While learning Japanese, I've learnt some individual Chinese characters, and some Japanese words made out of Chinese characters.

Are ordinary native Korean speakers, as opposed to someone who has gone out of their way to study Japanese or Chinese, able to understand individual Chinese characters, such as "女", "男", "大", and "小", and Japanese kanji words made up of a combination of Chinese characters, such as "英語", "科学者", and "大学"?

In case location matters, I'm mainly interested in South Korea. I thought that North Korea was ideologically opposed to hanja, though Wikipedia says the situation is more complicated than that, and I assume most zainichi in Japan would have reasonable Japanese.

  • I assume most zainichi people in Japan understand Japanese much better than Korean language.
    – Blaszard
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 5:29

2 Answers 2


I'm a native Korean in early 30s.

Hanja (Hanja in Korea, Hanzi in China, Kanji in Japan) levels of "ordinary native Korean speakers" vary greatly. Some people know a lot, and also many people know merely a few. So thinking about average would not be much useful.

For your examples, I think almost every Korean will know "여", "남", "대" and "소" ("女", "男", "大", and "小"). About "英語", "科学者", and "大学", I think pretty many people will recognize "영어", "과학자" and "대학". But in Korea we strictly stick to traditional Chinese characters, so that "科学者" and "大学" will become "科學者" and "大學".

  • 1
    Why does the literacy vary so much? What variable is correlated the most to it (e.g. age, education level, hometown, etc...)
    – Blaszard
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 5:27
  • @Blaszard Because you don’t have to read or write those characters; those are written in hangul in Korean. They know what the readings mean but they just don’t recognize the characters. “Anti-” and “ἀντί-” would be a good analogy. Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 16:29

There are 2136 chinese characters that Japanese use daily. Higher level Kanji goes up to 6000+ characters. Some of them are in simplified form which typical Koreans might not be familiar with.

In South Korea, at the elementary school level, students are expected to learn around 500 characters. At the middle school level, cumulative of 900 characters. Additionally 900 or so characters in high school. Not everybody learns them perfectly, but most of them with good education can still read at least 500 and up to 1800 just from public education. I'm not certain that these are a subset of the 2136 Kanji, but it certainly has a large overlap.

As for myself, I had a little bit of interaction with Japanese culture, and I can read about 50% of the Kanji in a random Japanese newspaper article.

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