Non-Native Typography—The Japanese Writing System

As a Westerner and a native English speaker, my appreciation of Japanese writing is purely aesthetic and superficial—as one appreciates a painter’s brushstroke, an interesting composition of shapes, or something unfamiliar. It wasn’t until I needed to design with Japanese text myself that I realized how fundamentally different the modern Japanese writing system is from my own. Of course this seems obvious in hindsight—the East is unlike the West in so many ways, why would writing be any different.

What we call Japanese writing is actually the combination and appropriation of thousands of characters from six different scripts each with its own history, function, rules, and visual weight. Because if this, the modern Japanese writing system is often considered to be the most complex contemporary written language. Primarily, Japanese writing combines Chinese logographic Kanji characters with two syllabic scripts, Hiragana and Katakana (known collectively as Kana). Borrowed from China a couple thousand years ago, Kanji characters are used to represent objects, ideas, actions, as well as many Japanese names. Hiragana is used for native Japanese words and grammatical inflections that Kanji doesn’t cover. Katakana is somewhat similar to Latin italics—it is used to write words of foreign origin, onomatopoeic sound effects, scientific/technical terms, and simply for emphasis. Additionally, the Latin alphabet, Arabic numerals, and Greek characters are utilized, each playing a supporting but vital role in the modern Japanese writing system.

The vocabulary, measurement system, and aesthetics of Japanese writing are all a carryover from the days of movable type. Characters for Japanese composition were designed to have a square character frame so they would fit nicely on uniform blocks of metal type that could be set end to end. For more than a thousand years all text was set vertically, but because of the square character profile the same Japanese characters can be set horizontally as well. Contemporary Japanese composition utilizes both text directions, horizontal type setting being a fairly recent innovation. When text is set vertically it is read from top to bottom, right to left. When text is set horizontally it is read from left to right, top to bottom. This composition is taught with guides in much the same way we learn. Similar to our lined grade school paper, Japanese students use a paper called Genkō yōshi. It helps children write and place characters within a grid of uniform boxes.

By in large, Japanese glyphs are much more complex than Latin glyphs. This translates quite understandably into high-density glyphs that are approximately 10-15% larger than their Latin counterparts. Additionally, despite shape, density, or origin, every character is made to conform to the square character frame. This means there are no capitals, no ascenders, no descenders, and no predictable starting character for words or sentences—all of which contribute to the very high legibility of the Latin alphabet. Without these aids, the different scripts themselves have to indicate the sentence structure.

The differences are countless, but most typographic principles are universal and can transcend language. Balance the space within the letterforms with the space between the letterforms—counterspaces are counterspaces afterall, despite their shape or complexity.