Differences between Korea and Japan

It may well have been a way of avoiding having to keep speaking, but I was surprised by how often my Korean students who had been to Japan (most of them) said that it was basically the same as Korea. Most of the rest of them seemed mainly to have noticed that Japan is clean, which seems like a strange thing to be really aware of on holiday! Perhaps because I went straight from one to the other, I was mainly struck by the differences:


 Japanese emigration to America a bit earlier

 Lots of Korean adoptees in America

 American military still in Seoul but totally moved out of Tokyo

 Koreans in US famous as shopkeepers

Architecture and housing

 In Korea, floors are traditionally made of oiled paper rather than the tatami (rush matting) of Japan

 Floor heating is common in Korea

 Brick buildings are fairly common in Korea

 Wooden housing is much more common in Japan

 Beds (rather than the traditional yo and futon) more popular in Korea, including the uncomfortable-looking stone beds

 More high-priced bedding in Korea, I’m guessing because it is bought as part of a trousseau

 Jeonse/ Cheonse system of paying 80% of the purchase price as a deposit and then staying without paying further rent in Kore

 new buildings much more likely to be mixed use in Japan

 Korea has officetels, studio apartments in high rise buildings that can also be used as offices etc by small businesses, whereas the starter flat in Japan is usually in a two storey wooden “apaato”

 flats tend to be larger in Seoul

In Korea, even modern glass buildings (usually/ always?) have at least a grill you can open to let in real fresh air, whereas in Japan you are usually totally sealed into the building air conditioning, as in most countries.

Even very modern and expensive housing developments in Seoul tend to be pretty ugly.


 Korean films tend to be melodramatic and over the top, whereas in Japan that is only usually true with period dramas

 The Japanese tend to like pop stars who can’t sing at all, apparently because they don’t like people getting all high and mighty with their singing skills (the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” effect)

 Rarely see Korean salarymen reading comics in public

 Much Korean animation is for Japanese and American companies (e.g. Simpsons)

Body language

 Koreans tend to give one bow, whereas Japanese bowing often consists of multiple bows, especially when saying goodbye or thanking someone

 Koreans don’t sit in seiza (formal Japanese sitting style on your knees)

 Koreans don’t point at their noses to mean “me”

 Koreans don’t do the chopping motion to mean “Can I get past?”

 Koreans sometimes shake hands with other Koreans

 Korean women fairly often link arms or even hold hands while walking along the street

 Middle finger much more understood and used in Korea (although they seem to think that the direction your palm is facing doesn’t matter)

 Crossed index fingers means “Bill please” in Japan

 More kowtowing in Korea, e.g. at lunar New Year when receiving money from parents

Business, economy and money

 Korean economy still doing quite well (although possibly just because they haven’t reached the limits of that development model) but standard of living higher in Japan

 Much more showing off your wealth in Korea

 “Bankruptcy carries little or no social stigma” in Korea (Korean Patterns by Paul S. Crane pg 91)

 More income disparity in Korea

 Six day weeks more common in Korea, and the change to five day weeks more recent

 Much more common to buy extra property to rent out in Korea


 More fake degrees and other academic achievements in Korea

 Koreans much more likely to study abroad (it has been dropping in Japan for years)

 Cram schools in Korea go on until much later than Japanese ones, with the government trying to make them close at 10:30 p.m.

 Native speakers assistant language teachers (ALTs) is still fairly new in Korea and not yet spread to all schools, but still well paid and not hived off to dispatch companies like in Japan


 There are no zoku (tribes of people who follow a very distinctive fashion) in Korea, but individual fashion tends to be more varied than in Japan

 Shiny suits in Korea

 Plastic surgery is more common in Korea

 Very straight and very low fringes much more common in Korea

 Huge sunglasses more common in Korea

 Korean make up is much more subtle

 “Pair look”/ “Couple look” (couples wearing matching clothes) more common in Korea, especially in Jeju and/ or on honeymoon

Festivals, ceremonies and celebrations

 Emotional outbursts during Korean funerals are common, but rare in Japan

 Peppero Day in Korea (11/11, based on the shape of this Lotte chocolate snack)

 Cherry blossom is even more popular in Japan

 Guests sometimes come and go during Korean wedding parties, sometimes without even speaking to the bride and groom

Food and drink (table manners are below)

 Highly decorative but pretty tasteless rice cakes in Korea

 Japanese don’t traditionally eat garlic

 Most Japanese food isn’t spicy, and that which is, e.g. mentaiko (spicy cod roe), is often directly influenced by Korean food

 Korean “tempura” has much heavier batter than Japanese tempura

 Korean sashimi comes with a spicy sauce

 Japanese food is much more popular outside Japan

 Western food is more common in Japan than in Korea

 Korean nori is very different (tastier, frankly)

 Metal chopsticks in Korea

 Rice is given in small metal bowls in Korea

 Free refills are more common in Korea, e.g. of kimchi or drinks in fast food restaurants

 Bigger servings in Korea, but often with worse quality ingredients

 Korean barbeque meat much thicker than in Japan

 Large portions in supermarkets (because more people shop by car rather than bicycle)

 More variety of soups in Korea

 Terrible beer in Korea. Okay or great beer in Japan, although happoshu is even worse than Korean beer.

 Texas Ice Bars in Korea/ English and Irish pubs in Japan

 Fried chicken with beer in Korea

 Soju more popular in Korea than shochu is in Japan

 Rice wine in Korea is often unfiltered makkoli

 Korean garlic bread has sugar on it

 Lots of Western food, e.g. bagels and muffins, are better in Korea


 The highest social classes (yangbang in Korea and samurai in Japan) were scholars and warriors respectively (although in reality most of both ended up as public servants)

 The Japanese civil service exams were much more socially restricted than Korean ones

 Although there were kidnapping of both South Koreans and Japanese by the North Koreans, the Japanese go on about it a lot more

Holidays and celebrations

 Koreans still celebrate the lunar new year much more than 1st January

 Koreans all get a year older during the lunar new year

 Koreans are considered a year old when they are born

 Koreans have a big party 100 days after a child is born


 Koreans are apparently colourful swearers, whereas swearing hardly exists in Japanese

 Korean dialects are apparently more mutually comprehensible than Japanese ones

 Japanese usually has two pronunciations for each kanji, one usually being a native Japanese one. Korean usually has just one, which is usually borrowed from Chinese.

 Korean newspapers are written almost entirely without Chinese symbols nowadays

 Even more borrowing of Chinese vocabulary in Korean

 Fewer Konglish expressions than Japlish ones (and a good percentage of that comes from Japlish)

 much more likely to have restaurant or shop staff talk to you in English in Korea

 Koreans have many more pronunciation problems in English, e.g. b and p, and a and e


 Demonstrations are very common in Korea

 Demonstrations in Korea are mainly left wing, and demonstrations in Japan are mainly extreme right wing

 Emperor and Prime Minister in charge in Japan, with President in charge and meaningless Prime Minister in Korea

 Post-war military dictatorships in Korea

 Physical fights in parliament in Korea (though not quite as much as Taiwan)

Religion and superstitions

 The Korean traditional religion (based around mudang shamans) is seen as marginal and a bit embarrassing (if still secretly quite popular), a bit like Japanese shamanism but unlike Shinto

 Christianity much more common in Korea

 Temples in Korea usually found outside big cities

 Names in red ink are very unlucky in Korea (apparently this superstition exists but is little known in Japan)

 Koreans famous for missionary work in difficult places

 More “Buddhists” in Japan (but many don’t even know what Buddhist sect they belong to)


 sumo much bigger than traditional Korean wrestling

Table manners

 You are supposed to eat soup with a spoon rather than lifting it up to your mouth in Korea. In fact, traditionally you aren’t supposed to lift any plates from the table.

 You aren’t supposed to eat rice with your chopsticks in Korea but rather with your spoon

 (Much) lower status people are traditionally supposed to turn away from the table while they drink in Korea

 Sharing a glass is a common kind of bonding in Korea

 Slurping your noodles in a Japanese thing


 Japanese access the internet much more through mobile phones

 Korean internet cafes (PC bang) tend to be hardcore gamers

 Online gaming is more common in Korea

 There are two Korean television channels dedicated to showing competitive computer gamers

 Koreans are less likely to put their phones on silent mode, even in some cases watching the TV without any headphones on it

 Phones can be used on the underground and people do so in Korea


 Bicycles are rare in Seoul, unlike Tokyo

 Motorbikes riding on the pavement is fairly common in Korea

 Cheap taxis in Korea, but bolshy taxi drivers and some rip-offs/ Incredibly expensive taxis in Japan, often with doilies and white gloves but still often don’t know where they are going

 unlikely to need overland trains to navigate around Seoul


 There is military service in Korea

 The family sized packs of toilet roll, washing powder etc that are common worldwide are also common in Korea, unlike Japan

 Japanese can adopt son-in-law into their family if there is no heir, whereas Confucian influence in Korea traditionally makes any kind of adoption taboo

 More suicides by famous people in Korea (although recently more or less the same level of suicides in general)

 More reports of English teachers being abused for dating local women in Korea

 Little paper envelopes instead of paper cups next to water dispensers in Korea (and paper products more expensive)

 More family run and unbranded corner shops in Korea

 Greater Tokyo much bigger than Greater Seoul, and many more distinct centres

 Even less common to be gay and out in Korea

 More exercise equipment in Korean parks, and more people using it, whereas older Japanese people are more likely to do group exercises (rajio taisou) in the park

 Spitting in the street is still fairly common in Korea

 Korean hospitals are generally much newer and keener on getting foreign patients

 people reading entire books in a bookshop more likely to do standing up in Japan and more likely to be sitting somewhere in Korea

 few chain video rental shops in Korea, probably due to online piracy

 more sofas and armchairs in Korean cafes

 The traditional way of tying children to your back is more common in Korea, perhaps just because more grandparents looking after kids

 Much higher standard of living with a typical foreign teacher’s wage in Korea

 Easier to get university jobs in Korea, though some of them pay less than conversation schools

More on this topic

Differences between Janglish and Konglish

Why is it so easy to spot Japanese women in Seoul?

Differences between Japanese and Korean students


  1. Lily said,

    November 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    >> The Japanese tend to like pop stars who can’t sing at all, apparently because they don’t like people getting all high and mighty with their singing skills (the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” effect)

    What a peculiar description and explanation. Japan and Korea both have their share of mediocre singers who just look good and follow choreography well and excellent singers. Japan also has a larger category of terrible singers, primarily young women and girls, who are supposedly valued for their sincerity, good-hearted effort, “normal” qualities, and cuteness. Many of them can’t even dance, but they’re trying and apparently that’s adorable. (Baffling, in my opinion, but there you go.) It has nothing to do with “the nail that sticks out” etc. etc. Japan certainly rewards excellent singers, and plenty of Japanese people don’t like these “so bad they’re cute” singers either.

    >> Koreans have many more pronunciation problems in English, e.g. b and p, and a and e

    Really? How is this objectively measured? (I currently teach both Koreans and Japanese at the same time, and I would be fascinated to know how this was determined.)

    >> Lots of Western food, e.g. bagels and muffins, are better in Korea

    I’m curious about this one too, haha. “Western food” is a pretty broad category. If it’s all better in Korea, do tell. If it’s just specific things that just aren’t common in Japan, do tell. And what do you mean by “better”? According to whom? (I’ve never heard this claim before.)

    >>Peppero day

    There’s Pocky Day in Japan too, FWIW.

  2. alexcase said,

    November 4, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I’ve lived for the last eight years in Korea (two) and Japan (the rest), plus taught Japanese in Korea and Koreans in Japan.

    First time I’ve ever heard about Pocky Day. Peppero Day in Korea is just as popular as Valentine’s or White Day, but when here in Japan I’ve never seen it and when I’ve mentioned Peppero Day to my students, even ones who work in a Korean-Japanese joint venture, they’ve never heard of it. I’ll keep a closer eye out in a week’s time!

  3. alexcase said,

    November 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Seems to me like you are describing the exact same reasons for particularly bad singers in Japan as I am!

  4. alexcase said,

    November 4, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Although not everyone suffers from it, the problems I am talking about are based on L1 interference. For example, Korean does not have a b/p distinction, hence the modern spelling and older spellings of the city Pusan/ Busan. You can find these common Korean problems listed in Learner English or most pronunciation books. About the only problem Koreans have is that they can end a word with “m” and so don’t end up with the typical Japanese “hamu” pronunciation.

  5. alexcase said,

    November 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    The food one is obviously my own opinion (mainly about American food, which I should probably have said), but given the number of Koreans who’ve lived in other countries and returned and the continuing large US military presence in the centre of Seoul it does make sense. I’ve read before that the food in some Roppongi restaurants went down hill (meaning became more adapted for Japanese tastes) when the foreign diners were replaced by Japanese.

    I should also add that many Japanese seem to have the same opinion. Orion and Lotte are the two biggest Korean food companies in Japan, and they both mainly sell “Western” food like biscuits there. When my in-laws came to Korea (many times) while we were there, the most popular omiyage (souvenirs) back in Japan were the Market O range of chocolate brownies, crisps, etc, and they are now being sold here in Japan.

  6. alexcase said,

    November 7, 2011 at 7:38 am

    More – a subsection of Japanese youth’s love of squatting and sitting on the floor
    – Pornography much more openly sold in Japan
    – Korean “motels” more likely to be used as an actual hotel than Japanese “love hotels”
    – Part of Korean sex trade is (was?) based around barber’s shops

  7. jodi said,

    November 28, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Pocky came first. Peppero is a Korean copy. and they copied Pocky day, 11/11, along with it.

  8. alexcase said,

    November 28, 2011 at 6:52 am

    According to this Pocky came first but Peppero Day was before Pocky Day


    Hardly a surprise, because Peppero Day is at least as big a day in Korea as White Day, whereas Pocky Day in Japan is about as successful as the card companies’ efforts to push Grandparents’ Day in the UK

  9. Adam P said,

    July 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    about pronunciation problems of Korean… even though it is true that their pronunciation isn’t good, I’ve notice that pronunciation of Japanese are actually more worse than Korean’s.

    ps. It is true that Japanese love pop-starts who can’t even sing at all.
    also, pepero day came first than pocky day even though pepero is copy of pocky.

    • alexcase said,

      July 11, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      I’d agree that Japanese pronunciation is in a way even more “distinctive” than Korean pronunciation (although often easier to understand anyway). I was talking about the actual number of pronunciation problems, as if you put them in a list.

  10. Dina said,

    October 20, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Which direction the palm is facing when you stick your middle finger at someone greatly matters in Korea

  11. alexcase said,

    October 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    The middle finger as an insult is a recent borrowing from the West, and I can say from lots of experience of trying to teach the word “middle finger” that the students laughed every time even with my finger the other way round. I also seem to have remembered discussing it with adults and them not being aware of the distinction.

    • Dina said,

      October 29, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      No, I’m a Korean and it does matter. The reason why your students laughed was probably because they just found randomly sticking up a middle finger funny. It’s like even in abroad when your professor sticks his middle finger out (even though palm faces other way) and teach the students, they would find it funny and laugh. Adults who say the direction of the palm doesn’t matter often does not know the slang itself. Afterall it’s a western slang :/ but Korean people who use it definitely care about the direction of the palm just like other countries.

      • alexcase said,

        October 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm

        Yes, I dare say that the few people who regularly use it get it the right way round. However, you seem to be agreeing that many people don’t know which way round it should go and so might be shocked by the other way round too.

  12. Ainu said,

    January 30, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    The biggest difference between Japanese and Korean is that we have Jomon/Ainu blood. Here are thick Jomon/AInu blooded Japanese:

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