Japanese texts were historically written to be read from the top of the page down, and right to left. This was originally due to China’s influence on Japan’s writing system, since Japan imported Chinese characters or ‘kanji’ in Japanese in the 5th century via routes through Korea. Since then, recently it isn’t uncommon to see books written in the horizontal left-to-right style used in the west, although it is still most common to see the vertical right-to-left format.
Why is Japanese written in these two different directions?
Well, actually there was a time prior to world war 2 where Japan had written horizontal texts that were read right-to-left, so technically there were three different formats. That being said, I will be focusing on the two main formats that you can see in modern Japanese, that being tategaki and yokogaki. As I had written above, there are two primary ways Japanese texts are formatted today. Traditional Japanese texts were written with a vertical formatting known in Japanese as tategaki (縦書き), which you can see in the picture below.
Tategaki is written starting from the top-right corner of the page, and is meant to be read down and from right-to-left across the page.
The other primary style Japanese writing is formatted in is a horizontal style or yokogaki (横書き), which is how texts are formatted in the west with words being written from the top-left corner of a page and are read down to the right across the page.
This is exactly the way you would read in English. So why would people write in two different formats? Wouldn’t that just complicate things for no reason? Hmm… yes and no…
Let me explain.
So why write in Tategaki?
Despite the historical precedent, There is a sort of subconscious air of authenticity that formatting in tategaki can give your writing. This is because typically more ‘official’ or ‘trusted’ sources are written in the vertical right-to-left style , as it is the most traditional style of writing in Japan. You can expect hand-written letters, newspapers, and many notices to be written in this style, and is the way that these traditional documents have been written for centuries. This is sort of a ‘chicken or the egg?’ situation. Writing in tategaki makes whatever you’re writing seem more ‘official’ or ‘traditonal’, because more ‘official’ or ‘traditional’ documents are typically written in tategaki, so people choose to format in tategaki because… you get the point.
Interestingly enough, most novels and academic text is still written in this vertical style, although I have noticed that many books concerning business, philosophy, or psychology are written in the horizontal style (known in Japanese as yokogaki 横書き) . For some reason, as I had previously written, there seems to be some sort of subconscious correlation between the subject-material and the books formatting. Biographies and textbooks are almost always written in the horizontal style, while mystery novels and fiction is written in vertical style. While exploring the books in my apartment and remembering my experience reading hundreds of books in Japan (I went to university here, after all), I can’t seem to find any kind of concrete reasoning why some texts choose to use certain formats. Perhaps it truly is just the author’s personal preference, or perhaps a bias being pushed onto the printing industry as a whole through publisher standard practices.
Naturally, as print media and other forms of communication have become commonplace in the modern technical landscape, Japan has had to adjust to the standard formatting of the internet and other social devices, and the horizontal style has become more and more common especially in the digital space. Japanese blog posts, websites, and articles are always written in the horizontal style. At least, I have never seen a post or article on the internet that was written to be read from right-to-left, unless it was an image of a physical form of media.
These formats affect the nuance of the text
Like most things in Japanese society, people adjust to the needs of the text. Are you sending a ‘nengajo’
(年賀状)or a year-end-letter to Grandma? It would be a little inappropriate, and perhaps a little tacky to write in horizontal style. Are you writing a card for your girlfriend on her birthday? Well, maybe writing in vertical style would come off as a bit ‘stale’ or ‘dry. The horizontal format makes readers feel one way, and the vertical format another. In this way, just as with the variability and sheer amount of characters in Japanese, having much more information to work with, means that you have that many more options to work with when attempting to convey a certain feeling to your reader. Now, I will say that it is pretty strange to mix these two formats in the same body of work, and so you will need to commit to one style from the onset…right?
Okay, I lied. There are some times when writers will choose to include both formats on a single page.
Newspapers are often written in both styles…on the same page
Madness. It’s madness! Well actually, after 7 years of living in Japan I don’t even notice anymore. You can see what I mean below. The areas I have surrounded in blue are written in yokogaki and are meant to be read like English (from left to right.)
So as you can see, Japanese newspapers incorporate both styles rather seamlessly and, dare I say…Illogically? Essentially, newspaper mix both styles for the sake of formatting and to save space, but there typically you will also see eye-catching material and article headlines written in yokogaki (horizontally.) This is not always the case however. The top article I attached uses tategaki to display the main headline, and yokogaki in the center to include a key point. It really is just dependent on the medium. You may think that this it will be difficult to read when text is flowing in all different directions like this, but the natural spacing between Japanese characters is enough to tip-off your eye immediately to what direction each piece of content is meant to be read in.
…read this? It may have taken you a second but i’m sure you can. I suppose I may be one of the first websites to successfully incorporate English tategaki into my writing. Wowee! Look at me…
I know ask the question that any person who has ever even muttered the words ‘Japan’ in their life has on their mind. “So what about anime!?!” Well, I’m not going to talk about anime. Sorry…But I will write a bit about manga.
Manga are written from right-to-left… right?
Yes! Pretty much always. While I wouldn’t call myself a manga enthusiast, I’ve probably read about… let’s say 10 different series, and as far as I can recall every manga I have read has been exclusively written from the tategaki right-to-left and top-down style. That being said, manga is stylistically much more flexible than other mediums. Take this scene the Death Note as an example.
You can see in this page that while the text is written in tategaki, this scene is showing what Light is writing in the death note. Because he is writing his own personal notes, typically notebooks are written using yokogaki, so the background is displayed in the appropriate yokogaki. The point is, despite the main texts being typically written in tategaki, the scene or chapter of each manga can often break theses rules in some pretty interesting ways. Plus, there are a lot of interesting formatting tricks that manga artists or ‘Mangaka’ (漫画家) use to make the absolute most out of every centimeter, every millimeter of the page. Generally speaking, these choices to mix the two format’s come down to a decision to stylize, make the most out of given space, or to invoke a certain feeling in the reader. Just as I was explaining in a separate article I wrote about why Japan uses 3 alphabets (You can read that article here if you are interested), each format of writing gives the writer a whole different form of expression to work with, and gives your text a certain nuance. While it can be intimidating at first working all of this out, like most things related to Japanese, the more time you spend practicing them, the easier you will be able to pick up their subtle nuances subconsciously.