Using Japanese Typography in Design

Posted By Nathan Hoernig

The Value of Well-designed Content

One of the most important elements of design is the way its proposed to your customers. Whether that be with graphics or written copy, it’s important that your message is delivered. In your own native language, this may be quite difficult. In a foreign language (such as Japanese), this is nearly impossible.

This article will guide you through some tips about using Japanese text in your marketing and designs. We’ll highlight some important points about typography, formatting text, and creating a pleasing composition with your copy.

In order to create proper written content you need three primary things:

  1. A target audience.
  2. Well-written and applicable content geared towards that audience
  3. & Properly-formatted typography

If you have a business plan, number one should be in the bag.

Number two will require the work of a native speaker and not just any native speaker, a professional writer who can take your message and communicate in an appropriate manner. Sometimes we say things that don’t communicate to a Japanese speaker. Because of that, you’ll need someone who understands your metaphors, idioms, nuances and subtleties. This may very well be the most difficult step.

Number three is the job of the designer. That will be our focus of this article.

Choosing Content

photo credit: shutterhacks on flickr

Choosing content will be directly related to the product your selling (but you knew that). You’ll need to sit down with a translator who’s truly fluent in both languages. The key here is to express your message using adjectives and adverbs. The importance here is that the writer knows the “mood” of your piece. As a translator, they will need to assess whether that mood is appropriate for the target market. Things like culture and history can affect your message and the way its perceived. Even mental associations are delicate as one culture may allude to something totally different.

Here’s an example:

In your country, what does the letter four mean to you? Maybe nothing special. In Japan, the pronunciation of the character is similar to the English word “she”. A similarly-pronounced word (in Japanese) is “death”. For this reason, it’s often avoided in the form of gifts. Likewise, you may want to avoid any reference to the numeral four in your Japan-marketed designs. Do you see what we’re getting at?

Main Point: Don’t be picky about the content.
If you know a little bit of the language and realize that your writer/translator is gorging your writing, it may be because your point doesn’t translate. If you’re doing some sort of advertising design or something of the sort, it’s nice to get your personality into the copy, but a quick and understandable message is of utmost importance.

As long as you’ve carefully selected your translator, you can put a little faith in them that they can effectively translate your content. Key word: effectively.

Choosing a Style for your Text

I’ve written an extensive article about Japanese typography so have a look if you need to be brought up to speed.

If you can’t be bothered, however, the basics are as follows:

Mincho typefaces are the “serifs” of Japanese typography. Use them for long bodies of text as the stroke weights, “serifs” and overall visual appeal are great for long-distance reading. Mincho typefaces are also great for print work or adding contrast to your document. With the advent of super-high resolution screens (in which the eye can’t discern individual pixels), mincho typefaces may eventually be the new standard for bodies of text in digital forms.

Gothic typefaces are the “sans-serifs” of Japanese typography: great for headlines and bold applications. Again, until the writing of this article, this was the most common style for digital work, but this may change (see reference above).

Main Point: Think about your target audience and your target substrate (paper, standard screen, high-resolution screen, etc.) and plan accordingly.

If you don’t know much about typography, find a concise English source of study and learn the ropes. The good news is that if you’ve got some design experience and an established typographic sense using roman typography (id est, English, German, French, etc.), you should be able to apply a similar mentality to Japanese typography.

Formatting Bodies of Text

Where do you break the line in Japanese typography? How do you use punctuation properly? What about line-spacing? Let’s get started.

The Line Break

In English, it’s proper to break a line in between words. It doesn’t matter where in the sentence you break, but between words is better than mid-word with a hyphen.

The same goes for Japanese. If you’re using a Japanese particle, however, you’ll want to break the line after the article for example:

The reason for doing this is that it follows the rhythm of natural Japanese speech, it also allows the reader to maintain the thought more naturally when moving on to the rest of the sentence.

Main Point: Accommodate your reader (and potential customers) by respecting the way the language is used. It not only makes your content easier to understand, but it shows respect for the language. After all, you wouldn’t trust a source that breaks your own language in awkward places, would you?


Let’s talk about the period as a starter.
If you write a sentence in English and your sentence lines up just close enough to force your word over the edge when you type a period, will you return after the last word and put your period down below?

Of course not. That doesn’t make any sense.
Same rule goes for Japanese. Keep the period connected to the last word for a clean composition.

The Japanese use a huge variety of different punctuation that we don’t use in the states. Take a look at the image below for some information about some of the main ones. There’s also a remarkably in-depth overview on Wikipedia for a more thorough look.

Creating Gray

Japanese characters are really beautiful. Each character is sculpted in a way that it fits neatly into a perfect square. Each individual character, especially the kanji, are independent works of art.

Unfortunately, the beautiful balance and composition of each character is completely lost when its put into a sentence with others. This is where life gets difficult.

Japanese is mono-spaced (called full-width) and accommodates for almost no eye-friendly kerning or spacing between the characters (think Courier, to get an idea of what I mean). Because of this, it’s very difficult to get a nice gray like we see in well-done roman character-based design. Heck, if you’re working in html, it’s impossible.

However, there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. If you work in a format in which you can control the way type is rendered, there are some (albeit time-consuming) fixes.

Your first option is to find a Japanese “P” font. “P” can often be found in the name of the font and stands for “proportional”. These typefaces aren’t mono-spaced and offer a bit more of a pleasing aesthetic in terms of letter spacing. As good as this method is, it’s far from perfect and if you have a honed eye for typography, you’ll be looking for another answer.

In this case, what you’ll need to do is individually kern the letters yourself. While hiragana and katakana (the two basic alphabets) offer a bit of “breathing room”, the kanji will need to be adjusted.

I’ve taken a standardly-formatted sentence and worked with the spacing to provide more balance. To get a good idea, squint and look at it upside down. That’s a typographer’s trick for checking balance and proper spacing.

Main Point: Japanese typography isn’t as forgiving as the roman-based languages. Through all your efforts you may never reach that nice gray tone you were looking for. However, if you put in ample, educated time, Japanese people (who have looked at text their whole life), will “see” the beauty of your typographic composition.

Your turn

Think of where have you seen success in Japanese typography, combine that with your experience, and apply it to your Japanese focused designs. Of course, fee free to use some of our tricks and ideas too. If you’d like to talk more about using Japanese typography in your company’s designs, contact us and we’d be glad to help out.

Want More?

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

Nearly done, one more thing