Figuring out the Difference Between Similar Words

About a year and a half into my studying, I started meeting with a volunteer teacher (in training) to practice Japanese conversation at the local international center in Chiba. She was young, energetic, and quite far from the standard Japanese teacher image. We mostly just talked for 2 hours a week, and I would bring in whatever burning questions I had or things I absolutely needed to know.

Most of my questions were of the same annoying type.

What’s the difference between (two similar words) X and Y?


I would have a long list of pair words that I had come across naturally through books and TV, which I couldn’t understand the nuance. At the time, I hadn’t yet started using a J-J dictionary, and a J-E dictionary often only provided the exact same meaning in English. The teacher would stumble a bit, because I was picking difficult to explain words that required specific situation examples to illustrate them.

I soon realized that this was a waste of time. It was not fun to either of us, and I could pick up the subtleties better naturally, rather than trying to analyze and break them down. Obsessing over the differences, and even worse, why they are different, resulted in never ending circles. So while I would never get a direct explanation for the difference of 恋 vs. 愛 (which has 100s of opinions on the subject), I could focus better.

But there are times that curiosity will get the better of you. No matter how many times you’ve seen both words used, they elude you. They can even elude Japanese people. Similar words, even in your native language, are sometimes misused regardless of how many times you have contact with them.

This simple Google technique (or a variation of) is usually a good solution:

(Word 1) と (Word 2) 違い

But I’ve also recently found a fun website that makes discovering word differences quite enjoyable.

違いがわかる事典 (A dictionary of “Understanding the Difference”)


This site is written like a blog, and compares 2 similar words, explaining the differences between them. It’s detailed, easy to follow, and is packed with info.


They even have a bit of a sense of humor.


Do you know the difference?

Do you ask “what’s the difference” questions a lot? Take a step towards answering them.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Figuring out the Difference Between Similar Words — 9 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the link to the site! Bookmarked it.

    Usually I don’t spend too much time actively trying to figure out nuance unless it’s specifically important for some reason, i.e, I’m curious, or I want to translate something properly. I am a bit weak in this area, though, especially when I can’t catch the differences of meaning in the definition. Exposure is instrumental in getting things to click, so when I just don’t get it, I trust that immersion will do its work in time.

    I do love learning about the meaning subtleties of kanji that are used situationally for the same word (会う• 逢う• 遭う等), and find Chiebukuro to be a great resource for this.

    • Yes, exposure solves all.

      But sometimes a few areas can use a little push head start when you are too eager too wait. The kanji variations for the same words are a fun and deep part of Japanese.

  2. I’ve actually used this site a ton, though only ever through Google searches. 知恵袋 is great for this as well.

    • Yes, I agree on 知恵袋. And it seems that the people that answer are usually more reliable as a resource than the English version Yahoo Answers.

  3. Oh, 恋 and 愛 are two different words. I kept seeing them as the same somehow. It all makes a lot more sense now. (Though 愛 still has あい and まな readings). Reminds me of not realizing “crocodile” and “alligator” were different words.

    • They are different and the debate between how they are different takes on many different interpretations.

  4. Personally, I find that when I ask the question “what’s the difference between X and Y?” it rarely results in a satisfactory answer. I think it takes time to consider what the subtle differences in nuance are, which is why written explanations are so much better for this. I think people understand the difference implicitly, sometimes as second nature, but struggle when it comes to actually explaining what that difference is. I recall being asked what the difference was between “talk” and “speak” in English, and I realised that I didn’t really know. As I tried to explain, I just ended up confusing the person who asked me, as well as myself as I talked in circles.

    I’ve found I get much better responses when I ask something like “in what different situations do you use X and Y?”. I think many people are much more comfortable describing or imagining a scene than they are talking in abstract terms about the difference between two concepts. Once you have an example, real or imagined, it becomes much easier to move on to abstract ideas because you have a more tangible point of reference.

    I encourage people to try this out!

    • I agree, that having specific examples or situations where it is used is usually the best route to go, and the easiest way for people to explain it.

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