How to Tell Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Writing Apart

At first glance, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters may be difficult to tell apart, but there are differences between each of them that can help you. All three are written with characters that are unfamiliar to Western readers, but you do not need to be intimidated by this unfamiliarity. These steps can help you be a lot more sure which of three you are looking at.


  1. 1
    Look for circles and ovals. Korean uses a phonetic alphabet called Hangul, which is distinguishable by the large number of circles, ovals, and straight lines (example: 안녕하세요)If the block of text you are reading has these characteristic round shapes, chances are it is Korean. If not, go to step 2.
  2. 2
    Look for simple characters. Japanese writing has 3 main components: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic systems, while kanji are derived from Chinese characters. Many hiragana characters are curvy, but do not have the neat round shapes of Korean (e.g さっか). Katakana, on the other hand, uses mostly straight or slightly curved lines in relatively simple combinations (e.g. チェンジ ). Chinese and Korean do not use either of these systems. Note that Japanese writing uses a mixture of hiragana, katakana, and kanji in the same text, so if you see either hiragana or katakana or both, you are looking at Japanese. The links below show you full lists of hiragana and katakana characters.
    • Hiragana
      some common Hiragana: あ,お,ん,の,か
    • Katakana
      some common Katakana: ア,リ,エ,ガ,ト
  3. 3
    If you do not see the characteristic shapes of Korean Hangul or Japanese hiragana or katakana, then you are probably looking at Chinese. Chinese writing has complicated characters called hanzi in Chinese, kanji in Japanese, and hanja in Korean. Although these characters are also found in Japanese, if there are hiragana or katakana, it is Japanese. So if you are looking at a small block of text that has only complex hanzi characters, you cannot rule out that it is Japanese. However, if you are looking at a large block of text and see no hiragana or katakana, then you can be pretty sure that it is Chinese.


  • Korean doesn't always have circles in the characters. The circle is simply one of their "letters."
  • In some Old Korean books, there may be some hanja (Chinese hanzi that was once used), but it is quite rare, and is not generally used anymore. Still, if you can recognize the Hangul, it is Korean.
  • Hiragana are frequently more curvy and without sharp turns, while Katakana are more straight lined and clean.
  • Korean Hangul was not derived from Chinese hanzi, so they tend to look more different from Chinese writing than Japanese writing (as the Japanese kana are derived from Chinese characters).
  • Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, so it's extremely easy to tell apart.
  • Remember that Japanese borrows (and uses) some Chinese characters, but remember that if there are hiragana or katakana, it is certainly Japanese.
  • Most Chinese hanzi are quite complicated (for example: 語) and look more cryptic than syllabic characters like hiragana or Hangul.
  • Korean uses spacing between words, Vietnamese uses spacing between syllables, and Thai uses spacing between sentences. Japanese and Chinese does not use spacing.


  • Just because there are no hiragana or katakana, this does not guarantee that it's Chinese. It's just probably not Japanese. There is a very good chance that it is, but there are rare exceptions.

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