I'd like to know in general how (in which measure) written Japanese is intelligible to Chinese speakers (when kana syllabaries are not used).
For example a few days ago when Yoshihide Suga was chosen a banner in the hotel hall where people were meeting read the following

Other example here:

Can Chinese speakers (native or not) understand what it's about here ? Can more complex texts using kanjis only be fairly well understood also ?


  • 自由民主党総裁選挙 I can get a gist of it, though I don't know Japanese at all. It looks like about "some liberal&democratic Party leader's election". I might be wrong. It's what I read from pure Chinese perspective.
    – dan
    Sep 16, 2020 at 14:03
  • As a native traditional Chinese user, I can understand or guess correctly probably 70-90% of kanjis(漢字). e.g. 自由民主黨總裁選舉 chairman election of 自由民主黨 Sep 16, 2020 at 14:05
  • 自由民主黨青年局 女性局 主催(means 主辦)總裁選舉 公開討論會(could be 公開辯論會 or 公開政見發表會) Sep 16, 2020 at 14:20
  • 1
    i think that most taiwanese, hongkonger can read kanji (no kana) without difficulty. particular generations born aft-1960s, watched enough japanese tv series, movies & mangas; more than 80% of situation, we can grasp the meaning correctly 😎 Sep 16, 2020 at 14:37
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    @水巷孑蠻 I don't want to be political. As far as traditional characters are concerned, majority of mainland speakers can read them. But we just don't know how to write it. Probably only very few uneducated can't. That's the comment I'm trying to make here.
    – dan
    Sep 17, 2020 at 0:14

1 Answer 1


With some exceptions (discussed below), Japanese kanji is mostly intelligible to people who can read Traditional and Simplified Chinese. One helpful contributing factor is the compositionality of many Chinese/Sino-Japanese expressions, which you could intuit the meaning of by identifying what the individual characters mean. A person who is unaware of a specific Japanese usage might still be able to guess the meaning this way. At the text level, context also helps.

The banner text in all three orthographies as follows:

Japanese: 自由民主党青年局 女性局主催 総裁選挙 公開討論会

Traditional Chinese: 自由民主黨青年局 女性局主催 總裁選舉 公開討論會

Simplified Chinese: 自由民主党青年局 女性局主催 总裁选举 公开讨论会

Simplified Chinese reduces some characters further than Japanese, but there's still broad agreement.

In the banner text, the only phrase that might be unfamiliar to Chinese readers is 主催, which is somewhat archaic. However, context and compositionality should allow a reader to infer the meaning.

So a Chinese reader would understand the text, word by word, as the following, resorting to compositionality if the phrase is unfamiliar:

[free/liberty] [democracy] [political party] [youth] [bureau] [female] [bureau] [main/to be in charge + to urge] [chairperson/president/CEO] [election] [open to public] [discussion] [meeting/association].

From there, most would guess that it says something like 'Liberal Democratic Party Youth Bureau / Women's Bureau sponsoring Chairperson Election Open Forum'.

The modern equivalent of 主催 is 主辦/主办. 女性局 is more likely to be phrased as something like 婦女局/妇女局. Aside from those two differences, it's fairly idiomatic Chinese.

The exceptions listed in the beginning usually involve phrases that have gone through significant semantic drift in either language, some wasei-kango, and ateji. These include some very common words, so being unfamiliar with them could lead to serious misunderstanding. Examples include 勉強 ('study' in Japanese, 'reluctant/to do with difficulty/to force someone to do something' in Chinese), 私 ('I' in Japanese, 'self/private' in Chinese), 大丈夫 ('alright' in Japanese, 'real man' in Chinese), and so on.

However, these are also unlikely to occur in kanji-only environment outside of 伪中国语. Thanks to pop culture, some Chinese readers with no knowledge of Japanese may still be aware of the more common false friends. 大丈夫 and 大変 (大變/大变), for instance, are occasionally used with the Japanese meanings in Internet slang.

  • For your information, 梁启超 (one of the prominent figures in Chinese literature), on the boat sailing to Japan to run away the Qing government's arrest, finish reading the classic 《源氏物语》and understand more than 80% of it without learning Japanese at all. He just read the Kanji part of the book and figure out himself, Sep 17, 2020 at 22:57

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