35 Common False Friends in Chinese and Japanese

Here’s some good examples I’ve collected of false friends in Chinese and Japanese – that is, words that are used by the two languages but have different meanings.

There are of course many more than the ones I managed to come up with – if you know of any, please leave them in the comments.

Note that I haven’t included terms like 怪我 (Chinese: “blame me”; Japanese: “injury; wound”), 我慢 (Chinese: “I’m slow” or “(Buddhism) egoism”; Japanese: “patience”) and 切手 (Chinese: “cut the hands”; Japanese: “postage stamp”) as they are not actual words in Chinese the way they are in Japanese. Still, you could argue they are false friends too, as they could be misleading to learners of Japanese who can also speak Chinese.


35 Common False Friends in Chinese and Japanese

1. 私

In Chinese 私 means “personal; private” or “selfish”. In Japanese 私 watashi means “I”.

2. 先生

In Chinese 先生 xiānsheng means “mister; sir”. In Japanese 先生 sensei means “teacher”, a sense which is still preserved in Cantonese, Gan, Hakka, Min and some other non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese. In Mandarin and Standard Chinese, however, “teacher” is 老师 (老師) lǎoshī, which in Japanese roshi means “elderly monk; sage”. Lastly, note that in Japanese 先生 also means “sensei (Japanese martial arts teacher)”.

3. 娘

In Chinese 娘 niáng means “woman” or “mother”, though the latter has largely been replaced by 妈妈 māma in modern usage. In Japanese 娘 musume means “daughter”.

4. 汤

In Chinese 汤 (湯) tāng means “soup”. In Japanese 湯 yu means “hot spring” or “hot water”, a sense taken from Literary Chinese.

5. 蛋

In Chinese 蛋 dàn means “egg” or “egg-shaped object”, as in 鸡蛋 jīdàn “hen’s egg”. In Japanese this character is rarely used; 卵 (or 玉子) tamago is used instead. In Chinese 卵 luǎn is a formal term, restricted to “egg” and “ovum” in a biological context.

6. 勉强

In Chinese, 勉强 (勉強) miǎnqiǎng means “to force somebody to do something”, “to make do with difficulty” or “in a forced or reluctant manner”. In Japanese 勉強 benkyō means “studying”, e.g. 勉強するbenkyō suru “to study”.

7. 手纸

In Chinese, 手纸 (手紙) shǒuzhǐ means “toilet paper”. In Japanese 手紙 tegami means “letter (written message)”.

8. 住所

In Chinese, 住所 zhùsuǒ means “residence” or “dwelling”, or in a legal context, “domicile of a corporate body”. In Japanese, 住所 jūsho means “address (location of a property)”.

9. 中古

In Chinese 中古 zhōnggǔ means “the Middle Ages”, or sometimes, “China and Cuba”. In Japanese 中古 chūko means “secondhand item”, a usage which is also common in Taiwan.

10. 汽车

In Chinese 汽车 (汽車) qìchē means “automobile; motor vehicle” or “bus; coach”. In Japanese, 汽車 kisha means “train (locomotive)”. By the same extension, in Chinese 电车 (電車) diànchē means “tram”, while in Japanese 電車 densha means “electric (multiple unit) train”.

11. 爱人

In Chinese 爱人 (愛人) àirén means “spouse; husband or wife” or “sweetheart; lover”. In Japanese, 愛人 aijin means “lover; mistress”.

12. 丈夫

In Chinese 丈夫 zhàngfu means “husband”, “adult man” or “brave man”. In Japanese 丈夫 jōbu means “durable; unbreakable”, “hero; gentleman” or “good health; robustness”.

13. 大丈夫

In Chinese 大丈夫 dàzhàngfu means “real man; man of character”. In Japanese 大丈夫 daijōbu means “all right; okay”.

14. 高等学校

In Chinese 高等学校 (高等學校) gāoděng xuéxiào means “institution of higher learning”. In Japanese 高等学校 kōtō-gakkō means “high school”.

15. 邪魔

In Chinese 邪魔 xiémó means “evil spirit; demon; devil”. In Japanese 邪魔 jama means “obstacle; hindrance” or “nuisance; bother”.

16. 非常

In Chinese 非常 fēicháng means “extremely; very” or, in Literary Chinese, “unusual; extraordinary”. In Japanese 非常 hijō means “extraordinary; unusual” or “emergency”.

17. 旅馆

In Chinese 旅馆 (旅館) lǚguǎn means “hotel”. In Japanese 旅館 ryokan means “ryokan: a traditional-style Japanese inn”.

18. 情报

In Chinese 情报 (情報) qíngbào means “information (of a military or espionage nature); intelligence”. In Japanese 情報 jōhō means “information”, “news” or “gossip”.

19. 方面

In Chinese 方面 fāngmiàn means “aspect”. In Japanese 方面 hōmen means “direction”.

20. 信号

In Chinese 信号 (信號) xìnhào means “signal”. In Japanese 信号 shingō means “signal” or “traffic lights”.

21. 标榜

In Chinese 标榜 (標榜) biāobǎng means “to parade; to advertise; to boast” or “to flaunt; to brag”. In Japanese 標榜 hyōbō means “advocacy; standing for something” e.g. 標榜する hyōbō suru “to advocate; to stand for”.

22. 新闻

In Chinese 新闻 (新聞) xīnwén means “news (reports of current events)”. In Japanese 新聞 shinbun means “newspaper”.

23. 浴衣

In Chinese 浴衣 yùyī means “bathrobe”. In Japanese 浴衣 yukata means “yukata: a kind of light kimono used for general wear”.

24. 鸟

In Chinese 鸟 (鳥) niǎo means “bird”. In Japanese 鳥 tori means both “bird” and “chicken” depending on context.

25. 约束

In Chinese 约束 (約束) yuēshù means “to restrict; to restrain”. In Japanese 約束 yakusoku means “promise” or “appointment”.

26. 侍

In Chinese 侍 shì means “to wait upon; to serve”. In Japanese 侍 samurai means “samurai” or “servant”.

27. 人间

In Chinese 人间 (人間) rénjiān means “the human world; the world of mortals”. In Japanese 人間 ningen means “humans; human beings” or “personality; character”.

28. 暗算

In Chinese 暗算 ànsuàn means “to plot against; to scheme”. In Japanese 暗算 anzan means “mental arithmetic”.

29. 风俗

In Chinese 风俗 (風俗) fēngsú means “social custom”. In Japanese 風俗 fūzoku means both “social custom” and “sex industry”.

30. 人参

In Chinese 人参 (人參) rénshēn means “ginseng”. In Japanese人参 ninjin means “carrot”.

31. 天井

In Chinese 天井 tiānjǐng means “courtyard; patio” or “atrium”. In Japanese 天井 tenjō means “ceiling”.

32. 文句

In Chinese 文句 wénjù means “text and wording in an article”. In Japanese 文句 monku means “complaint”.

33. 研究生

In Chinese 研究生 yánjiūshēng means “graduate student; postgraduate student”. In Japanese 研究生 kenkyūsei means “research student” or “researcher”.

34. 机

In Chinese 机 (機) means “machine; device” or “opportunity; chance”. In Japanese 机 tsukue means “desk; table”.

35. 亲友

In Chinese 亲友 (親友) qīnyǒu means “friends and relatives”. In Japanese 親友 shin’yū means “close friend”.

7 Comments to "35 Common False Friends in Chinese and Japanese"

  1. Cade P.'s Gravatar Cade P.
    13/09/2017 - 3:28 am | Permalink

    It seems like a lot of these terms de-intensify in Japanese.
    Insert some clever remark here.

  2. J S's Gravatar J S
    17/01/2018 - 10:47 am | Permalink

    You mean you think they
    Blanderize, insipidate:
    I’m not sure they do.

    (that was a haiku)

  3. Optimus Prime's Gravatar Optimus Prime
    27/05/2018 - 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting article! FYI you have spelled the Japanese words for 旅館 and 親友 using the simplified Chinese characters in numbers 17 and 35. Good work though!

  4. Jeremy Wong's Gravatar Jeremy Wong
    31/05/2019 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Do you count 上手 and 下手 as false friends?

  5. Myles's Gravatar Myles
    01/06/2019 - 3:46 am | Permalink

    I feel like nowadays, 爱人 shares the Japanese meaning. I’ve only ever heard older Chinese people who reside outside of China use it to mean “spouse”.

  6. Z. Lu's Gravatar Z. Lu
    09/07/2019 - 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I strongly disagree. In China “小三” is the most common term for “Mistress”.

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