Comparing Japanese & Chinese Cultures : Similarities and Differences

Differences in Japanese and Chinese Cultures Reflect their Distinct Trajectories

Comparing Japanese & Chinese Cultures : Similarities and Differences
Image Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shiba_Kokan_A_meeting_of_Japan_China_and_the_West_late_18th_century.jpg )
Japanese culture has been greatly influenced by the Chinese culture, and yet they are almost as different from each other as any two neighboring countries can ever be. Part of these differences may lie in the self-imposed isolation of Japan till Meiji revolutions, but there are other important reasons too, that make the two societies and cultures vastly different. So here we are comparing Japanese culture with that of Chinese to bring similar beliefs, traditions and cultural aspects as well as differences they hold.

Along with Indian Civilization, Chinese Civilization has influenced all societies inhabiting the Eastern part of the globe. Thus, there is an unmistakable influence of Chinese civilization on Japan. Yet, as a society, Japan is so different and the basic underlying culture and ethics of these two societies so distinct that similarities soon fade away completely. Their comparison brings out very interesting observations.

Similarities between the Japanese and the Chinese Cultures

There are considerable similarities between the culture and life of people in these two neighbouring countries. Expectedly, these similarities are more easily visible to an observer from a third country, compared to a person belonging to either of them. Here is a list of a few more important ones.

(i)  Typical Far Eastern Cultures

To begin the comparison, there is no dearth of similarities between the two.

Both are typical Asian cultures, surviving since a few millennia. Beginning with racial features and genetic stock, these similarities extend to various facets of life, traditional outlook, strong cultural roots and a certain spiritual outlook that is very much Asian and somewhat distinct from Western individualistic extrovert approach. A typical individual in either of these countries is relatively self-disciplined as one would expect from a strong civilization, even he or she was uneducated, poor or distressed.

(ii) Strong Family Roots & Traditional Gender Roles

Like all ancient cultures, many of the traditions in both societies are woven around the family structure and social hierarchy that they have nurtured over several centuries. Like all old Eastern cultures, the gender roles used to be highly differentiated in both societies. Both of these societies followed a patriarchal system of inheritance, and the head of the family used to be the eldest male. In both societies, extended families were common, and the social order dictated respect for elders and teachers. In both China and Japan, modesty of womenfolk was part of the culture, though restrictions on women were far less compared to those practiced in Middle East countries.

(iii) Confucian Values & Conservative Moderation

The traditional approach towards life in both China and Japan place a lot of emphasis on Confucian values. Confucianism is one of the common links that bind the two cultures. In both societies, one can observe apathy towards blatant consumerism, and a high tendency to save, as part of social and moral fabric, a cultural habit that also resulted partly from primacy of family, which has not only continued in modern times, but has also been instrumental in their high saving rates that fuelled their respective economic recoveries.

(iv) Buddhist History & Influence

Both China and Japan share a history of strong Buddhist influence, which first arrived in China from India and then through it, to Japan, carrying along with it many other facets of sculpture, architecture and social practices. Traditional life of ancient times, as depicted by literature, drama and movies in both countries puts Buddhist monasteries, temples and other religious mystiques often at the centre of attention. Zen Buddhism that predominates is Japan was known as Cha’an in China while on its way from India, and derived itself from the Sanskrit word Dhyan, which means meditation.

(v) Kanji Script

There are numerous similarities in language and vocabulary used in the two countries. Kanji, the symbol characters in Japan have a lot in common to the Chinese characters, and can actually be the common link between the Chinese and the Japanese, who do not understand each other's language, but still may be able to recognize the characters and thereby decipher the message therein.

(vi) Similar Evolution in Recent Times

In modern times, both societies have changed in somewhat comparable manners. The majority of people in both countries have adopted the Western outfit as the usual default dress, and traditional outfits are used occasionally for celebrations and festivities. However, in spite of all the Western influence, both countries still follow their own language and script, and though Christmas is an important event, both the countries have their own set of festivals and celebrations.

(vii) Other Commonalities

Perhaps due to the continuous exchanges between people over several centuries, both societies have developed significant commonalities in music, arts, sculpture and architecture. Typical inclined roofs giving a pagoda like appearance are a common feature of buildings in both countries. Lastly, the popularity of martial arts among the people is a common characteristic feature in both societies, even though there may be differences in Japanese and Chinese martial arts techniques.

Differences between the Japanese and the Chinese Cultures

With so many similarities in virtually every aspect of life from race, religion, family, tradition and even script, if you thought that cultures in the two countries are very much alike, you could not be farther from the truth. There are, in fact, dissimilarities that far overweight the similarities between them, and make each of them a very distinct culture. Here are just a few of them.

(i) Chinese Heterogeneity Vs Japanese Homogeneity

Chinese culture has a very long history, and the vast Chinese territory provides a plethora of varieties in each facet of culture, like dresses, food habits, local customs and dialects. The long history and exposure to several nationalities from Indians to the Europeans has brought in a lot of heterogeneity in Chinese culture. In comparison, Japan has remained isolated from external influence for the majority of its recorded history - a factor, which, along with its smaller size has allowed Japan to have a far more homogenous society.

(ii) Distinct & Unrelated Languages

Surprisingly, the main languages of Japan and China are apparently unrelated in their origins. Unlike China, Japan also has a phonetic script, the Hiragana, which has little similarity with Chinese language. It is more like the Indo-European language group, suggesting possible linkages with Prakrit, the language of masses in ancient India, which was adopted by Buddha for his preaching.

(iii) Religiosity & Atheism

Unlike China, Japanese people are far more religious, and follow both Buddhism and Shinto beliefs. In Japan, these two religious philosophies have virtually merged and blended together in a harmonious way that is typical of Eastern Dharmic religious schools like Buddhism and Hinduism. The Kami or the spirits of the ancestors are given a divine status in Japanese shrines, which frequently coexist together with Buddhist pagodas or temples. However, modern Japanese have practically very little time to spare for religion, and his actual religious practices may be very different from his ancestors. The Japanese people also frequent Christian Churches, and lately marriages are often conducted there, similar to Western practices. In this regard, Chinese practices significantly differ, with a vast majority opting for communist ideology of atheism, even though a large segment still practices traditional Buddhism.

(iv) Place of Emperor

Unlike China, loyalty and respect to the Emperor continues to be an important part of Japanese public life. The Emperor continues to be an important influence in Japan, which can probably be best gauged by the fact that he has occupied the highest office of the ruler of Japan since at least the 5th century AD, without a single assassination of a ruler in over fifteen centuries of his history. In China, the Communist Party has absolute control and royalties do not get any recognition today.

(v) Emphasis on Social Harmony

Japanese culture places a lot of emphasis upon harmony in society. Thus, the level of self discipline that is expected from a Japanese person is very high. Even in conversation with each other, Japanese persons follow a very polite approach. In Japan, it would not be easy to come across quarrels in public, people yelling at each other, or other signs of social stress. In comparison, large segments of Chinese population pose the picture of a typical developing country, with level of politeness being relatively less commonly observed in public life. To be fair to the Chinese people, one must add that their level of politeness and social harmony is as good as any other country. It is just that the Japanese people are unique in this regard.

(vi) Differences in Arts & Music

China as well as Japan has its own distinct styles of music, dances and other performing art forms. The Japanese music is highly influenced by the Western counterparts. Another important feature of Japanese culture is its folk dances and traditional festivities. All these are very different from the Chinese dance and music, which has a traditional component as well as more recent genres of popular music. The differences between the movies of the two countries are also notable, with Chinese movies relatively more dominated by martial arts and historical tales, whereas Japanese movies indicate greater experimentation and some great master pieces.

(vii) Distinct Food and Beverages

The Japanese food does not have much in common with its Chinese counterparts. While the Chinese food is spicy and involves a lot of frying and cooking, the Japanese food is far less spicy, and has very subtle flavours compared to other local foods in Asia, as exemplified with Sushi, one of the most well known Japanese dishes. On the contrary, Chinese food provides a variety of cooking styles that indicate the thousands of years of its civilization, and reaffirm that cooking complexities can perhaps be a useful indicator of the depth of a civilization. Both societies have their distinct alcoholic beverages, like Sake and Shochu in Japan and Huagjiu and Baijiu in China.

(viii) Emphasis on Hard Work & Honor

Honor and hard work are two important characteristics of the Japanese culture today, although many people in Japan feel concerned about their relative dilution in subsequent generations, wherein youngsters can sometimes be very choosy about their work. The concept of honor strongly prevails as a social marker of an individual, and brings a lot of discipline in the life of a Japanese individual. Compared to their Chinese counterparts, workers in Japan are likely to be more hard working and also more likely to treat it as an essential part of their work ethics.

(ix) Different Economic Trajectories & its Resultant Consequences

The differences between the cultures of China and Japan have deviated apart further during the last one and a half century, because of the Japanese high growth in the twentieth century, after Meiji revolution and its adoption of Western education and technology in its quest of self improvement. The resulting rise of nationalism in the first half of twentieth century resulted in a unique evolution of Japan, which can be best characterized by the rise of family businesses with their unique Japanese management practices on one hand and the practice of hara-kiri or suicide on part of Japanese soldiers that made their surrender so difficult in the Second World War. After the war, Japan again experienced high rate of economic growth and urbanization, which changed the society completely by the eighties. On the contrary, China society remained highly traditional till the seventies, and although it has experienced unprecedented economic growth in last few decades, the per capita income is still low, except in the larger cities.


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These differences are generalized in a way. Each and every experience may not conform to them. More importantly, differences may be more apparent within the societies, when one lives there itself.

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This is very interesting. Both Japan and China have influenced my country very much. Our highways were built by the Chinese. Anime and Manga have become very popular among the masses here as well.Also programs to go to Japan to teach are very popular among university students.

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In terms of character and discipline, Japanese people always rank to be in the top spot. They truly and passionately love watching anime more than the Chinese people do.

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