Can you tell if a person comes from a specific country just by looking at their initial appearance? Perhaps you look at their hair, their face shape, or their clothes, and you can attempt to make a guess at their country of origin before you hear them speak. Before coming to Japan, I had no idea how to distinguish Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people from one another. Whilst studying at university in Japan as an international student, I had more than one experience of mistaking Chinese and Korean people for Japanese people and speaking Japanese to them. Usually, they were from China or Korea, totally new to Japan, and had to correct me.
Of course, wrongly assuming someone’s nationality is not the crime of the century, and most people will understand and politely correct the mistake. But being able to distinguish quickly by noticing just a few small details can help you avoid an awkward situation.
This article will focus on some differences and similarities of these three nationalities, and what to look out for when you meet someone for the first time which could give you an idea of where they come from. This is based on cultural as well as natural characteristics and is from my own personal experience of having many friends from Japan, Korea, and China. Hopefully, you can avoid the same embarrassment that I did, and be able to correctly guess where someone is from – or at least be able to tell whether or not they are Japanese.
The origins of these three nationalities are all very different, which lends weight to the assertion that although they may share some traits, they are all actually very different from each other.
It could perhaps be compared to the origins of European settlers, with Scandinavian people generally having a higher proportion of people with blonde hair and paler skin, for example, and people from the Mediterranean tending to be darker and with brown hair. For people living in the West, these differences might be easily noticeable, but for people in other parts of the world, they might look very similar indeed!
Firstly, Japanese roots are mixed but it is agreed that they have largely originated from southeast Asia and Indonesia. In history, such as the country’s “Sakoku” self-imposed embargo period where no outsiders were allowed in the country at all, Japan has not had much migration, and for this reason, they are quite homogenous with little genetic influence from other places.
China is a huge country with many different minorities mixing different genetics. The majority, the Han people, trace their roots to North-central China, but it should be remembered that China consists of minorities with influence from Mongolia, the Middle East, and Russia. Therefore, appearances also vary depending on the area of China.
As for Korean people, it is widely accepted that Korean origins can be traced back to early settlements in South China and Taiwan. However, there is universal agreement that relatively speaking, the three countries have been quite secluded in recent history, resulting in quite a homogenous society in each. After all, their languages are completely different, so it is easy to accept that their appearances have differences, too.
Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people are generally similar with regards to their skin type. Their skin tone is broadly the same or a very similar color, although this can be very diverse among minority groups in all three countries. For example, people from northern Japan such as Aomori and Hokkaido where it is cold tend to be paler, but in southern areas such as Kyushu and the tropical Okinawa, people can be a lot darker. Different areas of China, also, have varied skin tones, just like people in other continents.
According to research, their skin is more resistant to aging than some other skin types. Indeed, my own experience in Japan is that I often hugely underestimate the ages of many people here! Their porcelain skin tends to be clear and smooth and remains so for longer.
However, this skin type can also be extremely sensitive to the environment, particularly chemicals and strong skin products. For this reason, advertising skin beauty and care products is a big business in Asian countries. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people tend to be more careful with products and treatments they use on their skin. This, in turn, means that they are using more organic ingredients in their beauty products which helps women maintain undamaged, healthy skin even as they get older.
This is one definite similarity of the three nationalities, and can easily lead to cases of mistaken identity! However, it is important to remember that minorities in these countries do have different tones and features, as well as people who are mixed race.
2. Body Shape
Firstly, it is important to say that body shape differs hugely between individuals. Anyone can eat too much pizza and become overweight, or workout every day and look like the Hulk. Skinny people and fat people exist all over the world and although it can affect your size, ethnicity doesn’t necessarily dictate how much you’ll weigh.
You could say that body shape is a mish-mash of genes, diet, and lifestyle. However, it is generally observed that people from Korea, China, and Japan tend to be of a similar short stature and slim build compared to people from other parts of the world. The average height for men in Japan, for example, is 171.2cm (5′ 7.4″) compared to 178.2cm (5′ 10.2″) in the USA (data is from wecare4eyes.com). The average height for Chinese and Korean men is 169.4cm (5′ 6.7″) and 175.26cm (5′ 9″), respectively.
Interestingly, however, this could be changing soon, particularly in China where fast food is becoming increasingly popular. Rates of obesity in China have increased significantly, and it is unclear whether this will have a long-term effect on the population’s average weight and even height.
It can also be observed that South Koreans have gradually become taller over the decades as the country has become more developed. In a sad contrast, people in the under-developed North Korea don’t seem to have seen the same increase in height – the average is 165.6 cm (5 ft 5 in), according to disabled-world.com – which says a lot about external influences on body type.
1. Facial Features
These three nationalities of people may look somewhat similar but if you look closely, you will notice some real differences in facial features. The Japanese face is generally longer and wider, while the Korean face has a more prominent jaw and higher cheekbones. The Chinese face varies, but Han Chinese are said to have a rounder face.
When it comes to the “windows of the soul”, the eyes, the Japanese eyes are often described as bigger and angled downwards, contrary to the Chinese eyes which are usually angled upwards. Koreans often have smaller eyes. But again, this is a generalization and can vary hugely!
2. Dressing Style
My Japanese friend told me that it is easy to tell whether a person is Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. Just look at how they dress!
Japanese people value harmony and uniformity, hence when they dress up, they aim to blend in with the majority. Plain, simple and subtle colors are the key to typical Japanese attire. Nothing should stand out too much. I have observed that wearing suits is very common in Japan. Whether it be for a final presentation at school, a job internship, a job interview, or graduation, Japanese men usually wear suits. They also tend to wear solely white shirts and black ties. Blending in with the norm is expected.
Contrary to the Japanese, most Koreans wear bright and more colorful attire. I remember my Korean friend saying during her culture presentation in school, that unlike in Japan, they can wear nice colorful dresses when they do their internships and especially during job interviews! Also, Korean fashion clothes go with the trend while Japanese fashion clothes put more emphasis on small personal touches.
As for the Chinese, from my own observations, it tends to be quite mixed, incorporating influences from Japanese fashion, western-style clothing, and south-east Asian trends. Chinese young people are taking a lot of influence from Japanese high street fashion.
When Japanese women apply makeup, they use neutral, “natural” looking tones for the “no makeup makeup” style. There are also some extreme fashions such as ganguro that come and go. Chinese girls favour the smoky look and red lipstick, and Korean women sometimes favour the “straight brow” look (adjusting your eyebrows so they appear more horizontal). Of course, everyone is different and has their own personal style, so take this with a pinch of salt.
A further point to note is that Japanese people often wear whitening makeup, and there is a bit preference for appearing lighter skinned than your natural skin colour. This is also becoming somewhat popular in China now, where makeup practices are often influenced by Japan. Korea does seem to be a little less in favour of this, but on the other hand, South Korea is big on plastic surgery, so that could be another difference to consider.
Even up until now, after living in Japan for quite some time, it is still a challenge for me to tell the difference between these three nationalities. Even people from geographically close countries can come from very different origins and look totally different. The most important thing to remember is that we are all totally different in our characteristics and personality traits. As the famous quote goes, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else!”
Hopefully, with these things to keep in mind, you will be able to make an educated guess as to where a person is from. What kind of clothes are they wearing? What is their face shape like? What kind of style is their make up? Next time you meet someone new, see if you can guess which country they are from. And if all else fails, you can just ask them!