Understanding Japanese Typography

Photo Credit: jonwick04 on flickr

Posted By Nathan Hoernig

What’s in this for you?

If you’re an English-speaking native and you’ve found yourself trying to weave the intricacies of Japanese typography, you may find yourself in over your head. How do you download and use Japanese fonts? What do the font names mean? What problems may I run into using them?

In this article, I’m going to give you a quick yet complete overview of Japanese typography and how to select the typeface that’s best for your project. Read this article before you choose a typeface so you know what you’re getting and avoid issues later.

The Lingo


“Mincho” is the most common suffix and style you’ll see in Japanese typography.

Have you ever heard of Ming or the Ming Dynasty? That’s right, it’s Chinese.
The Japanese alphabet is based on the Chinese character set. If you’re familiar with Japanese and some of the kanji, you’ll find that China shares similar characters. Nope, not a coincidence.

So the “Min” in “Mincho” stands for “Ming”. “Cho” stands for dynasty. As it’s based off of an ancient writing method, the style is equally historic. If all of this is too much to remember, just think of “mincho” as the western version of “serif” and you’ll be good.

Visually, the “Mincho” style of typography is comprised of contrasting vertical and horizontal strokes. You’ll also notice that mincho typefaces often have, what appears to be, a small triangle nestled into the stroke. Most often it can be found on the top or top-right edge of the stroke. This is called “uroko”. It represents the “pause” in the brush stroke as the writer prepares to continue the stroke or complete it.



“Gothic” is the second-most common. If “mincho” means “serif”, what do you think “gothic” means? That’s right, sans-serif!

These typefaces, similar to western sans-serif fonts, often have consistent stroke-weights as well as more simplistic strokes. No “uroko” on these guys. Often, this style of typeface is used in digital application as well as designs that embody modernity.


Maru is most often combined with a “gothic” or sans-serif style of typography. “Maru” literally means circle or round. It’s because of this that most “maru” typefaces have, you guessed it, rounded corners. Maru is great for quick readability and less-imposing typographic applications.


Kaku literally means “corner”. It’s not quite as intuitive as “maru” but it represents the opposite style: sharp and pointed corners.

If a typeface isn’t created with “maru” and “kaku” versions, you’ll most often find that the standard “gothic” style incorporates the “kaku” qualities. Look at the image for “gothic” and compare it with this one, you’ll see what I mean.


What the heck is “P”? Good question. “P” is often attached to the names of a typeface that you’ve found and it stands for “proportional”—yes, English. It means and implies that each individual character has been condensed independently for the sake of readability. In other words, tighter letter-spacing. It’s the opposite of mono-spacing.

Putting It To Use

Downloading and Installing

This process is just like any other font. Download the font and upload it to your fonts folder. The formats used for Japanese fonts (id est, Opentype, Truetype, Postscript etc.) are the same as most other fonts. Just like most countries, Japan runs on Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems.

Software Usability

This is where it gets tricky.

This is also where I have to give you guys a bit of bad news:
Microsoft Office isn’t compatible with some Japanese typefaces.

You may find that certain fonts, upon uploading to your library, just won’t render the Japanese characters. What will happen is this: You’ll be typing in Microsoft Word (in Japanese), go to change the font to a different character set and once you’ve selected the font, the software automatically reverts to a different Japanese font while your typeface hasn’t changed.

Despite doing some research, I couldn’t come up with an answer to this question though I did find a warning sign of this problem: the font, strangely enough, appears in the English section of your font list (as opposed to the bottom, with the rest of the Japanese fonts). Many Japanese typefaces come with an English variant (which is nice) but you may find it’s not of the best quality in terms of letterspacing, stroke consistency, etc.

If this sounds like a headache to you, I understand. Next Monday, I’ll be publishing an article here that shows you which fonts DON’T fall into this category and how you can get them. Sign up for the blog subscription in the sidebar if you’re worried you might miss out on a future article and want to take advantage of my trials and tribulations.

The only other way around this, unfortunately, is trial and error. Upload the font to your library, restart your Microsoft software and if it doesn’t work, send a snooty email to Microsoft demanding compensation for time lost.

Now the good news:
If you’ve boycotted Microsoft Office in favor of different desktop publishing software, you may be in luck. Being a Mac user, I’ve found no problems with these same fonts in Apple’s iWork, TextEdit and the Adobe suite of software!

I Want More!

If you’d like to learn more about Japanese typography and its uses, Nihongo Resources has a great “briefing” of information about the stylistic qualities of different typefaces.

Want More?

Get up-to-date on the Japanese market with our monthly newsletter.

Nearly done, one more thing