One of the most distinct cultural differences that one can tell is from languages. It’s common to see that neighbourhood countries share similarity in their languages. In this East Asian corner, you may find some Japanese characters similar to Chinese characters and many Chinese words’ pronunciation similar to Korean, because of the influence of ancient Chinese language in the history. But they have very different grammars and belong to different language families after new creation and development.
It might be easier for English or Spanish speaking people to pronounce Japanese because of syllable features. Among these three languages, handwriting of Korea and grammar of Chinese are comparably easier. However, the difficulty differs from person to person.
Furthermore, these are all high-context languages and ¨possess countless homonym¨ as well as intimation in expressions (¨sobrentendido¨), stated by Erin Meyer in her book The Culture Map. Listeners are responsible to interpret the implicit message and ¨second-degree message¨ in the words.
Culture differences can also been implicated from people’s attitude towards fashion, including the basic aspects of clothing and further needs of beauty.
The development of clothing of these countries influence one another. In ancient time, the evolution of Japanese
Kimono was influenced by Late Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty in China, and Korean Hanbok by Ming Dynasty to a large extent. In modern time, there are many stores selling Korean and Japanese style apparel in China, affected greatly by K-pop and J-pop. Theses Asian styles are rare to find in Western countries.
It’s amazing to see people wearing traditional national costume during festivals or even daily life in South Korea and Japan. Unlike them, traditional clothing keeps changing in China so can not have a fixed representatives. This happens because of the various dynasty changes in the history and multi-ethic groups it has.
The more known Chinese cheongsam (qipao) for women and Tang suit jacket for men, which are both developed from Late Qing Dynasty, can be considered as traditional formal wear in some cases. Another more popular wearing for male is Chinese tunic suit, which was influenced by new style Japanese uniform. Compared to western suit, it remains traditional features in details and fit Asian figures more so is favoured by Chinese national leaders and some businessmen.
A funny quote says that Japanese make-up, Korean cosmetic surgery and Chinese PS (photo editing) are the three major beauty magic in Asia. Affected by patriarchal society, women usually try hard to look prettier and whiter with standard given by men.
It’s more like an unwritten rule that female in Japan and South Korea regardless of age and occupation are supposed to wear make up. This common sense is more severe in Japanese society and normally accepted starting from high school age. For them it’s a necessary courtesy to show respect. A female staff member could possibly be complained by her clients for not having makeup.
Conversely, makeup is highly restricted in Chinese high school. Students uniforms are also designed to be more like sportswear in mainland China and of course less pretty than Japanese and Korean. This is aimed to let student concentrate more on their studies and avoid comparison of appearance at an early age. Even female students in universities who do always wear obvious makeup can be seemed as too sociable and not good or natural in a traditional way. Another fun fact is that it’s common to see Japanese and South Korean school boys or girls wearing shorts or skirts with bare knees in winter, while this will hardly happen in China.
In recent decades, although many Chinese female also pursuit beauty and fashion, there are comparably more persons who do not do make up in China. In case of male, the general impression is that Korean and Japanese men also tend to care more about being tidy and fashionable than Chinese men. However, perhaps men doing make up is becoming normal in the other two countries, it’s considered as girly and greatly disliked by Chinese men.
As typical Asian countries, all of these countries have relatively high context culture. So there are more uncertainty and ambiguity in their communication. In addition, they have more ¨respect for hierarchy of status and authority¨, said by researchers Kamal Fatehi and Deema deSilva from Wichita State University. Hierarchy is manifested in the relationship in family, in school, in office and even between two genders. Comparably China has the least hierarchy in daily life among the three countries.
According to the country comparison in Hofstede´s culture study, Japan and South Korea also have much higher uncertainty avoidance than China. In agreement with this study, Kamal further concluded that ¨there are more communication formalities and more codification of nonverbal behavior among high uncertainty avoidance culture¨. It´s even found that Japan is one of the top five countries that are high on uncertainty avoidance worldwide. Similarly, Erin also considers Japan as the highest-context culture in the world.
South Korea and Japan perform better at continuing traditional culture and as a result have more restrict etiquette and hierarchy than China in modern times.
The principle dinning etiquette of showing respect to the elders and seniors is shared by these three countries but differences exist. For example in South Korea the juniors should turn and face aside while drinking and cover with a hand in front of the seniors.
Basically the tradition of prostration or ¨kowtow¨ can only been seen in weddings and funerals in China to show respect to their parents. It’s believed that a man should have dignity and not grovel or bow down easily. But this traditional etiquette is more usual in the other two countries because of their seating habits. For instance, South Korean football and music stars kneel on the ground and give deep bow to their fans to show gratitude, and Japanese perform Dogeza to apologize with great sincerity.
These countries have similar education system, influenced by the ancient Civil Service Examination System. For students in these countries, college entrance examination is the most important event in one’s career. The average competition for this exam in South Korea and Japan will not be lower than that in China. Students suffer from stress and anxiety and have to get used to direct comparison of their grades. It’s considered so important by many of them because this exam can mostly decide and change their social class in the future.
Can you differ Japanese, Chinese and South Korean now?
I hope that this post can give you an general ideal. In reality, one could meet a Japanese, Chinese or Korean distinct from studies. It happens because the regional differences within a country and the variations between private and public culture all play an important role. The ideal way to learn how to communicate and do business with people with huge cultural differences is to learn from experience.