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Weighing in: Should you learn Chinese or Japanese?

Weighing in: Should you learn Chinese or Japanese?

A surprisingly common question is, “Should I learn Chinese or Japanese?” This is, equally, a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

There’s a lot of different factors that would influence your decision. I’ll be covering a handful of different things, but we’ll focus on the earning aspect first.



Should I learn Chinese or Japanese?

From a purely financial perspective, learn Chinese, specifically Mandarin. Japanese pays slightly more, but there are fewer job opportunities. Chinese pays slightly less, but there’s more opportunity. Also, the growth of Chinese is almost guaranteed in the future, while Japan’s economy has been relatively stagnant for many years.


What’s the pay like for a Japanese speaker?

Several factors are going to affect this. First, and perhaps most obviously, is what kind of job you have. Next, it’s what other languages can you pair with Japanese.

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re at least fairly fluent in English. Another big factor is your location.

For example, if you’re in Chicago, in an in demand specialization for Japanese, you could be pulling in nearly six figures.

If you’re living in Japan and working a blue collar job you can expect to make just over $24,000 a year, nearly a quarter the earnings of a native Japanese person in a similar role.

Lucky you, however, if you go the somewhat more lucrative route, you’ll be earning roughly on par with your Japanese colleagues at around three grand a month.

Plus, one nice thing about Japan is that, in theory, no avenue is closed to you if your language skills are good enough.

Depending on your specialization, your salary could rise even higher. Engineers can make $3.5k. Marketing and sales geniuses could even get close to five grand!

And if you’re an IT consultant of considerable skill, you could push even further, close to six grand a month.

Finally, of course, if you start your own business you could end up striking it rich. Would you, strictly speaking, need Japanese to do that?

No. You could rely on interpreters and whatnot, but I imagine a good grounding in the language would give you a serious leg up.

As a translator you could also make good money, turning Japanese into English.

On average you can get 9-12 cents per word, although, again, specialization can help pump that price up.

Translating patent forms? Big money. Lunch menus? Not so much.

And, unlike Chinese, the demand for Japanese translators isn’t quite as high. In fact, it’s less than 75% of the Chinese demand according to some numbers.

What’s the pay like for a Chinese speaker?

There’s a surprising amount of variance in salary for foreign workers in China.

At the low end, for those trying to build a career in China from the ground up, you might make as little as $1,200 a month.

Of course, the cost of living in China is significantly lower than in the West, so that $1,200 goes a lot further.

In the mid-range you can expect to find jobs for between $3-4.5k, which can afford you a pretty great standard of living almost anywhere in China.

And if you can leverage your Chinese speaking skills into a job at a multi-national company, with lots of experience behind you, you could even be making six-figures a year, which would give you a very posh lifestyle indeed.

Chinese opportunities outside China

Another great advantage to Chinese is that you’re not locked into mainland China.

You can bring your skills to Taiwan, Malaysia, or Singapore, not to mention to any of the wide-ranging Chinese diaspora communities around the world.

And, as with Japanese, if you develop your skills as a translator, you can work from nearly anywhere.

Chinese to English translators don’t make quite as much as Japanese translators do, but the difference is only a penny or so per word, depending on specialization.

Plus, the demand for Chinese to English translators is much larger.

Chinese vs. Japanese

What’s the final word on money between the languages?

From my analysis of the situation, I would say that, for the moment, it’s a pretty even split between the two, when you compare the cost of living.

However, it’s hard to say, especially as China is growing, and Japan is… not.

There’s probably a lower ceiling on what you can expect from your earnings and lifestyle from learning Japanese.

And with regards to China, that ceiling is likely to keep climbing higher and higher for the foreseeable future.

What other factors should I consider?

So, since the difference is fairly small, earnings-wise, one thing to consider is the road in front of you.

For Japan, there’s a long history of foreigners coming to work there. There’s a clear path and tons of information and companies willing to hold your hand through the process (for some money, of course).

It’s different for China. The country only found political stability after World War II, and has only opened up to foreign workers in a broad sense in the last generation.

The information out there is constantly changing, and often difficult to get a handle on.

Let’s also consider two more things: the cultural differences and the language differences themselves.

f the environment doesn’t suit you, a small advantage in potential earnings probably isn’t worth it.

Ditto if you end up needing three more years to learn one language over the other. So, let’s look at these factors.

Environment: Japan

I’ll be honest, I’m a little biased towards Japan. I love China, but I love Japan. It’s where I feel most at home.

Let’s cover the obvious things first. Japan is safe. Sure, you’ll get some discussion on the internet about just how safe it actually is compared to the numbers the government puts out, but compared to just about any other developed nation in the world, it is incredibly safe.

Anecdote: I was working at a Starbucks on my laptop. I was hungry.

I left all my stuff at the table in Starbucks, went across the street to the mall, up to the sixth floor, ordered fresh-made Indian food, waited, sat down and ate it, then returned to my untouched property at Starbucks.

There’s not another place on Earth I’d do that.

Japan’s also a wanderer’s paradise. Every inch of the country has some sort of cultural significance and they let you know about it.

There’s a wide variety of terrain to enjoy, from Alps-like mountains, to wide, flowery fields, to even one (admittedly very small) desert.

And with Japan’s laws on camping wild being virtually non-existent, along with tradition of camping wild, you can pitch a tent just about anywhere you aren’t in the way.

Heck, I’ve pitched my tent in the center of Tokyo for a few nights.

Not to mention the food and drinks are incredible, and much more varied than you might think if you’ve never visited.

Plus, you rarely have to worry about food safety. It’s all clean water, and relatively fastidious sanitation practices.

What are the cons? For those staying a long time, the social culture can be a tough adjustment at times.

There’s also a lot of monotony to the scenery after a while, depending on how much you travel and where you live—the cities tend to all look a lot alike.

Environment: China

China’s cons, on the other hand, are pretty well known. Air quality can be literally deadly in some places at some times.

The water’s not generally safe to drink. Food sanitation can be iffy, at best.

And if you don’t adjust quickly to the social flow, you’ll find yourself waiting at the convenience store counter for hours as people push ahead of you.

But the pros can outweigh the cons, in my opinion. The people are super friendly and wonderful to talk to.

The country is huge, presenting almost every type of environment this planet has to offer, and it has an affordable high-speed rail system connecting all of it (faster than Japan, by a lot!).

Plus, while Japan’s claims to cultural homogeneity are way overblown, it’s nothing compared to China, where the culture and even language shifts wildly depending on where you are in the country.

China is a feast of varied experience and opportunity. But it’s a bit unpredictable.

China is like going to a pot luck dinner with a bunch of world renowned chefs—you have no idea what you’re going to get, or if it’ll even be to our taste.

Japan is like going to an all-ramen dinner with a bunch of renowned chefs each giving their own interpretation—as long as you like the general idea, you’ll probably like all of it, but you’ll get a lot of interesting depth in the experience.

Language: Japanese

I’ll get some flack for this, I’m sure, but I’d say Japanese is harder than Chinese and will require much more time to reach a useful level of fluency.

Japanese requires mastery of about 2,500 kanji to be truly literate, plus another almost hundred syllabic characters.

To top it off, the vast majority of those kanji can each have multiple meanings as well as multiple pronunciations (usually at least two, sometimes well over half a dozen).

These writing systems then get twisted together to represent native-Japanese words, ancient Chinese compounds, and modern foreign concepts.

Then you need to fully rewire your brain to shove the verb at the end of the sentence, drop the need for a subject, and pick up the nature of particles.

If you already speak Korean, good news, Japanese won’t be too hard for you.

Ditto German (or so I hear). Verbs work similarly to German, so it’s less of a leap than it is for us native English speakers.

If you speak Chinese, you can focus your energy on speaking and grammar since you’ll recognize most of the characters.

If you speak English or any other Romance language, good luck. It’s a long road.

Language: Chinese

Contrary to popular belief, you actually need to know fewer characters in Chinese to be considered literate—just 2,000. Plus, each character has only one way it’s said, and generally just one meaning.

To be considered well-educated in Chinese, you’ll probably end up knowing about 8,000 characters.

But, when you consider that each character stands alone (unlike Japanese, where each character changes constantly based on how it’s used), it’s not as big of a hurdle as you might imagine.

Chinese does have a concept of particles, but they’re more intuitive than they are in Japanese. And the grammar order is quite familiar to use European language speakers.

Chinese has those pesky tones, which are intimidating, sure, but they can be learned. And once you learn the four tones, that’s basically it, you’re done.

Japanese? You need to get your intonation right for every single word, and there isn’t even tons of readily available information on it, like there is for Chinese.

If I had to give my opinion (disclaimer: I’m a newb in Chinese, intermediate in Japanese), I’d say Chinese is way, way easier.

Learning Japanese or Chinese: Final verdict

If I’m advising someone who is strictly looking at future career and professional opportunities, I’d have to say learn Chinese instead of Japanese.

Chinese is more widely spoken, is comparatively easier (or at least not more difficult), and shows signs of serious growth into the future.

But don’t let that deter you if you really love Japan. There is lots of room to make money and live an equally good life off of your bilingual English-Japanese abilities.

If you really can’t decide, go over to Duolingo, or some other free learning source, and try each language out for a bit. Watch some movies in each language.

Maybe take a look at some documentaries too. Find the one that suits you best and then aim for the stars!