji based on their radical. Right now I am using the 日本語総まとめ series and I like how they group the radicals/reading together. Other people swear by the Heisig Method but really whatever works for you personally is going to be the best way. Enjoying yourself is the fastest way to remember anything, so if kanji starts to feel like work, spice up your routine.
Hanja aren’t used as frequently in Korean writing anymore, but they certainly hold influence over the language. My knowledge of kanji and Japanese vocab has really helped me learn Korean. Many words sound either exactly the same or really similar. It takes less effort for me to remember words when I already know the Japanese equivalent or I learn the hanja and then I learn all the vocabulary that goes with it. If you are learning Korean, this page has a good comprehensive explanation of hanja.
Easy – 簡単 （かんたん） kantan – 간단 kandan
Library – 図書館 （としょかん） toshokan – 도서관 doseogwan
School – 学校 （がっこう） gakkou – 학교 hakkyo
Bag – 鞄 （かばん） kabang – 가반 gaban
All these words have the same meaning and a similar pronunciation. When I tell my Korean and Japanese friends about words like these, they are surprised at how well they can understand them. I heard once that Korean is the most closely related language to Japanese and vice versa. Chinese is completely different in grammar structure and pronunciation, whereas these two are easier to learn together in my opinion. If you know one, try learning the other and let me know what you think!
Japanese grammar is hard to grasp at the beginning. You have to learn all the set phrases for things like thank you, good work, please, and before and after eating a meal. All of these set phrases are usually said in polite speech that’s not really useful when you want to make Japanese friends and have daily conversations. I learned Japanese on my own at first, so I chose to learn plain form over polite form. It was strange starting school with other students of Japanese who could only talk to me in -desu -masu form. Above that, there is also keigo (most polite form), which is hardly useful for speakers unless you work for a Japanese company. However, you can’t completely skip out on learning keigo because anywhere you go as a customer or traveler, you will be spoken to in keigo, and you won’t be able to answer a salesperson’s question if you don’t understand her polite speech. Even Japanese people aren’t good at keigo, though, and foreigners are mostly exempt from speaking it. When I studied abroad in Kyoto, I joined a theatre club and when I worked as a receptionist/greeter, we were all given sheets of paper and told to memorize the polite phrases on them before guests arrived.
Korean is very similar and has extra polite, polite, plain, and lower speech levels. I am still trying to grasp grammar and vocab, but from what I’ve seen of polite speech, it is more simple than Japanese. Usually the ending is just changed rather than the entire verb, but I’m guessing Korean has this as well. I hope when I go to Korea I will be able to get the hang of listening to extra polite speech, but maybe I won’t been expected to speak in it as much. The Korean hierarchy system is a little more strict that here in Japan. In Japan, I have people I call my friends who are older and younger than me, but in Korean a friend or ‘chingu’ is generally only someone who is the exact same age as you. That means you have to call someone older by a more respectful name or title and you are expected to speak more politely to them. The culture definitely defines these kind of language differences.
Japanese grammar is complex, I will admit, but learning grammar is usually my favorite part of learning a language. I love learning the mechanics of a language, and after learning basic phrases, it’s fun to go back and see how they turned out that way due to the grammar. Studying Japanese grammar, though, is painful at the beginning. It was hard to wrap my head around many of the concepts. There are three or four ways of expressing giving and receiving, verb ending stack onto one another creating endlessly long words, and there is a different way to count almost every type of object, animal, person, etc. Grammar is one of those things you just have to experience over and over again to really grasp. Listening to how Japanese people use grammar in context is the best way to learn. If you aren’t understanding a grammar concept through studying alone, I’d recommend doing more listening practice. Listen closely and when a grammar point you learned comes up, memorize how it was used, rather than trying to match it to your language’s equivalent.
Japanese learners, avert your eyes. This chart might make you cry.
Korean grammar is sometimes more simple, I think. This is the main part of the language that is very different from Japanese. The Subject-Object-Verb structure is the same, and the endings of verbs change for past tense, imperative tense, and politeness. However, there is less stacking of endings from what I can tell. Also, there are hundreds of ways to say the exact same thing in Korean and many express that it just depends on the person speaking and their personal style. The particles are very similar to Japanese and sometimes sound exactly the same. I am reading a lot of webtoons recently, but the main problem I’m having is understanding the slang. I can grasp simple grammar concepts well, but when they are used in a nuanced way, I have trouble figuring out the meaning. All in good time, I suppose. There are many grammar points that Japanese lacks that I think make Korean unique and useful within the culture. Each culture really stands out when comparing grammar.
I think Korean wins:
Japanese has five vowel sounds. That’s it. Finite. As an American, I had to really practice them over and over at the beginning because they are shorter and less round than our vowels in American English, but once I got the hang of them, I was set for life. Consonants are similar, and the only things we don’t have in English are tsu, n, wo, and the R sounds and F/H sounds. Pronunciation in Japanese might be daunting at the beginning but that’s because you have to remember all these new sounds together and sometimes you have to hold out a vowel or pause for an extra consonant. Overall, though, Japanese is easy to pronounce and once you learn to read hiragana and katakana, you are mostly good to go.
Korean pronunciation left me in shock the first time I met my Korean roommate in college and she tried to teach me basic Korean. There are so many vowel sounds and hangul makes it easy to put two different vowels together to make a new one. I had such a hard time with ㅐ vs. ㅔ and ㅓvs ㅗ that I couldn’t believe my roommate wasn’t making this stuff up. Now, it’s a lot easier to tell but I still think Koreans have super sonic hearing. However, it’s been a sort of game for me to try new words and get the pronunciation right when I speak to my boyfriend or Korean friends. I get really excited when I don’t have to be corrected on my pronunciation. Overall, I think I like the sound of Korean better than Japanese. It flows really well and I’m fluent in aegyo, which is fun to use. However, after 8 years of learning Japanese, this might just be because Korean is new and still a puzzle to me. A note I will add is that Koreans are much better at pronouncing English and Japanese than Japanese are at pronouncing English or Korean…. The lack of vowels and consonants in Japanese probably gives native Japanese speakers a handicap.
That’s about it for now! I am still an intermediate learner of Korean and I know my opinions will changed and have changed over time. I really love learning Asian languages so much more than the languages I learned in middle and high school (Spanish, French, and Latin) and I love to study on my own and I feel more motivated that way. I know a lot of people who tell me they need formal classes to learn Japanese or Korean, and I can definitely say that my college classes for both languages helped me learn how to learn them, but it just depends on your personality and motivation level. Let me know what you think about Japanese or Korean (or any language you are learning) and whether or not you think my comparison is accurate.