While the first part of this series was focussing on a basic understanding of the rather complex Japanese writing system itself, in the second part I’d like to point out some typographical peculiarities that might be of interest to typographers and type/language enthusiasts likewise.

The basic principles you learned about typography regarding Latin script are still valid. After all, typography deals with how humans perceive and process visual information – thus with universal principles that are valid for all humans¹. What you need to do is make appropriate adjustments for each writing system, and adjust to cultural and historic conditions.

¹ There are of course diverse minute differences: women have more cone cells in the eyes than men, hence they perceive colours more intensely. Also blue-eyed people are said to be more sensitive to dazzling light than brown-eyed people (it is said this is due to the higher light-transmissiveness of the lighter coloured iris) – however I haven’t been able to find a proper scientific study to support this claim.

Leading (Line-Height)

In Latin scripts the line-height appears larger than just the numeric value, due to the usage of lower case characters. Lower case characters don’t fill out the whole vertical space and this additional whitespace visually adds to the perceived line-height or leading. With Latin script this additional whitespace above the lowercase letters and the optically perceived leading is in fact ascender height + leading + descender height.

Without this additional space (e.g. in the case of all caps text), more leading is necessary to achieve the same optical distance, hence preserve legibility. Japanese characters lack ascenders or descenders, every character takes roughly the same square space. In regards to leading (line-height) the appearance of Japanese text is not unlike all caps Latin alphabet text. Accordingly to achieve the same legibility as Latin script of the same size, you’ll have to increase the leading compared to Latin script.

Letter Width & Kerning

Every character used in Japanese (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji) theoretically takes the same space, actually an exact square. Even manuscript sheets feature squares, one for each character (writing books by hand is still a thing in Japan to this day).

So one could consider the Japanese script to be a more or less non proportional script! However, if you look at printed materials you’ll notice that everything is kerned massively, so that the originally non-proportional character of the Japanese writing system vanishes mostly.

The reason for the massive kerning is twofold. Japanese punctuation – some of which is only imitating Latin script – also is placed within a square space, which unaltered will add a massive amount of white space, so you get visual “holes” in your text. Eventually you’ll have to manually correct this, especially since the stroke density of most characters in Japanese is much higher than with Latin script, so any additional whitespace sticks out much more than with a Latin script. In print especially the full-stop »Kuten«, (。) as well as the comma, »Tôten« (、) need a lot of kerning for a balanced appearance of Japanese text. Also the »small Tsu« (っ – the proper name is »Sokuon« – a glottal stop) is treated similarly.

Bad Habits

Sometimes, however, kerning is going so far that readability is massively inhabited. In some cases the space between characters is so large that it equals the leading between lines. This is doubly bad, because Japanese can be written either left-to-right or top-to-bottom. And so it happens more often than not, that you start reading some text vertically until you notice that it makes no sense and it’s actually supposed to be read horizontally.

The “iroha” a poem that uses every Japanese sillable once (except “n”). Vertical or horizontal text?

The eye tends to prefer vertical groupings to horizontal ones, some evolutionary psychologists say this is due to humans having a “vertical” appearance (thus it is merely a function that helps recognize members of our own species quickly); so you have to be doubly careful about spacing when mixing horizontal with vertical text. This is done a lot, often articles have a horizontal headline, while the body text is vertical.

Japanese Magazine: Horizontal headline with vertical body text.

Word Division

Japanese has no spaces between words, this allows for division at any character of a word. Of course there are clumsy and elegant divisions, and there are a few characters that shouldn’t ever be put at the beginning or end of a line. The rules or programmes that make sure division is done properly are called “Kinsoku Shori” (禁則処理).

Based on these rules there should never be a full-stop (。), comma (、), closing bracket or quotes (「」) at the beginning of a new line. Furthermore “sokuon” (the small っ) and particles (が、は、に、を、へ、と etc.) should never be at the beginning of a line either. This is either done by using jagged unjustified line endings, or when justifying, character kerning is adjusted to avoid ending a line with a wrong character. To any well brought-up typographer, using kerning to adjust line breaks to this extent should be quite the horror, but with Japanese this is simply par for the course.

The reason why this is acceptable is because even with this level of kerning, readability of Japanese isn’t impacted as heavily as it would be for a Latin script, where words are recognised as whole-word multi-letter images and not as individual characters. Having said that, Japanese also has multi-character words, so if the word-image is distorted too much through excessive kerning, the brain has to fall back to reading individual letters, and that is a ponderous process.

The difference with Kanji (the Chinese characters in Japanese) is however, that the meaning is often conceived before the phonetic value, thus the cognitive process when reading is not the same as with scripts based on phonetic values. Sometimes the reader might be able to understand the meaning of a word, but isn’t sure how to actually read it phonetically. A good example for this are place names that have many irregularities and often readings particular for certain regions for historical reasons (due to old word forms, dialects, etc.). Thus even native speakers often do not know how to read place names of non familiar areas in Japan – yet they’ll have no problem understanding the meaning of the name.



Italics have their roots in the quickly writeable shorthand of the late Gothic and Renaissance, and naturally there is no concept for this kind of emphasis in Japan. Let’s put it this way: never use “italics” for Japanese. There is no such thing as Japanese italics and using “italics” on a Japanese font will simply put the text at an angle and make it much, much harder to read. If you use italics in Japanese, all you do is signal to the world: “Look – I know sod all about Japanese and typography!”

Bold Style

Bold letters are an effective way for emphasising in Japanese, too, but it can be at times tricky to do properly on the Web, because Japanese bold and semi-bold styles are technically separate fonts, and not just another style of the same font. While Helvetica Neue might have the styles Regular, Bold, Light etc. With Hiragino Sans you have the different fonts Hiragino Sans W4 (regular) Hiragino Sans W7 (bold) and so on. While some browsers (e.g. Safari) will figure out what font to use, if you define your base font to be Hiragino Sans W4, and you put some of the text in <strong></strong> tags I found some IE versions to be not so smart and they end up creating “fake bold”, i.e. it will simply copy the same text four times in four directions to create a fake bold appearance that looks ugly and is rather hard to read.


Apart from that you’ll have to work with font size for emphasis, but note that the point size difference between headlines and base text needs to be slightly larger for Japanese, or the size contrast wouldn’t be large enough. While a difference of about 2pt is enough for Latin script to be noticeable for the non trained eye, for Japanese I recommend at least a 3–4pt difference in size to be distinct enough.
Be careful though not to choose too massively large font sizes as is often done in modern Web typography, overly huge font sizes in Japanese are conceived as comic-book like and childish.

In the third part of this little excursion into the Japanese writing system I’ll talk about font families, selection of fonts and we’ll gaze into the deepest abysses of Japanese typography (and if we’re lucky they’ll gaze back into us).

%d bloggers like this: