In Japanese and Korean, "promise" is 約束 (yakusoku) and 약속 (yagsog). Both came from the Chinese characters 約束. However, 約束 in Chinese does not mean "promise" and actually means "constraint" like in math. Also, "free (of charge)" is 無料 (muryō) and 무료 (mulyo). They both came from the characters 無料. However, in Chinese, it's 免费, which are different characters.

There are words that are similar to both Japanese and Chinese, and Korean and Chinese, like "skyscraper" where all uses the characters 摩天搂, but that is expected because the Chinese characters came from Chinese language.

Why did both Japanese and Korean have the same "Chinese character" origin and not Chinese. If the reason is because of time, then why do many words between Korean and Japanese haven't branched out yet and have two different words for the same meaning?

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    The base meaning of 约束 historically is what its components add up to: ‘arrange/agree on’ + ‘bind/tie/restrain’. That’s quite wide. Similarly, 无料 is ‘without’ + ‘material/component/fee’. That’s also quite wide. An agreed-upon verbal restraint (= a promise) is just one of the many specific meanings the broader sense can be used in, but it’s the one that stuck and became primary in Japanese and Korean, while in Chinese, it eventually gave way to other ways of saying the same thing (e.g., the very similar 约定 ‘agree’ + ‘fixed/settled’). Same with ‘no material = free’ vs 免费 ‘avoid’ + ‘expense’. Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 23:53
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    All languages are in flux. This is no different from all the English words derived from French which now no longer mean the same thing in French.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 1:22

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: language contact between Japanese and Korean has been particularly strong due to historical factors. There have been some papers that break down the different paths of divergence between them and with Modern Standard Chinese.

A lot of Sino-Japanese (specifically go-on readings from 4th-6th centuries CE) was filtered through an early layer of Sino-Korean (with the records of Buddhist monks from Korea coming over to Japan), and the Classical Chinese texts were often of a common stock. Modern Standard Chinese vocabulary has had a wider range of pre-modern Classical vocabulary to draw on, as well as being much more influenced by non-Classical Chinese expressions. This seems to be the case for 約束, which is pre-modern, attested in Classical Chinese, but seemed to take a different trajectory in Chinese than in Japanese and Korean in the 17th century.

Sino-Japanese coinages 和製漢語 wasei-kango were very influential in the 19th and early 20th century across the whole Sinosphere, often attributed to the industrialisation brought about by the Meiji Restoration 明治維新 Meiji ishin. Throughout that period, there was a great appetite for new technologies and concepts, and new words to describe them based on Sino-Japanese kanji (usually with 音読み on'yomi readings) rather than direct loanwords transcribed in kana (although some did slip through and were adopted).

These 訳語 yakugo "translated equivalents" could also resurrect earlier Chinese constructions, most famously 社会 in the meaning of "society", which in Early Mandarin (from at latest the Song dynasty) referred to a meeting around a tutelary god or an assembly of a religious cult, but which was re-purposed in Japanese in the 19th century.

Thus many concepts of early 20th century "modernity" were back-borrowed into Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese (e.g. Japanese 社会 しゃかい shakai becoming Chinese 社會 [Mandarin shèhuì Cantonese se5 wui6(-2)], Korean 사회 sahoe and Vietnamese xã hội). Note how much of this wave of Sinosphere influence occurred via the written word, and thus each language pronounced the characters according to their own rules, as already codified amongst the educated intellectuals who would be the major users of these words. Some were even naturalised into Chinese / Sino-Korean / Sino-Vietnamese from Native Japanese (訓読み kun'yomi) compounds, e.g. 入口 (Mandarin rùkǒu, Cantonese Jyutping jap6 hau2; Korean 입구 ipgu; Vietnamese nhập khẩu, where it means import; from native Japanese 入口 pronounced いりぐち iriguchi not *nyūku or *jūkō). Many lists have been compiled for such Japanese loans that have been adopted, e.g. into Chinese and into Korean.

Was Sino-Japanese influence "stronger" in the Korean Peninsula than in mainland China? Looking back at historical events in the first half of the 20th century, that would not be surprising, in light of the 35-year Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula. Note too how there are many more non-Sino-Japanese loanwords in Korean (e.g. 가방 gabang from Japanese かばん kaban), but also in Taiwanese Min Nan (e.g. kha-báng) and colloquial Northeastern Mandarin [PDF link], than in standard Mandarin, through vocabulary items in daily life.

However, after the Second World War, many formerly Japanese-occupied territories went through language purification movements. In North Korea, this was the 말 다듬기 운동 Mal Dadeumgi Undong, which did target Japanese-derived Sino-Korean 한자어 hanja-eo in a methodical way. E.g. 호흡 hoheup (from Sino-Japanese 呼吸 こきゅう kokyū) has been replaced by native Korean 숨쉬기 sumswigi in North Korea, whereas both are used in South Korea.

In South Korea, 국어 순화 운동 Gug'eo Sunhwa Undong targeted quite a few Japanese-derived items (many of them very common items, such as 초밥 chobap to replace the Japanese loanword sushi), This list of 다듬은 말 dadeumeun mal "refined words" is still periodically reviewed. However, Sino-Japanese loans into Sino-Korean were on the whole spared in South Korea.

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