Picking the Right Word to Say ‘Improvement’ in Japanese

The Japanese language has several words to say ‘improvement’. It can be hard to tell what the difference is between them and in what situations each should be used. Furthermore, some of the words themselves are similar, which makes it even more difficult to differentiate. Let’s look at two such pairs of words and examine the individual meanings of each.

改良 (kairyou) vs. 改善 (kaizen)

改良 (kairyou) and 改善 (kaizen) are easily confused. Their first kanji is the exact same and their second respective kanjis have similar meanings. Each means ‘improvement’, which in English is a broad term, but 改良 and 改善 have specific nuances and refer to different senses of improvement.

改良 (kairyou) and 改善 (kaizen) both mean improvement, but 改良 means a specific change made to the structure of something to make it better. The change itself is the improvement. Whereas 改善 means better overall results are achieved due to changes made to something. The results are the improvement.

改良 (kairyou)

改良 is a noun or participle which takes the auxiliary verb する (suru)).

An improvement made by making a concrete change to something, often to a tangible object such as a machine or consumer product, but could also be something intangible, such as a computer program or work procedure, to make it look or work better. In the case of 改良, the change itself is the improvement. 

Kanji breakdown:
改 – reformation, change, modify, mend, renew
良 – good, pleasing, skilled

Example sentences:
We improved the design of the smartphone to make it easier to hold.
An improved version of the app will be released next week.
With improved batteries, electric cars' single charge run time is much longer.

改善 (kaizen)

改善 is a noun or participle which takes the auxiliary verb する (suru)).

Overall better results, a better condition, or a better state achieved due to changes made to something, which could be tangible or intangible. In the case of 改善, the improvement is the new results, condition, or state, not the changes themselves. 

Kanji breakdown:
改 – reformation, change, modify, mend, renew
善 – virtuous, good

Example sentences:
That company's customer service is better than what it used to be, but they still have room for improvement.
We made some changes to the layout of the office, and it greatly improved the work environment.
I want to improve my lifestyle in order to be more healthy.

Let’s contrast 改良 and 改善 for a deeper understanding. 改良 refers to a specific concrete improvement, whereas 改善 refers to an overall abstract improvement. 改善 is results brought about by 改良, which are changes. Said another way, an improvement (改良) is made so that improvement (改善) is achieved. Said yet another way, you make 改良 for the purpose of 改善.

上達 (joutatsu) vs. 向上 (koujou)

The next pair of easily confused words to say ‘improvement’ are 上達 (joutatsu) and 向上 (koujou). This pair again shares one kanji in common. In a dictionary, their equivalent English definitions will probably both include the words ‘improvement’, ‘advancement’, and ‘progress’. But despite their similarity, each one has a unique meaning and appropriate situations in which it can be used.

上達 (joutatsu) and 向上 (koujou) both mean improvement, but 上達 is a specific term that means improvement in a particular skill or ability. It refers to a person’s capacity to do something. 向上 is a broad term which means something as a whole improves in the sense that it moves towards a better state.

上達 (joutatsu)

上達 is a noun or participle which takes the auxiliary verb する (suru)).

Improvement in a particular skill or ability, usually gained through practice with the goal of getting better.

Kanji breakdown:
上 – above, up
達 – accomplished, reach, attain

Example sentences:
You have really improved your Japanese this past year.
I really want to improve my coding so I can get a job at a video game company.
If you attend Toast Masters, your public speaking is sure to improve.

向上 (koujou)

向上 is a noun or participle which takes the auxiliary verb する (suru)).

Improvement, advancement, or elevation of something as a whole towards a better state or a higher level.

Kanji breakdown:
上 – above, up
向 – tend toward, approach

Example sentences:
Air quality is steadily improving.
My son's grades have improved since I hired a tutor for him.
Since the new president was elected, the living conditions in that country really improved.

Let’s address an important subtlety between 上達 and 向上 using an example. You can say 日本語が上達した, but you can’t say 日本語が向上した. If you say the latter, it means the Japanese language itself has somehow evolved into an improved form.

However, if you swap out 日本語 (Japanese language) and instead use the term 日本語力, which is Japanese language skill, then you can say either 日本語力が上達した or 日本語力が向上した. Perhaps we can think about it like this: 上達 is about improving a particular skill within us. When we do that, the skill within us improves. So, when we 上達 a skill, the skill within us 向上s.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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