Hello, everyone! I’m a Japanese man who’s been studying Korean for three years now. I’ve been doing a language exchange with a South Korean study abroad student in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo “Koreatown” district, learning about both the Korean language and culture.

During the past few years, I’ve discovered several points of interest regarding Japan and Korea. Today, I’d like to share with you three things that surprised me as a Japanese person studying Korean.

The following article is a direct translation of an account written from the perspective of our Japanese reporter. Take it away, sir!


▼A store selling Korean pop cultural goods in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s “Koreatown.”

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1. Korean grammar is almost exactly the same as Japanese grammar

Many people who study Japanese run into a road block when it comes to the difference between the particles ha [the topic marker, pronounced ‘wa’] and ga [the subject marker]. But for Korean speakers, these words pose no problem at all! That’s because the Korean language has two particles that are basically equivalent to wa and ga, and the difference between them is basically the same as in Japanese. To give more examples, Korean also has particles with similar meanings to the Japanese de [a place/time/means of marker], ni [a place/time marker], and wo [the object marker], and the syntax is almost exactly the same in both languages.

Translator’s note: Japanese books for learning Korean. I personally find that studying Korean from Japanese as opposed to studying from English is much easier because of all of the similarities.


These similarities are partially why Korean people who study Japanese have incredibly accurate grammar, and are typically able to pick up Japanese much more quickly than speakers of other languages. But there is one critical area where Korean people do tend to make grammatical errors like speakers of other languages do–distinguishing between the verbs iru and aru (both mean “to be,” with one crucial difference)

In Japanese, you use iru to describe living things, while aru describes non-living things. However, the Korean language doesn’t make that distinction, and there’s only one word that denotes “to be.” As a result, sometimes Korean people speaking in Japanese will make mistakes such as “The bird was [arimashita] on the branch” (tori ga eda no ue ni arimashita/鳥が枝の上にありました) or “The dog is [arimasu] in front of the house” (inu ga ie no mae ni arimasu/犬が家の前にあります), using the incorrect form of the verb.

▼Can’t you tell I’m alive and well from all my singing!?

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In addition, there’s no sound in Korean like the Japanese sound tsu (つ; the sound at the beginning of “tsunami”). Korean people often compensate for this lack of a sound by pronouncing it as chu instead. However, if we disregard these differences, Korean really is just like Japanese! Even I was surprised by how similar the two languages are when I first started studying Korean. If you happen to be studying Japanese right now, try taking a look at Korean grammar sometime, and see how similar they are for yourself.

▼A sign in a Japanese bookstore encouraging people to embrace the current boom of Korean culture.

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2. Seniority shapes human relations 

Whenever you meet a Korean person, they are highly likely to ask you, “How old are you?” This question is not meant to be rude in any way; it merely illustrates the extent to which age holds a special significance in Korean culture. For instance, no matter how friendly or close you are to someone, if he or she is even one year older than you, you will not technically recognize each other as “friends” (translator’s note: the specific word our Japanese reporter uses here is tomodachi/友達). Instead, Korean has clear-cut terms for almost every type of “dual” relationship you can think of, such as upperclassman/underclassman (like the Japanese terms senpai and kohai), older brother/younger brother, and older sister/younger sister. In fact, Korean makes an even finer distinction between siblings that Japanese doesn’t–there are separate words depending on if you’re a boy or girl talking to your older brother or sister (hyeong/형 and nuna/누나 [“older brother” and “older sister” coming from a younger brother] versus oppa/오빠 and eonni/언니 [“older brother” and “older sister” coming from a younger sister]).

In Japan, if you’re friendly with someone and the two of you are one, two, five, or even up to about ten years different in age, depending on the circumstances, it may still be socially acceptable for you to refer to each other as “friends” and speak to one another using casual language (translator’s note: Japanese and Korean have highly complex levels of politeness woven into the language structures). However, in Korea, any relationship that involves a gap in age is absolute and defining. If someone is older than you, it’s impossible to be considered “friends,” and as a general rule of thumb you must alter your speech patterns accordingly. The only exceptions are some instances when an older person may explicitly say “It’s OK to use casual language with me” as a way to reduce some of the feeling of social distance that comes from using polite language.

All of these complex relationships make for some interesting social dynamics. The terms to address the people you are friendly with are taken directly from the terms used to refer to older/younger siblings. For example, girls who are friendly with older boys (remember, “older” means even by just a day!) often refer to them as “older brothers,” whereas boys who are friendly with older girls often refer to them as “older sisters.” Perhaps these titles are a cultural indication that the people you hang out with should ideally be able to look out for you as if they were your older siblings.

▼Ladies, how many oppas do you have?

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In addition, these appellations often continue even after a couple begins dating, especially for girls referring to their boyfriends (translator’s note: surely you’ve seen a Korean drama, or listened to a K-Pop song, where a girl is gushing about her oppa?). I believe that this last point is actually because many Korean men wish to be called oppa by their girlfriends to project an image of reliability. A man may even specifically ask the girl he is dating to call him oppa, even if they happen to be the same age. 

▼At the very least, this guy’s famous line “Your oppa is Gangnam Style!” should ring a bell.

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As a Japanese person, it seems to odd to me to address your romantic partner in the same way that you would a sibling. In Japan, it’s not as common for people to call others who are non-blood related siblings “older brother” (お兄ちゃん) or “older sister” (お姉ちゃん) to begin with, so if I were to see a romantically-involved couple calling each other by these epithets, I would have the impression that they were having a forbidden love.

3. Tremendous respect and consideration is given to those older than you/the elderly

My third observation connects to the previous one above. In Korea, the amount of respect and consideration given to those older than you is truly incredible. For example, in general, it would be a discourtesy to smoke in front of older people. Also, it’s not considered polite to drink alcohol directly facing someone who’s older than you–instead, you should turn to the side and drink sideways so as not to be conspicuous. Even though respect for the aged is stressed in Japanese culture, I feel like Korean culture definitely takes it to a whole other level.

This cultural feature is salient in the Korean language as well. No matter who the person is–even your mother, or father–as long they’re older than you, you’re expected to use special honorific language when addressing or referring to them. This aspect differs from modern Japanese, in which honorifics are often required depending on the specific social dynamics, but are not typically used when speaking to your parents.

When I talked to my Korean friend about all of this, he replied, “This is a general rule, but youth nowadays are starting to drop the polite language with their parents. Especially girls–I have a feeling that more and more of them aren’t using honorifics anymore.” Perhaps this means the “absolute polite language” culture in Korea is starting to die out? Even so, it’s still a surprising cultural discovery for a Japanese person like myself. Looking at it like this, I really get a feeling like “Yeah, Korea is definitely a Confucianist country.”

▼Filial piety (孝) is one of the central virtues of Confucianism.

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Well, what did you think? Were you able to learn something new about Korean and Japanese culture? If I look at it this way, I’ve been able to learn many other things besides the language since I started studying Korean. Studying languages really is fascinating, isn’t it? What kind of discoveries have the rest of you made while studying foreign languages? Share away in the comments section below!

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