If you are unfamiliar with the writing systems used in Asia, the written forms of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese might seem similar to you. It is true that Korean and Japanese sometimes use Chinese ideograms. However, these three systems used for three distinct languages are very different. If you learn to observe special character shapes and text formats, you may easily be able to tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, even if you cannot read them.
Method 1 of 2: Observe the shape of characters
Step 1. Find circles and ovals for Korean
Oval and circles are very common forms of Korean writing that hardly ever appear in Chinese or Japanese. If you see a lot of ovals and open circles, as well as open squares, you can be pretty sure you have Korean in front of you.
- Even though Japanese also has curves, there are no circles as is the case with Korean.
- Korean is written with an alphabet comparable to that of French. However, the symbols are combined by syllables (i.e. two or three letters) to create a single character. You will also see vertical or horizontal lines that separate the letters.
Step 2. Learn to recognize complex Chinese square characters
Chinese ideograms (called "hanzi" in Chinese and "kanji" in Japanese) can appear in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. However, if you don't see anything other than Chinese characters, you are dealing with Chinese. It is the only language that only uses the hanzi characters.
- Chinese characters are extremely detailed. The strokes never overstep the character boundaries, resulting in a constant and uniform writing line.
- On the contrary, Japanese presents a more open and airy writing.
- Even though the symbols of Korean writing are arranged in order, they are not as dense and complex as those of Chinese and have a lot more space.
Chinese ideograms rarely appear in modern Korean writing. However, if you look at older texts, you might see some surrounded by Korean characters, especially if they are words of Chinese origin.
Step 3. Identify Japanese by its light, loose symbols
The loose, curved lines that are not limited in a small box are Japanese hiragana. The characters are extremely simple compared to Korean or Chinese, some require only one pencil stroke.
If you want to recognize it even faster, look for the presence of the "の" symbol. Neither Korean nor Chinese have a character that looks like "の". It is an easy to find symbol that you can easily remember. If you see it in text, you are probably dealing with Japanese, even if you notice Chinese characters
Method 2 of 2: Analyze the format of the text
Step 1. Determine the orientation of the writing
In addition to the characters, you can often tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean based on the direction of the writing, i.e. horizontal or vertical. You might also know which language it is if you can identify the reading direction, i.e. left to right or vice versa.
- If Japanese is written vertically, the columns are read from top to bottom starting from the top right corner of the page. However, if Japanese is written horizontally, it will be read from left to right, like European languages.
- Observe the spaces between the lines to see if the text is written vertically or horizontally. In the case of horizontal text, there will be spaces between the lines, but in the case of vertical text, the spaces will be found between the columns.
- Japanese comics and magazines are written vertically, meaning you read them from right to left. It is for this reason that the spine of the book is on the right.
even if you don't know how to read the text, you can usually tell in which direction it reads if the margin is justified. If so, you'll know the text reads left to right.
Step 2. Observe the spaces between the words
Chinese and Japanese do not separate individual words like European languages do. However, Koreans have adopted this convention and leave spaces between words.
Even if you can't read the text, you should be able to tell whether the characters are organized into separate blocks or not. For example, when you read Greek or Russian, even though you cannot read the alphabet, you may recognize different words
Step 3. Identify the western punctuation
While Japanese uses its own punctuation, Korean uses the same as that of European languages. If you see punctuation that you recognize, you probably have Korean in front of you.