Japanese, A Beautifully Complex Writing System

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As a Japanese person living in Europe, I’m sometimes asked: “Japanese is a difficult language, isn’t it?” Those asking are often surprised when my answer is a simple: “No, actually, it’s not.”

While it is true (at least to many Westerners) that Japanese is an exotic language, when compared to learning other European languages, it may seem harder because it has no relation to their own language. But from my own experiences of learning English and German (and also from seeing some European friends learning Japanese), I can say with confidence that learning spoken Japanese is, in fact, not so difficult. The grammar is in many ways simpler than most European languages. Take for example the fact that we don’t have cases, grammatical genders, nor articles. However, reading and writing in Japanese is… well, not so simple.

While discussing typography we most often focus on English language problems, which is only natural considering that the majority of design material is written in English. However, a lot can be gleaned from looking at how other languages are used as part of communication and design — it helps to lend context and a different point of view.

Japanese Scripts

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three basic scripts: Kanji — which are Chinese ideographic symbols — as well as Hiragana and Katakana — two phonetic alphabets (syllables). There are a few thousand Kanji characters, while Hiragana and Katakana have 46 each. Although there is a basic rule for when to use which script, there are many exceptions, and what’s worse is that words written in Kanji have often multiple pronunciations, depending on the context or conjunction. This is hard enough for native speaker to get right every time, so I almost feel sorry for those non-natives who are learning to read and write Japanese.

Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana Japanese scripts
From top to bottom: Kanji is mainly used for the lexical elements: nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, and so forth; Hiragana has rounded letter shapes, which are mainly used for the grammatical elements of sentences such as particles, auxiliary verbs, and suffixes of nouns; Katakana has an angular letter shape, which is most often used for foreign words and also for the purpose of emphasis.

Some say that the “tragedy” started when Japan decided to “import” the Chinese writing system, inscribing it into their own language in the 3rd century.

Since Japanese is as different from Chinese as it is to any other language, simply using the Chinese writing system was not sufficient, and a more appropriate way of writing Japanese was sought out. Some Chinese characters began to be used not for their meaning, but purely for their phonetic value. So by the 9th century, Hiragana and Katakana scripts were derived from simplified Chinese characters that were used to write Japanese phonetically.

The story doesn’t end there. As if using three scripts isn’t enough, we write in both horizontal and vertical orientation.

Horizontal? Vertical? The Unique Case Of Japanese Typography

“Vertical or horizontal?” — when setting a piece of text in Japanese, this is a question that Japanese designers constantly need to ask themselves. Being able to use both vertical and horizontal writing orientations is something so normal for us native Japanese speakers that most of us won’t even stop to wonder why this is possible, or even when and how it was first introduced.

The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left).
The identical piece of text set vertically (right) and horizontally (left). When it is set vertically it’s read from top to bottom, as the lines go from right to left; when it is set horizontally, it is read from left to right, like in European languages.

In general, these two writing orientations have a clear usage: vertical for something “Japanese”, “traditional”, “novels and other humanistic writings”; horizontal for “contemporary”, “business documents”, “scientific & foreign language related writings” and so on. When a main text is set horizontally, the binding is on the left-hand side, and pages progress to the right, like books in Latin scripts. Traditional books in vertical setting are the other way around, with the binding at the right hand side, and pages progressing to the left. So when you handle a Japanese book, don’t confuse the front with the back!

A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel
A typical page layout of a Japanese paperback novel using a vertical setting. Ogai Mori (1913), “Abe Ichizoku”, Shincyo-bunko.

traditional calligraphy is always done vertically
With its organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths
Needless to say, traditional calligraphy is always done vertically. With their organic flow, characters are often connected and have different heights and widths — which makes it impossible to disconnect and align them horizontally. Calligraphy by Keiko Shimoda, 2011 (tsukushidesign.com1)


Horizontal setting is preferred for scientific texts, mathematical texts and language related books, where words and phrases in foreign scripts and signs are often included, as they are more easily incorporated horizontally. The example (above) is a Japanese-English dictionary. (Pocket Comprehensive English-Japanese / Japanese-English Dictionary, 2000, Obunsha)

Where the efficient use of space is important — namely newspapers and magazines — both orientations are often combined. Although it may appear a bit chaotic, or even random to foreign eyes, these two directions are usually used in a systematic way as a means to indicate different text elements on a page. For instance, a main text is often set in a vertical setting, but headings and captions may be set in a horizontal setting.

A typical newspaper layout
A typical newspaper layout — the main text is vertical but headings, diagrams, tables, and captions are placed horizontally.

The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text
The same newspaper as above, but highlighting the vertical text (orange) and the horizontal text (blue). © The Nikkei (May 8th, 2009)

In a way, it’s comparable to “typographic variants” which are found in Latin typography — in Latin script text one may use bold, italic, or a different font to differentiate things such as pull quotes from the main text, whereas in Japanese we can do this by using a different orientation. Publications which accommodate non-linear or complex text (as opposed to linear text, such as novels) seem to benefit in particular from having these two orientations, which allow the layout to be highly flexible, and also to create strong visual impact.

The extreme cases of “space-efficiency-oriented typography” are informational-heavy pieces of text, such as diagrams and signage — also exploiting the two directional orientations. The Tokyo Metro map (Fig 10) is a good example of this — as you can see, both orientations are used accordingly, so that everything fits best within the limited space.

Tokyo Metro Map.
Tokyo Metro map

Tokyo Metro map with more typography in differing directions.
Tokyo Metro route map. The large type on the top is the station name which is placed horizontally. The name of the metroline may be horizontal, but the name of the stops are placed vertically.

It’s true that in many cases they look quite chaotic and sometimes even aesthetically questionable to eyes that are used to “orderly” design. But it’s easy to appreciate the visual impact and energy they create — they remind you that effective, appealing informational design does not always have to look “neat and tidy”.

Letters from my friends
Letters from my friends: when it comes to handwriting, orientation is up to a personal preference or simply one’s “mood”. But when you are writing a more official letter, or writing to somebody who is much older than you, it’s probably safer to opt for vertical orientation.

What’s Happening On Screen-Based Media?

Since the introduction of horizontal writing in the Japanese language, print-based media and signage have been employing both of these writing orientations effectively, and in ways that complement one another. But what’s been happening to screen-based media? With a few exceptions — such as word-processing machines made exclusively for the Japanese text output, or subtitles for film and TV screens, which tend to use either depending on the background image — horizontal orientation has been the dominant choice.

The prime example of this is the Web: horizontal orientation has been used almost exclusively. For the past 15 years, I have hardly come across a website that uses vertical setting. Mobile phone screens also use a horizontal orientation. I believe this may be due to the relations of hardware, operating systems and user interfaces that have become the norm, all of which have been designed to work with horizontal writing. It feels somewhat awkward to see vertical writing while all the other elements on the screen, such as the menu bar and UI elements, are horizontal.

Needless to say, the technical limitations (the support of a vertical setting by browsers is a fairly recent introduction) have largely contributed to this too. Perhaps underestimated, maybe the biggest factor for not using vertical setting for screen-based media could well be the mental association with horizontal orientation being used for something “modern” and “contemporary”.

The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website.
The Nihon Keizai Newspaper website. Although the printed newspaper employs a vertical setting for the body texts, the web-version uses a horizontal setting.

A Japanese Tea Ceremony website
So far, even with content as Japanese as a tea ceremony, a website will use a horizontal setting. (Accessed Jan. 20th, 2012)

Will Vertical Writing Orientation Die Out?

Will vertical writing orientation die out from screen-based media? Or can it make a comeback, when the technological environment allows us to use vertical settings more easily? Many e-book apps on smart phones and tablets have already started using vertical settings. With its intuitive way of navigating the screen along with the lack of external input devices (and apps being able to have more flexible/responsive layout), vertical writing seems to be incorporated much more comfortably.

I’ve spent some time reading these e-books — and pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to read. Apart from the fact that you need to scroll the screen horizontally, it’s just as comfortable as reading “normal” or horizontally set text. In fact, it’s even better for some types of publications like novels, or Manga. Our association towards this type of content when compared to the vertical setting is pretty strong; it would somehow feel “wrong” to see them set horizontally.

Amazon’s Kindle has yet to support the Japanese language, but apparently they’re on their way to doing so. If they seriously want to attract Japanese readers, it would be unthinkable for them not to support vertical setting.

Soseki Natsume's “Sanshiro”
Soseki Natsume’s “Sanshiro” (1908) e-book on iPhone.

Kotobuki Shiriagari's
Kotobuki Shiriagari’s “OSHIGOTO” (2010) e-book on iPhone.

The situation also seems to be slowly changing on the Web — some interesting attempts have been made in order to familiarize ourselves with Web pages that have vertical setting. One such example is Taketori2, which works just like Google translate — you can type in the URL of a Web page you wish to see in vertical setting, and Taketori does it for you. There’s also a piece of software called Kagetaka, which can switch any Web text into a vertical orientation.

Personally, I’m not too sure how well vertical setting will be supported by the users of normal Web pages, unless the way we navigate Web pages is re-developed, or a new type of browser with more innovative UI appears. Even though I complained earlier about the difficulty of the Japanese writing system, I do appreciate its diversity and flexibility, while making use of its three scripts and two orientations allows us to express subtle nuances of content — and we have been benefiting from that for decades.

I thought it would be a shame if we lose these methods of textual articulation in an age of screen-based media. But what has been happening for the last couple of years on touch-screen mobile devices (as well as the Web) can reassure us that both writing orientations may happily co-exist and collaborate on screen in the future, just as they have done off-screen for the last hundred years.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

(jvb) (il)

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Shoko Mugikura is a Japanese designer based in Berlin. Alongside working on book design projects, she is running the type design studio Just Another Foundry with Tim Ahrens. Her special interest is the historical development of multi-script (Japanese and European) typography.

  1. 1

    Wonderfully terrific write-up! I’m fascinated with all the different and diverse writing scripts, even though I may be unfairly biased towards the beautiful calligraphic strokes of Chinese and Japanese. :-) This article, together with the 2-part article about Writing Systems of the World, are among my favoritest SM articles.

    17
  2. 2

    I’m from Poland and once i’ve tried learning japanese… i failed :)
    I’ve tried to learn it the same way i’ve learned english – playing game, yup i’ve played japanese game to the end with a google dictionary, looking for characters in windows character table and writting down translated sentences.
    Although i haven’t learned much but i’ve understood basics and memorized some characters from hiragana and katakana.
    I think, someday i’ll try to learn a little more.

    3
  3. 3

    Kristine Sanchez

    March 5, 2012 5:32 pm

    Well written article! Japanese typography was the biggest reason why I studied abroad in Kyoto in 2008. You’re right, learning spoken Japanese is not that difficult but I really wish I could pick up reading and writing faster! Hopefully soon Japanese will be supported vertically on screen, as it just makes sense culturally for you all.

    0
  4. 4

    “As a Japanese person living in Europe, I’m sometimes asked: “Japanese is a difficult language, isn’t it?” Those asking are often surprised when my answer is a simple: “No, actually, it’s not.””

    I speak Japanese fluently, have worked as an interpreter for both Toyota and Nissan… and lived in Japan for ten years.

    I can tell you from long, personal experience that Japanese is VERY difficult, topping my list of “most difficult things I’ve ever learned”.

    Just sayin’.

    14
    • 5

      maybe that was easy for Chinese to Learn, for Chinese , English is a very difficult language , i had learn English more than 11 years , but still poor …. most Chinese is much poor than me ….

      4
    • 6

      Japanese and korean can read China’s Newspaper , and Chinese can read a little Japanese News infomation(writen in Chinese ..)

      -3
      • 7

        Some Chinese characters are mutually intelligible between Chinese and Japanese, but not all. Japanese uses many Chinese characters for their sounds rather than their associated Chinese word meanings. If you Google “kunyomi” and “onyomi,” you will see what I mean.

        Furthermore, Chinese and Japanese simplified and standardized their character symbols at different points in history, and in different ways. Not all kanji look exactly like their Chinese counterparts anymore. Some barely look the same at all.

        Also, Koreans use some Chinese characters and call them “hanja,” but it is really a very small set that any Korean knows. Likewise, Japanese are considered educated if they know about 1,950 (the exact number changes) kanji, whereas Chinese don’t have kana symbols to fall back on… they need to know as many characters as there are words!

        So I can read a Chinese menu and recognize “chicken,” but that’s about it.

        1
        • 8

          You need to know only about 3000 characters in Chinese to be able to read a newspaper. Plus they have less readings than Japanese and Chinese grammar is simpler. On the other hand, Chinese pronunciation is more difficult.

          And actually in Japanese kanji themselves are not so difficult to learn (writing and meaning). The difficult part is each kanji has multiple readings and you need to learn all of them, along with heaps of kanji combinations that make up words which have little in common with their European counterparts.

          Is Japanese difficult to learn for Europeans? It definitely is. But it’s also fun, interesting and rewarding.

          0
  5. 9

    That was really interesting! Especially the use of both horizontal and vertical writing. I never thought about that. Please more! :)

    1
  6. 10

    I can’t shake the feeling that I am looking at a spam site when I see a website with chinese/japanese letters.

    -14
  7. 11

    If this weren’t such a well organized and laid out article – it would still be interesting for this market because of the novelty of its content. A “perfect storm” of content and skill – well done!

    5
  8. 12

    I have no idea why this article is on Smashing Magazine, but being a fan of all things Japanese (especially the language) I am so glad that it is! Thank you Mugikura! An excellent write-up and resource… especially for someone currently learning Japanese.

    Domo Arigato!

    11
  9. 13

    Why do I need to know about Japanese language on Smashing Magazine?

    -55
    • 14

      I understand the confusion on the intent of this article as it does begin with a lengthy (but necessary) explanation of the Japanese language and writing system, as well as some cultural tidbits. And perhaps the title of the article does not best describe the subject.

      However, if the article is read from start to finish, it is revealed that the author is actually addressing page layout issues. It also addresses concerns with web technologies as they relate to the delivery of content. Smashing Magazine has numerous articles on both topics prior to Mugikura’s.

      I hope that helps to clarify :-)

      19
    • 15

      You may not care about internationalization, but others do.

      10
    • 16

      you probably will never need or have the opportunity to use japanese in your everyday work, but others MAYBE just got asked to realize the japanese version of a website or adapt a japanese marketing advertisement for the european market.
      the world does not spin around you only.

      2
    • 17

      agree to that point, that author should give some intersting examples of using japanese letters/forms/ligatures in design! Yee, alphabet is cool, but bo-oring:)

      0
  10. 18

    Very well written and informative. Thank you.

    1
  11. 19

    This was so fascinating to read, thanks for sharing :) By far the most interesting article on Smashing Mag in months (and I’ve written a few of them!).

    6
  12. 20

    For those wanting to dive into Japanese further, here’s some more reading material:

    The quite wellknown concept artist Patrick ‘PolyKarbon’ Shettlesworth (due to his manga drawing tutorials) lived in Japan for a while and also written a few tutes on Japanese language (Katakana, Hirigana, Numbers, Calendar Items and Colors).

    Kuro5hin also had two great tutorials on Japanese about 8 years back. Too bad the author stopped working on them after the second one, IMHO they were quite great (due to the fact that they were quite easy to grok)
    If you have any more, please reply because I for one would be really interested in some good learning material :)

    1
  13. 21

    Really nice article, I time ago started to study Japanese as a hobby.

    I have known a japanese girl on the internet helped me to understand the basics of this language.

    This language is very complex, it is much easier to talk about it instead of writing it.

    2
  14. 22

    That is very interesting! I know about arabic and european languages (left-to right and right-to-left) but I didn’t know there are languages that are written and read vertically. Thank you for this lesson :)

    2
  15. 23

    I work in Japan and have found Japanese very easy to learn to speak when compared to Korean or Mandarin but learning to read or write it… Nahhhh I gave up long ago.

    A beautiful well written article, I for one would welcome more by Mugikura san on Japanese Typography, or in fact on any subject.

    5
  16. 24

    Great article – I’m bilingual Japanese/English because of my parents – and I’m lucky that I grew up with both languages and didn’t have to learn one or the other.

    1
  17. 25

    I have worked on several international websites with versions for the Japanese market. One thing I continue to have problems with is where to break a line in Kanji/Katakana/Hiragana. There are many rules but few websites adhere to them. Small cultural sites put in breaks by hand but large media sites just let the text fill the space available.

    I take a hybrid approach with headlines and important messaging typeset by hand but with large blocks of text / body content allowed to fill the space.

    The biggest problems are with proper nouns which can be multiple characters and the fact that web browsers will break after any character for Kanji…

    Any thoughts on this?

    2
  18. 26

    Very good introduction for westerners, chine and japaness writing is so interesting, both from a design perspective and from a cultural one. I love ancient languages (I am Basque native) and I love ideographic alfabets.Thanks again Shoko.

    0
  19. 27

    Nice article to learn Japanese. A Beautiful script of Japanese language.

    0
  20. 28

    What I’d like to know is why many Asian websites have very cramped, angular and ugly designs, not actually that different from the “everything crammed on one page” newspaper layout shown above. While the language requires larger fonts to maintain readability, that doesn’t quite explain why even the graphics on many sites seem to be quite appalling.

    5
    • 29

      The Character form has always been considered art in Asia, so it’s not surprising that text carries more kudos than the average westerner would have given it, Indeed the website for many people in japan has been an extension of things like the newspaper, and basically a text based service since their telecoms were able to realise WAP and mobile friendly information delivery well before mobile screens were expected to be able to render web anywhere near to the desktop environment.

      Basically that’s my generalised take on why for Japan text has been much more important and information while not pretty was ordered and searchable.

      Open any sales page in a local newspaper in any westernized town and you’ll see something similar… spacing is a luxury and the paying client supplies the artwork with no consideration or choice of what it lies next to on the page.

      1
  21. 30

    This is a really good article. I tried learning Japanese for a few years but I couldn’t get my head around the sentence structure.

    And sorry, but I have to say that I think you mean “gleaned” in the third paragraph, not “gleamed”.

    1
  22. 31

    I remember starting to learn hiragana and grammar in high school time. really love the art value to the signs. Sadly it has been to hard to continue practicing it :(

    0
  23. 32

    Whilst this was an interesting article I feel like the opportunity was missed to really show the beauty of kanji. The fact that the literal translation of these characters can sometimes be charming (eg. denwa which means telephone is actually “electric talking” when literally translated from kanji”). Or that beautiful combinations of characters form new words that are linked. The character for dog “inu” is the combination of the character for person and and another character. Like something walking with a man. Or that the character for home has the character for “woman” in it.

    This was what fascinated me the most about kanji during my 6 years in Japan.

    0
    • 33

      Jason, you would want to look for articles on Chinese ideographic characters (hanzi) then. There is a very large overlap of kanjis, hanzis and hanguls. I stop short of saying they are identical, because the stroke of some characters are different in Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji (I’m not familiar with hangul, so I can’t comment on them), e.g. 步 (Chinese) and 歩 (Japanese); 处 (Chinese) and 処 (Japanese).

      1
  24. 34

    Amazing article! Can we have more like this?
    This is the kind of article that opens your mind and makes you think (not only sketch/design/plan…).
    Would be good to know about the Arabic language&perspective too…

    0
    • 35

      I second this! Furthermore, it’s difficult as an English speaker to understand how to format pages correctly in RTL languages. I think a great accompiament to this type of article would be how to format the foreign language being discussed. For example, “ruby” tags are used to format Japanese furigana (kana placed above kanji) in HTML, and when I first found out about that, it was fascinating but very obscure. That’s the sort of thing that would really round out this article.

      0
  25. 36

    Great article. I’d like to learn Japanese sometime but it’s so hard to start.

    Anyway, the moment I saw the picture of the newspaper I thought the author wants to tell how to achieve such a thing on a webpage. I guess doing so would be a nightmare to hell and back. Especially when wanting to retain dynamic headline lengths and such. It would be sad to leave vertical Japanese behind in the web, though. So perhaps there is a possibility to do so?

    0
  26. 37

    I agree with the previous criticism that this is very specific. I think an article giving a larger overview would have been more interesting, considering languages such as Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, etc. in comparison to the Western, Latin-based, and left-to-right writing systems.

    -6
  27. 39

    I think it’s absurd to make comparisons in regards to the difficulty learning japanese vs western languages. If your first language uses the roman alphabet, I would say it’s IMPOSSIBLE to argue that learning a language that does not utilize the roman alphabet would be EASIER than learning one that does.

    -4
  28. 40

    I think this article fits right in to web design. We often design with lorem ipsum text to create a design for a western language. A little knowledge about the Japanese style of writing my help us create designs for languages we don’t understand. I would love to create a design based on mixing horizontal and vertical text in a WordPress layout. There could be some interesting artistic possibilities!

    0
  29. 41

    ARE YOU F@#$$%# KIDDING ME ?!!!

    maybe you should learn Arabic too, we’ll see how much you’ll find it easier than western
    languages and harder than “Japanese”.

    -17
  30. 42

    Web technologies are slowly adapting vertical text and right to left text flowing for various Asian languages. Flash recently introduced the capability in their new text engine “TLF.” They also introduced ligatures which are very exciting for typography wizards!

    0
  31. 43

    Nice article..

    You should also take a look at Sinhalese writing. It is also one of the most beautiful written texts I have seen.

    It’s phonetic, but still the way characters are written amazes me.

    0
  32. 44

    Great article!
    I am self-teaching myself Japanese, and its always helpful to know more about Japan. I really didn’t know that vertical writing was used a lot in print sources(since every resource I use is from the computer)

    0
  33. 45

    I’ve been living and working in Japan for 15 years and I consider the Japanese language one of the easiest to learn. Before you grab your flamethrower bear with me for a second.

    The language has very few phonemes, so it’s easy to pronunciate for about anybody regardless of language (no hard to pronounce sounds like the English “th”, the German “ch”, no minimal vowel nuances as in “o, ö, ü”). There are also no consonant accumulations as with e.g. German or Russian (“borschtsch”). Because of this Japanese tongue twisters really aren’t.

    The language’s grammar is very minimal, there’s only present tense, present future, a kind of conditional form and one past tense. There’s no plural or singular, only minimal conjugation (tense) but no person based conjugation of verbs no genders or even declension (all nouns are unchangeable). And the best it is an incredibly regular language with almost no grammar exceptions.

    Admittedly the writing system is somewhat complex (but more an issue of “you have to put many hours into internalizing all the Kanji and their countless readings”) and there are the different forms of politeness (敬語), but even during the 15 years I’ve been in Japan its use is rapidly diminishing.

    The language is massively context driven and native speakers leave everything out (subject, object) on the basis that the other “knows” what he/she means. That with a language that lives mostly in the infinite form can make it even after years difficult to understand “who” is doing what with “whom/what”. But after a few years one get’s the hang of that, too.

    I can only recommend everybody to learn this language. It opens the door also to other Asian languages, because by learning Kanji, you also will find it easier to get into the Chinese language(s) later on even although the two languages are not related at all. Kanji are pure “meaning” so when you go to China you can often guess what signs and posters mean, without having ever learned the language.

    3
  34. 46

    On Safari when I try to enter Japanese in the comment field of this page and hit space to convert the Kana in Kanji, the page reloads. You might want to look into this.

    I disabled all extensions still happens. Doesn’t happen on Firefox.

    0
  35. 47

    As with any foreign language, it just takes dedication and a lot of practice to learn Japanese. I’ve minored it in college but only managed to achieve 2nd-grade level. A great part of learning it is practice outside of the classroom — speaking, writing, reading. It’s easier to learn the basics and formal forms of sentences. I found it difficult to keep up with the colloquial / informal forms.

    よくできました! I appreciate this article here on SM, not only because I LOVE learning other languages, but also because I have wondered how the different alphabets are laid out digitally — one day I’d want to work on a web project that would utilize all those things I’ve accumulated throughout the years! 

    1
  36. 48

    A “responsive” language! =P

    2
  37. 49

    Excellent article, but I fail to see the beauty in the complexity.
    It’s a mix, an unpolished writing system with almost no unity.

    The discovery, the experience of learning a new language, that’s the beautiful thing.

    2
  38. 50

    I am self-teaching myself Japanese and well I will say: “Indeed, Kanji is hard to tackle at first, but am loving it the more am studying it…” . The grammar is a lot similar to Indic languages like Urdu and Hindi, so that makes it a bit easier to learn for an Indian like me… :)

    As per a famous Indian saying, You can survive in the sea of any art if and only if you manage to drown. People who sink, actually drown… Japanese is an ‘art’…

    Besides, the article is very well written. Am quite fascinated by the vertical writing style and as per my knowledge, it is unique to Nihongo (Japanese). I am working on a JavaScript-based tool to handle vertical script layouts for me, and I hope my language will be good-enough soon to start web-designing in it ! ^_^

    Domo Arigatou Gozaimasu…

    1
  39. 51

    Thanks all for your comments – it was interesting to read!

    As some pointed out, indeed the difficulty of a language cannot be compared so easily, as it largely depends on what your mother tongue is (i.e. French speaker would find other Latin based language easier to learn). The point I wanted to make was that due to the complex appearance of the Japanese text many seem to get the impression that the language is very difficult, but in fact the grammar is quite simple.

    I myself used to find the Japanese typography rather messy and inelegant – mixing three scripts (plus often arabic numerals and Latin scripts) and two writing orientations just seemed “too much going on”. But in the recent years I started to appreciate its flexibility and diversity more and more. Writing/Typography is in the end a representation of a language, and it is not such a bad thing to have more choice for depicting our thoughts.

    I like the comment by Sergey “responsive language” – that’s well said!

    4
  40. 52

    This is a great article, though some thoughts about how to format HTML pages in Japanese and beauty them up in CSS would compliment it well!

    What’s up with all the racist jerks in the comments today, though? I’d hoped SM wasn’t the sort of place that attracted those types. Not that it’s SM’s fault, but really. It’s embarrassing seeing how ultra defensive some of my fellow countrymen are. Just because you’re upset about Spanish speakers, don’t be nasty to this woman. She did a good job.

    I studied Japanese in college and love it, though it’s sad I don’t have enough time always to study kanji like I should. There’s also a lack of local speakers to just turn around and talk to, sometimes I wish I was more interested in Spanish!

    Japanese is easy to speak, but no one said easy to read. However, without kanji, it would be very difficult to read. Kana-only works for children’s books, but once you learn some kanji, you never want to go back. ;)

    2
  41. 53

    Nice and informative. It is always nice to learn something new about another culture, language. Must say the characters are dam difficult to write through :)

    0
  42. 54

    I went to Japan forty-four yearss ago, and spent almost seven years there. I had very little contact with English-speaking “foreigners” which meant that I was plunged into the Japanese way of doing things immediately.
    In those days, there was absolutely nowhere to learn Japanese before going there (I live in Ireland), so it meant going to language school in Japan for the first two years. It’s a fascinating language. Grammatically, and from a pronunciation point of view, it’s not a major task to come to terms with it, but the written side is something else. Originally, Japanese had no written system of its own, and Chinese “characters” were imported by Japanese scholars over a long period, from different parts of China, and “imposed” on the relevant Japanese word. The more pronunciation-linked “Hiragana” and “Katakana” alphabets were developed from the Chinese characters. Hiragana is used principally to “modify” the Chinese character. For example, we use the Chinese character for the word meaning “Come”, and the Hiragana is used to indicate whether it means “Come” or “Came” (“Kimasu” or “Kimashita”). Katakana is now largely used to spell imported words, mostly from English. (Of course we do that the other way round – everybody in the English-speaking world knows what the Japanese word “Tsunami” means).
    It should be remembered that the Chinese characters (Kanji) are not “alphabetical” like the English ABC which enables the reader to know how the word is pronounced. They convey an idea rather than a pronunciation. For example, if I go to Hong Kong and see a Chinese sign outside a building, I know immediately that it is a bank. In Japanese the sign is pronounced “Ginko”, but I have no idea what it sounds like in Chinese. It’s great fun.There are many thousands of these characters. My Japanese-English Dictionary has 7,107 of them, and I believe there are plenty more where they came from.
    To keep us properly confused, these imported Chinese characters have a “Chinese” reading and a “Japanese” reading, and to make matters worse, the same character can be used in many different combinations whose pronunciations bear no relation to each other whatsoever. For example, the very simple three-stroke character meaning “up”, is pronounced “JO” or “SHO” in the Chinese reading, but in Japanese the same character is used in “Noboru”, “Agaru”, “Ageru”, “Ue”, “Uwa”, “Kami” and a few others besides.

    Whether it is written from left to right or from top to bottom makes very little difference as far as I am concerned. That’s the least of your problems. Once you have got a couple of hundred characters under your belt you will be able to tell immediately whether you are supposed to lie on your side or stand on your head.

    I just thought you would like to know.

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  43. 55

    What an insightful post – Thank you!

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  44. 56

    Japanese is definitely not difficult to learn. It is a lot like English, standard set of alphabets, tenses and lots of borrowed words. I would say it is in the same difficulty as English, you will have to remember the vocabs and it’s tenses and adj/adv form.

    As a native Chinese speaker, I would think Chinese is way more difficult to learn than Japanese. Even though Chinese has no grammatical tense, you will have to know each character to understand the context (there are not alphabets. Characters are formed by parts). For Japanese, you can at least pronounce the word that you don’t understand and the characters are way easier to write.

    I’ve heard Korean is probably the easiest language to learn.

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  45. 57

    This article was extremely interesting to read! I love learning more and more on the Japanese culture, hoping I will be able to connect with it someday :)

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  46. 58

    I don’t agree about “As a Japanese person living in Europe, I’m sometimes asked: “Japanese is a difficult language, isn’t it?” Those asking are often surprised when my answer is a simple: “No, actually, it’s not.””
    Because I’ve met many European people in Japan who are Japanese language school students.There are the people have been studying Japanese for 8 years. But I’ve never met the people that is speaking Japanese fluently. I think few European people in Japan can speak Japanese fluently. So, Japanese is difficult.
    Anyway, I think Japanese grammar isn’t a problem. the grammar is easy. But What does learning Japanese make difficult is many Japanese words have a subtle nuance to them.

    1
  47. 59

    Great article. One question though, what type of phone is that, it’s not a iPhone. Look at where the front facing camera is, also, where is the little speaker that should be to the right of the front-facing camera.

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  48. 60

    Speak japanese is quite easy but write and read…oh my! I wonder how chineses do without hiraganas and katakanas.

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  49. 61

    I am a Vietnamese. I have learnt English for 7 years, and I can speak it as a second language. I still remember how hard it was when I began learning. But I am willing to learn Japanese whenever I have free time in the future. Japanese people are so great. :)

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  50. 62

    Helge-Kristoffer Wang

    June 27, 2012 11:04 am

    Thanks for a very interesting read.

    My first thought about responsive design vs horizontal and vertical aligning of the content, was that the vertical alignation could work just fine in the web, if it’s only for mobile. As said in the article, the operating systems, browser standards and so on, makes it real hard to initiate use of vertical text, but it seems like it’s possible. :)

    And I’m actually practicing the Japanese language myself – I feel a great interest in the culture and the kinds of art they practices! :) Which made this article even more interesting.

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  51. 63

    It’s a nice opinion piece, but what would be *really* useful to the SM community would be to list clearly the Japanese fonts we can use — in CSS. It’s hard to find good Japanese web fonts but we would like to use the best ones on users’ machines, for Windows and Mac. For instance, for Mac, many might come with Kozuka Gothic Pro. How to write this for CSS?

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  52. 64

    Japanese typography is amazing, but I think we [westerners] think of it more in terms of display, but their editorial and web design is amazing too, and I’m so glad you pointed it out!!

    Here’s a cool look at a japanese design magazine that has beautiful examples of both Japanese editorial and display/lettering art —> http://blog.caitlin-burns.com/lettering-logotype-typeface-60s-70s-japan/

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  53. 65

    Hey Shoko and Smashing Magazine. Thanks for the article! I’m a US designer working on a site in Japanese and would love to see an article about understanding Japanese typography from a web design perspective. Someone asked about Japanese webfonts, which still seem somewhat limited in availability. But more importantly is learning how to understand and identify typefaces. I dont have the same relationship to what is beautiful and also what different styles of type mean to a Japanese reader. Is there the same type of associations with a gothic face. Is there a Helvetica of Japanese typography? Are X heights comparable to latin typefaces? How to design when you really only have upper case type? These and many more questions come up – would be awesome to hear from someone with experience. Thanks!

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  54. 66

    This is an excellent article. I have been learning Japanese for some time now, and learned a lot that I didn’t know reading your article… brava!

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  55. 67

    Brennen Matthews

    March 19, 2014 9:36 am

    Good morning! Can you help answer a simple question? What are the most successful English language magazines in Japan?

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  56. 68

    Japanese writing system is based on Chinese writing system, and majority “Japanese” words are actually Chinese words. This is an article on the complexity of Chinese:
    http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html
    Almost everything is valid for Japanese of course, sans there are less Chinese characters in contemporary Japanese. However, to complete the picture, you just have to add myriad ways of reading a single Chinese character in Japanese.

    Being a foreigner in Japan for years, let me sum it up: Chinese writing system, Chinese-style construction of Chinese characters (have fun explaining how not, moon and sun adds up to mean bowel to me as in 腸, or tree + mouth = to be in trouble 困) and words (I haven’t met a person that will think of a log when say them “round and fat” 丸太, I also don’t know how “bad heart” can mean nausea 悪心). As a whole, it’s not beautiful at all, and it in unnecessarily complex.

    The complexity also goes for wrong Japanization of the English load-words (it both meaning and spelling: no it’s not shinapsu, it is synapse, and no gurasu and garasu are both the wrong spellings of the same word glass, used in different meanings). Nihon-shiki romanization is also deeply flawed (I don’t know any language with Roman-based script that would spell shatyou as shachou in English), yet Japanese people are thought Nihon-shiki romanization instead of something that makes more sense such as Hepburn romanization. But these are best to be saved for another discussion.

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    • 69

      On a related tangent.

      Oh, and I would very much appreciate if Japanese people could write my name using Romaji instead of some katakana non-sense that doesn’t even sound true. That non-sense became my name in Japan for years, and I was really sick of it. Tell me about being respectful to people *then*.

      And believe it or not, in one rare instance where may name is written in the actual script (my graduation certificate) , they wrote it wrong.

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  57. 70

    I’ve know Japanese well enough and I think that so much complexity isn’t really worth it. First of all, kanji needs a lot of practice to memorize and even then people tend to forget them especially while writing. I find it very strange when I see Japanese people unable to read names due to complex kanjis. Secondly, hiragana and katakana are both not so efficient when it comes to phonetics. They make sense for the Japanese language but the script is very lacking and can’t be used for writing random sounds or other languages. Katakana is the reason why Japanese accent sounds so bad (sorry if that’s offensive). Even very basic sounds such as “la”, “ti”, “tu” are missing.

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