Words by Émilie Rigaud
01 March 2021
Type History | Japan
This article presents the Japanese writing system, which is quite complex and absolutely fascinating. It is the first of a series I intend to write about Japanese typography, I am currently doing a PhD research on this topic and want to share some of this knowledge.
Shapes are made, shapes are traced
These two images show the different parts of a typographic Japanese sign. On the left you can see all the elements that constitute a "minchō" sinogram with their names — minchō is one of the big Japanese typeface family, used for body text. On the right side, these elements are composed in a poster designed by the famous Japanese graphic designer Tanaka Ikkō for Morisawa, which is the biggest company selling type now in Japan. These are typographic shapes, they have been refined for probably long hours.
On the other side of the spectrum, made in one precise moment, stands the calligraphy. Here is a type designer, Hashimoto Kazuo (photo by Akari Yuki) showing a calligraphy he made. Type design does not require to practice calligraphy, the two disciplines are actually very different from each other as the time put in each is not of the same nature. There is a big gap between the typographic shapes that are made and these calligraphic shapes that have been traced.
There is even another world if we consider the writing sphere. Above is a spread from an old school textbook, from the end of the 19th century, presenting again in the top right corner and in the top left corner the different elements that constitute a sinogram.
All these worlds coexist (in Japan and outside of it) and have of course interconnections: typography, calligraphy, writing, we can also add lettering (which I will develop in another article).
A puzzling relationship between scripts
The Japanese writing system is a complicated one because it contained three scripts in one, even four scripts if we include the Latin alphabet. Japanese people use these different scripts together all of the time, Japanese text is weaved with them, as they play different roles in the sentence.
The sinograms, called kanji in Japanese, were originally imported from China to match the Japanese language. As China had a big cultural influence back then in the 6th century, Japanese people decided to make Chinese signs work for their own language. To keep this story short, let’s just say that the sinograms have been integrated to Japan in successive waves, and since then have evolved in their own way.
The hiraganas derived from the kanji; when you write, your hand distorts the shapes, and that is what happened to kanji too. As they are usually made of a lot of strokes, the difference between the original kanji and its distorted cursive fast-written version can be huge. Women in the imperial court, who were writing litterature pieces, developped this style of writing, creating new signs. And today they are part of the Japanese language, you can not write without using these signs.
The katakana is another type of script which comes also from the kanji, but in a completely different way. They were initially fragments of kanji used by monks and scholars as shorthands.
And lastly, the Latin alphabet gets also mixed with these three scripts and they all live as a happy crowd.
Hiragana and katakana are syllabic. For example, the sound [ta] is written タ in katakana and た in hiragana. Different shapes, read the same way. The kanji 田 can be read [ta] too, but it can also be read as [den] in certain occasions. So one kana (whatever katakana or hiragana) equals one sound, but one kanji can equal multiple different sounds.
All these scripts have a different function in the sentence : the kanji give the concept of the word, the meaning; hiragana are the elements that connect all these kanji together and give precisions about their grammatical role in the sentence; and katakana are for words created from a foreign language. For example, computer in Japanese, is written コンピューター (pronounced konpyūtā, in the rōmaji phonetic transcription). Latin alphabet is necessary to write acronyms or the title of a foreign book for example.
Above is a sample of text (taken from the NHK website) to show what is the texture of Japanese short news text. I highlighted the different scripts in different colours: sinograms in green, hiragana in red, katakana in blue, and what is left in black is Latin alphabet and punctuation. As you can see, the text is a rich mix of these 4 scripts and it is what Japanese people read everyday.
I did the same thing for another type of text; we can observe that the texture is different according to the type of content. This sample is a piece of litterature, a text from Murakami Haruki. We see no Latin letters here, it is not always the case, but there are less acronyms or brand names than in a news text, less katakana words too. If I had taken an old classical litterature text, we would get even more kanji. The proportion of kanas in a text tend to become bigger.
Japanese language is a very playful language, you can create new words easily, consider it a sort of linguistic modeling clay. Words built from pieces of foreign language will be written as katakana, and some words that are common and were originally written in kanji are now written with hiragana (such as the word "here", ここ instead of 此処).
From right to left, and vice-versa
Another characteristic of the Japanese writing system is that it can be written vertically AND horizontally. Vertical would be from the right to the left, and horizontal is from the left to the right. But we can easily mix them within one page, within the same layout, as you can see in this sample of magazine. On the left part, the text is written horizontally from left to right, and on the right side, the title and subtitles on black background are set left to right, but the text under has to be read vertically, from right to left.
The books are mainly still composed vertically, internet is on the contrary only horizontal, and then magazines or advertising can mix the directions to create dynamic compositions.
It has become rare, but sometimes one can even see, in temples for example, horizontal text to be read from right to left.
Within one vertical text, we can also find parts that have been rotated to fit the line, to write the title of a book in Latin alphabet, as you can see it here.
The texture of a Japanese text is not homogeneous, some parts are darker and some parts lighter, it gives to the text some sort of a shiny or wavy texture. At no price it can be an even grey, and the conception that Latin designers have in mind of an "even texture" would not be relevant here.
Furigana : cuties
Another specificity of the Japanese typesetting is the use of furigana, which are small kana that indicate how to read the kanji. Two different times here : on the left, from the Edo period, and on the right side, a contemporary use. Still today, if there is a possible ambiguity in the reading of a kanji, for names for example, the small hiragana on the side, as they are a syllabic system, gives the phonetic of it.
The quantity of furigana depends on the nature of the text. Of course children literature will have more furigana than a newspaper, as the children are still learning the kanji and do not know all of them yet.
The left image shows how it could sometimes be hard to read texts that were not typographic, the signs are linked to each other and written by a human hand, so the furigana help a lot to the understanding in this case.
Kilograms of sinograms
Because of the richness of this writing system, a lot of its specificities (if not all of them) can become debate material, starting with the number of signs needed.
For a long time, these signs were engraved in wood, text and image were blended into one printing technique: woodblock printing. It did not matter so much if you had a lot of different signs or small furigana to add between the lines. Of course, the number of signs could be an obstacle to the development of litteracy among the population, but it did not affect the speed of woodblock printing.
Things are different when you want to print with mobile type, actually small square pieces of lead, where one sign equals one square box. The problem of the signs’ number then becomes very tangible.
Modern typography took off in Japan at the end of the 19th century (see my other article on this topic). At that time, Japanese people aspired to be "modern" — and the definition of modernity was based on the model that Europe and US were giving — in order to engage in a discussion on equal terms with these foreign countries. Getting to the same level of technology was one of the reasons why Japan had to do the shift to metal type. Another reason is the dramatic increase of the need for communication in Japan at that time, especially with the incredibly fast growth of newspapers. To be able to print newspapers on a daily basis (and even two times a day), woodblock printing was not efficient enough anymore and the Japanese printing industry moved on to metal type. A lot of metal type. Space-consuming to store, complicated to set and time-consuming to put back in order.
That is why, around the turn of the 20th century, with this pressure of being "modern" and becoming "equal to the Western world", Japan reflected on its own writing system and indulged in passionate debates.
Different options were considered to reform the Japanese writing system. 1
One option was to reduce the number of kanji, a pretty good idea when you have thousands of signs, maybe you can do without some of them.
Another option was to write everything only with the kana. Within this option, some people rooted for hiragana and some for katakana.
Behind this idea was a lot of sometimes contradictory reasons. Without getting into all the details, we can mention the nationalist tendency, the will of going back to what is the essence of Japan. If you push this weird logic further, sinograms originally came from China and if you want to present yourself as the top leading country in Asia, you better not use something Chinese. This faction defended that kana are the true Japanese writing system.
Another approach for reducing the number of signs would be writing everything in "rōmaji", which is the transcription of Japanese language into Latin alphabet (the solution that Turkish writing system chose, for example).
On the most extreme side (and far away from nationalism), the ministry of education himself suggested to give up Japanese language and switch to a simplified version of English!
Luckily, Japan decided to go for the first solution, and just reduce the number of kanji.
From my own experience, the somehow complexity of the Japanese writing system makes its efficiency. Kanji give an idea of the content, they are visual anchors that you can check if you want to read fast or browse through a text. Your eyes will jump from a kanji to another. The alternation of kanji and kana gives a rhythm to the sentence and leads the eye forward by defining groups of meaning.
It is hard for me to read a text that is set only in hiragana (as in the Japanese version of Animal crossing on Switch for example, the characters only speaks in kana, with no spacing separating words, it takes me twice the time to read although the sentences are simple).
It may be not so efficient to learn in the beginning, but this system has also advantages. (And is life purpose to be efficient anyway?)
Hentaigana : beauties
The word hentaigana is made of kana, — syllabic elements —, and hentai, meaning "shapes that are different [from usual]". Kanas that are different from usual. Where do they come from? Before the 20th century, there were multiple ways to write each syllab, each sound. According to the kanji you originally use, the resulting kanas could take different shapes.
1. About this topic, read the excellent book (in French) by Pascal Griolet, La modernisation du Japon et la réforme de son écriture, 1985, Publications Orientalistes de France.
This image is a digital font reviving the hentaigana. The first line on the left is the sound [a], typographic form あ, for which you can see 4 alternative signs. Line 6, for the sound [ka] there are 11 new possibilities! Not only Japanese people reduced the number of kanji they were using, but they also reduced the number of kana. In a reform of the writing system in 1900, they decided to keep only one hiragana per syllab. All the rest of them became what is so called hentaigana and are not used anymore today. They are very lively, very cursive, and I personnally have a lot of affection for them.