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Japanese, A Beautifully Complex Writing System


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 Link

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 Link

“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? Link

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? Link

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)

Footnotes Link

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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.

  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

    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.

  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’.

    • 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 ….

    • 6

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

      • 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.

        • 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.

  5. 9

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

  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.

  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!

  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!

  9. 13

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

    • 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 :-)

    • 15

      You may not care about internationalization, but others do.

    • 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.

    • 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:)

  10. 18

    Very well written and informative. Thank you.

  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!).

  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 :)

  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.

  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 :)

  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.

  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.

  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?

  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.

  19. 27

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

  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.

    • 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.

  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”.

  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 :(

  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.

    • 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).

  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…

    • 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.

  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?

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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”.

  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!


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