The Subtle Difference Between Meanings (Kanji/Vocab)

So, I thought I’d start something to keep differences answers and queries in one place. Such as where two kanji or vocabularies or even particles offer the same meanbing but where the meanings are in fact subtly different.

((Note: I have snuffled around a bit (about an hour), but I only seem to stumble across threads with precise queries or references to things like transitive vs intransitive etc. So, if my thread is in fact duplicate - please redirect this thread.))

This one I believe I know the answer to, so I will use it as an example:

森 vs 林 vs 木

Clearly the last one is simply “tree(s)” but, when we have 森 and 林 things get a bit stranger - both can be “forest(s)” but only 林 means “woods”. The distinction here is purely visual and the composition of what a person is looking at - a context word.

In English, we say things like: wilderness, forest, woods, copse, glade, thicket, orchard, glen, and so on and so forth. In Japanese, these subtle differences also occur, and most people unconsciously use them. As new learners, it’s hard to learn without having someone point them out visually using a self-aware level of instruction (such as parent to child). I grew up in a dense rain-forest, in a mountainous, oceanside region. So forests are my jam - but put me in a desert, and I have only a limited vocabulary to describe what I see, with only a 40% accuracy (my friends in desert regions often giggle at my attempt to describe a desert). I digress.

So, my first one (I have stumbled on a few, but forgot at the moment):

曲 vs 音楽

The first being kanji by itself, while the second is vocabulary.
Both mean “music” but the former means also “bend”.
Is 曲 the precursor to the verb “to bend” or is it the noun “a bend”. And how does it relate to music? What component of the meaning (or subtlety) does it apply to music specifically?

I know that some of these might be pretty obvious to some, but less so to others. Hopefully the better studied can provide their learned insight! Especially if there are any suggestions or notes on when both (or multiples) might be appropriate and interchangeable, or when one can be used while another absolutely cannot (Such as “I cooked coffee this morning.”)


The best place to nail down the subtleties of the meanings is in Japanese resources. For kanji, I like Kanjipedia, which is run by the people who make the Kanji Kentei.

For words, there are many good monolingual dictionaries.


Ah, I was just thinking about this lately and had no idea how to word it. My searches on Google were somehow coming up with nothing, instead giving me answers on how a lot of people have trouble with feeling like many Japanese words sounding alike, not having similar meanings!

The forest one was specifically one of the ones I was thinking, as well as 研究 and 究明 (among others, of course)。

If they’re fairly concrete nouns (and verbs) one option is to just stick the words into Google Image Search and see what kind of things result.


I believe the difference between these two is that the former is more specifically related to research (such as one might do in a laboratory or in literature), while the second is closer to being investigative research (such as forensics, or why the American economy is toppling, or what might be a better way to improve efficiency in Japanese companies, etc etc).

So, in these two instances, I would call:
研究 - to research (as in a lab)
究明 - to investigate (as in an investigator or analyst).

I could be wrong, but this is how I perceive the difference to be on these two.

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