“Science” education in Japan — 理科, 科学: 違いは何ですか?

There are two words in Japanese that are both translated into English as “science.” My purpose in this post is to ask about the differences — and the relationships — between these words: their senses or meanings, their usage, the ideas that they signify …

[ Below the following note I will make some use of Kanji, or Han characters. The text should be understandable if you cannot see or recognize the characters, although they might be helpful for those who can read them. ]

this note courtesy of Wikipedia 漢字 Some text below on this page contains Chinese/Japanese characters. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.

I know that both “kagaku” (科学) and “rika” (理科) are translated as “science.” Are these just two different words for the same thing? I don’t think so; but I don’t fully understand the relationships and differences between them.

科学 is used in both Japanese and Chinese (kexue in Mandarin) as the general word for what’s called “science” in English.The Online Bilingual Dictionary incorporated into Microsoft Word lists these meanings for 理科 (lĭkē) in Chinese:

  1. (教学上对物理、化学、数学、生物等学科的统称) science
  2. (理科系) science department in a college

From Japanese, it translates:

  • 〈科目〉 science; 〈文科に対して〉 the science department [course].

So … it looks to me like Chinese uses 理科 as a general term for the several (esp. natural) sciences, while Japanese uses the term (in some contexts, anyway) as a counterpart for (at least some sense[s] of) “science” in English. I could be completely wrong about this, which is why I’m asking about it in this post.

I have the impression that “rika,” rather than “kagaku” is used for “science” as the name of a school subject in the elementary and secondary years (rather than in 大学 or higher education), although I have seen it used sometimes in higher education contexts.

Here is one conjecture I can ask about:

Could it be that the difference between “kagaku” (科学) and “rika” (理科) is something like the difference between “social sciences” and “social studies” in the United States? Social studies is a school subject in the elementary and secondary schools. The school subject of “social studies” is not offered for study at the university (there was a selective “social studies” concentration at Harvard when I was an undergraduate, but this was not the same thing as the elementary/secondary school subject).

In this analogy, it would be like having a school subject of “nature studies” related to “the natural sciences” somewhat like our school subject of “social studies” is related to “the social sciences.” I’m guessing that this might be overstating the differences between 理科 and 科学, even if the analogy is valid to some degree.

I’d be interested in learning more specifics about the differences and commonalities between 理科 and 科学, such as: to what extent, and in what ways, do they have

  • differing or common purposes,
  • differing or common object-domains (対象 [taishō/duixiang]),
  • etc.  …

Please respond in comments on this post if you can help me understand this better.

ありがとう, and 谢谢您们 みんなさん!


  1. lihua
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Hi Tony, I think in Chinese, the difference between 科学 and 理科 is the same as the difference between “science in general” (social sciences and natural sciences) and “the natural sciences” in English. While the former is often used in a broader sense to mean “science” and its methods, the latter usually refers to subject areas including math, chemistry, physics and so on. Despite both phrases has the word “科”,its meaning is different. The word ‘科’ is meaningless without the second word 学 in the first phrase, the same word 科 means ‘科目’ or subject area in the phrase 理科.

    Not sure whether this is the same as it used in Japanese.

    • Posted July 6, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Thanks, lihua,

      Although the 科 character is used now in Chinese only in 词 (“words,” usually combining two or more characters, or 字), I think the basic meaning that it carries into the 词 combinations is something like “branch.” It could be a branch or subdivision of a unit in an organization. I think 科 is used for branches at the taxonomic level that we call “families” in English, such as the family of canines (dogs) or felines (cats).

      Again, thanks.

  2. Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    This might be already resolved but I think the meaning of these words in Chinese and Japanese seems to be almost identical. Japanese use them in a way lihua described.

    Here are some more details.
    理科: This word is for natural science at elemental level up to 9th grade. In senior high, natural science is divided into more specialized branches of natural science like chemistry, physics, geology and biology.
    “rika” is never used for literature or social or political science, while it is possible to use “kagaku” for very broader academic disciplines, I think.

    “kagaku” is a word used for study or research that involves advanced quantitative analysis like calculus and statistics or logical and factual analysis. “kagaku” is more advanced or sophisticated than “rika”. If a 10 years old boy says he loves “kagaku” then he might freak out some adults.

    I am a Japanese native but I have been in US, Canada, UK and Belgium for long time. So my Japanese may not be correct any more.

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