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Asian cultures worldwide are often confused, especially by people from the other side of the globe. Chinese and Japanese, in particular, often get mislabeled and misrepresented.
So, are Japanese and Chinese cultures similar?
In some ways, the two countries are quite different and distinct from each other. Here are five things you need to know about Chinese vs. Japanese culture.
Japan is made up of 6,500 islands with volcanoes and mountains galore. Meanwhile, China has a rich topography of foothills, mountains, basins, plains, and plateaus.
It’s location is also the reason why the sun rises earlier in Japan than in China.
This physical difference in and of itself has helped shape both cultures to be quite different.
China as a country does not have a particular religion. But, most native Chinese people are atheists, though a small subset subscribe to Buddhist or Taoist beliefs.
Japan’s major religion is Shinto, which revolves around the idea that supernatural beings called kami inhabit all things. One can find 100,000 public Shinto shrines in Japan.
It is closely followed by Buddhism.
Buddhism focuses on meditation, greatly impacting Japanese philosophy and arts. Buddhist temples and shrines are spread across the country. They provide peaceful places for contemplation.
The Buddhist idea of impermanence is evident in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and art.
Their distinct political systems are the most apparent difference between Japan and China.
In Japan, an elected government led by a prime minister makes the important decisions. Even though there is an Emperor, their role is mostly ceremonial, like the royal heads of state in England, and they don’t have much real power.
In contrast, a single party, the Communist Party of China, governs China, and leaders are not chosen through a democratic process.
China limits people’s rights and stifles various political opinions. It has functioned as an authoritarian regime since 1949.
The top political leader in the government is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and they have the most power.
Chinese is an old language that consists of thousands of letters. The language is like English, while the Japanese language is very dissimilar.
Japanese and Chinese use similar Chinese characters. How they sound, the rules for using them, and their functions are different.
The Chinese language also relies on tonal shifts to state a word. If a person speaks a word at a high pitch and then speaks that word at a lower pitch, those are two separate words.
On the other hand, Japanese has only five vowels and 100 syllables, so there is a lot less variation in tone than in Chinese.
Chinese and Japanese cultures both value social cues like bowing and respecting elders. However, generally, the Japanese are more focused on maintaining appearances.
A huge amount of concern for the Japanese people lies in the protocol of paying respect to one’s elders and superiors.
The Chinese place more value on the family and loyalty to their elders. On the other hand, Japanese people are more concerned with the family’s pride and themselves. In any social situation, they always make sure they look respectable and honorable.
Japanese people also tend to be more magnanimous and shy towards other people. Meanwhile, the Chinese tend to be more open and expressive in their body language.
Notable Differences in Culture
Japan and China have distinct cultural differences, including unique aspects such as floor culture and attitudes toward marrying siblings.
In Japan, traditional “tatami” flooring involves straw mats, fostering a minimalist and space-efficient lifestyle.
Japanese sitting and sleeping arrangements often revolve around low furniture or sitting directly on the tatami mats, promoting a close connection with the floor.
Conversely, historically, China’s floor culture encompasses a diverse range of materials, such as wood and tiles, with intricate designs reflecting cultural or spiritual significance.
Chinese sitting and sleeping arrangements might involve cushions or low seating, demonstrating a connection to the floor that aligns with their cultural practices.
Regarding the sensitive topic of marrying siblings, it’s essential to clarify that neither Japan nor China traditionally condones or accepts such practices. Both cultures generally adhere to societal norms that prohibit incestuous relationships.
From an expat’s point of view
To learn about the cultural differences between Japan and China, I spoke with my friend Franchesco, an Italian living in Japan since 1980.
He shared insights into the cultural differences between Japan and China. With 37 years of firsthand experience, they studied with Chinese peers and visited China many times.
In 1989, Franchesco first visited China and has returned several times, the latest two years ago.
He feels a sense of comfort in China, describing it as somewhat like returning home.
Francesco noticed similar city layouts and numbering systems in both nations. But, he also recognized unique Japanese features like kotatsu and futon, emphasizing the difference in the use of space.
Franchesco noticed that Chinese cuisine is always cooked, while Japanese food uses raw ingredients, like sushi.
In interpersonal dynamics, he finds the Chinese more straightforward and explicit in communication. In contrast, Japanese communication has many subtleties where intentions may remain veiled.
Reflecting on social interactions, the interviewee finds making friends notably easier in China. Talking about train experiences, he pointed out that Chinese travelers are more open. This is unlike the perceived reserve in Japan.
As you can imagine, the friendly atmosphere, marked by shared conversations and Chinese vodka, is less likely to happen in Japan.
My take on the cultural differences between China and Japan
Learning about the two cultures is like appreciating two beautiful paintings. Each tells a special story.
It’s as if the people from these cultures have carefully woven their traditions and values into a captivating masterpiece.
The beauty of these cultures isn’t just in the big things but also in the small details you might not notice right away. Japanese culture, known for its focus on harmony and respect, brings subtle yet meaningful touches to the overall picture.
Whether it’s the gentle cherry blossoms, the neat folds of a kimono, or the graceful movements of a traditional tea ceremony, each detail adds richness to this cultural masterpiece.
Like in Chinese culture, the different aspects are like bold strokes on a canvas, telling a long and rich story.
From their unique characters in writing to the diverse flavors in their food, every part helps create the overall picture.
It’s not only about the big festivals or famous places. It is also about the simple, everyday moments, the connections made over meals, and the closeness of family ties.
What makes this cultural masterpiece truly extraordinary is its celebration of diversity.
The coming together of Japanese and Chinese cultures enhances the worldwide human experience. It is like adding various colors makes a painting lively.
Respecting tradition, valuing family, and celebrating life’s cycles connect us all.
As I continue to explore and learn, I’m reminded that our differences make the world so vibrant.
Exploring these cultures isn’t all about understanding differences. It’s about appreciating the shared human experiences that unite us.