Japanese/Chinese Words Series Pt. 3: Insanely Different Meanings!

Photo: Douglas Perkins on Wikimedia Commons

Japanese/Chinese Words Series Pt. 3: Insanely Different Meanings!

Jackson Lee

Ever wondered how weird two languages that share some of the same written elements can cause massive confusions? If you have checked out the previous two articles, you would have already read 16 perfect examples of how the same characters can mean drastically different things when understood in Chinese and in Japanese. If those weren’t enough to surprise you and your friends, here is the final batch of 8 more that would blow your linguistic part of your brain away (or at least get a chuckle).

  • 泥棒 Dorobou


(Dorobo ni naranaide kudasai)

Don't be a thief.

The Japanese word for “thief” is dorobou, those who have played tag with Japanese children may be familiar with. The same characters, when read in Chinese, mean “mud” and “stick” respectively.

How does a muddy stick represent a thief is quite a mystery that even detectives can’t solve.

  • 一時間 Ichijikan


(Kore ni wa ichi jikan kakarimasu)

This will take one hour.

To count time, the Japanese use「一時間」(ichijikan) for one-hour,「二時間」(nijikan) for two-hours,「三時間」(sanjikan) for three and so on. This pattern wouldn’t work in Chinese, however, as 時間 simply means “time” in Chinese, and count “one time, two time, three time” (not equal to once, twice, etc.) does not indicate any specific segments of time, thus, not making any sense.

By the way, in Chinese,「一小時」 means one-hour, which I suppose you can understand it is “one small time”…… which wouldn’t make sense to Japanese speakers either.

  • 汁 Shiru


(Konya wa miso shiro o tabemasu)

Tonight we will eat miso soup.

We have covered the differences between “soup” and “hot water” in a previous article, and this time, the liquid confusion comes with this character. In Japanese, it means “soup”, as in みそ汁 for miso-soup. In Chinese, means “juice”, as in the word 蘋果汁for apple juice.

So, supermarkets in China aren’t selling apple-soup, and there isn’t actually miso-juice in Japan either.

  • 頂戴 Choudai

「頂戴?」A common phrase you can hear in Japan when someone asks (causally) someone else to pass them or hand over an item. It is far off from having manners, but for sure acceptable among family and friends. In Chinese, 頂 means “top” or “peak”, and 戴 means “to wear (a hat)”.

This one is really over my head.


(Jyuusu choudai)

Give me juice. 

  • 無茶苦茶 Muchakucha

This one is hilarious. The Japanese phrase for “absurd” or “unreasonable” is often used verbally to express something being at the extreme level. To break it down in Chinese, 無茶 means “no tea”, and 苦茶 means “bitter tea”. I believe this “no tea bitter tea” expression has absolutely no relation to the whole “no ___ no life” phrase that is way overused in Japan. However, I suppose for a Chinese or Japanese household to have no tea at home is, in fact, pretty absurd and unheard of.


(Anata no iiwake wa mechakucha desu)

Your excuse is unreasonable. 

  • 上手 Jouzu

The kanji of “up” and “hand” combine to create the complement that someone is great at doing something. The same combination in Chinese means someone has gotten used to doing something. I suppose we can understand the link between the two, but let’s read on for the opposite……

うわー! あなたは上手く描いています。

(Uwa–! Anata wa jouzuku kaiteimasu)

Wow! You are good at drawing.

  • 下手 Heta

The opposite of the complement in Japanese pairs the kanji of “down/under” and “hand” to say that someone isn’t good at doing something. In Chinese, however, it has the very unrelated meaning of someone beginning to do something. It may have a historical origin of performing execution on enemy by slicing your sword. Regardless of how it came to be, it has come to be quite confusing for those learning both languages.


(Watashi wa eigo ga hetta)

My English is not good.

  • 結構 Kekkou


(Keiko desu)

No thank you.

A polite way to decline an offer in Japanese when you already have enough of the offered thing is to say 「結構です」, signalling that you do not require more. The word can also be used as an adverb similar to “very” for emphasis. The Chinese meaning of the word means, well, “structure”, as in, the structure of a building.

Sometimes the confusion levels are really just through the roof.

Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit of language knowledge today. These linguistic puzzles are endless among the languages in the word, and that’s one of the beauties of global communication. At the very least, now you have more questions to go test your friends!