As somebody who has studied Japanese for over 8 years and has spent considerable time sleuthing through language-learning forums, I have seen this question crop up a lot. Usually posted in a sense of desperation. It isn’t the simple question of “Why doesn’t Japanese have spaces? Please inform me.” It’s more often than not a “WHY DOESN’T JAPANESE JUST USE SPACES?? WHY?!” as I imagine the original posters fists clenched and raised to the heavens. “Oh lord, please absolve of my sins and grant me this one gift. Why not just separate noun from noun, and particle from particle?! Oh, please lord, just grant me this one gift! The gift of the Japanese space!”
Or something like that?
So, why doesn’t Japanese use spaces like we do in English or other romance languages?
There are a number of really interesting mechanics Japanese has that I will go over, while also touching on the overall utility and versality of using written kanji characters in Japanese. I say this because the question of “Why don’t Japanese people use spaces?” is usually followed up or proceeded with the question: “Why doesn’t Japanese just get rid of kanji and use spaces in between words instead?” If you’re confused on this question, don’t worry, I’ll elaborate.
The quick answer: Japanese doesn’t have spaces because Japanese uses 3 different alphabets simultaneously, meaning that it is much easier to tell Japanese words that written next to each other apart from each other than English words. This mitigates the need for spaces in the Japanese language.
The deeper reason why the Japanese language doesn’t use spaces, and how this can change your perspective
So, what if I told you that the Japanese language DOES has spaces after all? From a certain point of view, this isn’t entirely true, when you are thinking in terms of what function a “space” has in the English language. Japanese writers do uses spaces too, but only if we consider a “space” as being similar to a concept like “spatial allocation” Okay, okay I’m getting overly philosophical, so let me demonstrate what I mean with pictures.
Here is a visual example of why the Japanese writing system doesn’t use spaces, and what it would look like if it did
This is a visual simulation of how Japanese readers naturally separate words through the use of Hiragana, Katakana, and kanji. In essence, this variation achieved through the simultaneous use of Japan’s 3 different alphabets acts similarly to the way spaces are used in English. In this way, this separation of concepts through the mixing and arranging of different alphabets is very malleable. You can think of the way Japanese writers interchange the 3 different Japanese alphabets with each other as similar to how a graphic designer uses different fonts in English. The overall design of the character itself projects something to the reader. It isn’t only the concept itself, but the way you are presenting the information that informs the reader on how they should feel through this malleable context. This utility is one of the reasons why Japanese doesn’t have spaces, and why it doesn’t need to have spaces. As I attempted to demonstrate in the visual example above, the three alphabets used in tandem create enough visual contrast to give the Japanese language a malleable albeit more elusive sense of spacing.
This sense of spacing provided by the multiple Japanese alphabets in tandem can also be used in more deliberate ways towards single words, and not necessarily entire sentences. Perhaps one of the most common marketing tropes you will see in Japanese advertising copy is for a word that is commonly written in hiragana, which may be thought of as to the standard alphabet in Japanese, be written in katakana to provide added emphasis and draw the reader’s attention (Check the example below.) You can think of this effect as being somewhat similar to how we used italicized characters in English. However, since it is an entirely different alphabet we are talking about here (although there are visual similarities between hiragana and katakana), this level of embellishment is comparatively stronger in Japanese. You can think about it like bolding, underlining, and italicizing a word, but somehow without coming off as tacky or in bad taste. This is such a common thing utility in Japanese writing that it doesn’t come across as nearly as forced or “click-baity” in the context of the Japanese language. Let’s look at some real world examples.
Let’s look at a marketing example from Panasonic: How the three Japanese alphabets create visual contrast and emphasis ideas for the reader without the use of spaces.
Let’s look at this example from Panasonic. This is an advertisement for Panasonic’s chlorine filtration system for pools. The text says “Do you know? The thing that protects kids at the swimming pool with that particular smell.” They’re talking about chlorine. One thing I noticed is that the Japanese word for smell (“Nioi”, written as ニオイ in this case) would typically be written in kanji, but is written in katakana in this case, likely to conjure images in the readers mind. But, why? Well, when you think of chlorine, the first thing you probably think of is the smell of the pool, right? By writing the word “nioi” in katakana, this not only achieves a level of visual contrast and makes for good design principles, it also places emphasis on the word itself.
So, how do you arrange the different Japanese alphabets, and how does this act as a replacement for spaces in Japanese?
I have touched on this idea before in my article Which Japanese Alphabet Should You Learn First? A Beginner’s Guide. This idea being that interchanging which alphabet (technically Kanji isn’t an alphabet, but for simplicity sake let’s call it one) you use, and the ratio of whichever alphabet you use in Japanese heavily changes the nuance of a sentence. For example, if you were to write an entire sentence using only hiragana characters, not only would the sentence be incredibly difficult to read since it lost its natural sense of spacing from the visual contrast of hiragana against both the katakana and kanji alphabets. The sentence would also come across as somehow more childish or loosely based.
Japanese doesn’t use spaces…but English only uses one alphabet! Why translation isn’t a 1 to 1 endeavor, and the question I get asked most often by English learners
Here’s an anecdote; Do you know what the most common question I get asked by Japanese English learners is? Contrary to expectation, it isn’t a question pertaining to English spelling or grammar. More often than any other question, I’ve been asked how to translate the extremely common (and notoriously difficult to translate Japanese phrase) “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (written as よろしくお願いします), is commonly translated to “Please be kind to me forever” in English. While…this isn’t exactly…incorrect,.. this isn’t a statement I would label as being anything close to “natural English”, right? My point being: When you actually directly translate languages 1 to 1 the result is often less than natural. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu is almost impossible to translate into English, because the English equivalent for yoroshiku onegaishimasu simply doesn’t exist. If I were to choose one phrase, however, I would probably translate it to “I hope that we can have a smooth relationship full of prosperity now and into the future.”, or something along those lines. However, as a translator myself, I almost always choose to focus on translating the feeling of any given sentence. When people first start learning other languages they may ask “How do I say this in (target language). When one becomes a true bilingual and beyond, one would ask themselves ” How would I convey this feeling in (target language)?” It is a rare thing for languages to have a perfect grammatical and cultural equivalencies. The question is not “Why doesn’t Japanese have spaces”, but rather “Why does English have spaces, and what would English be like without spaces? Are there any alternatives to using spaces?” This is the mindset of a linguist who has experienced the diversity of the world.
A bit about me and my life in Japan
Why I title my articles the way I do, and why you can trust my content.
For any previous readers of my content, you may have noticed that nearly all of my articles (ironically, with this article being one of the exceptions) include the phrase “My experience” in the title. I do this because everything I write about is based on my own personal experiences of living in Japan. I want people to know that these experiences are what I draw from to write every article. I might not use as many sources as other sites, but it’s very rare that I even attempt to tackle a subject that I don’t have direct experience in. Here is quick timeline of my life in Japan since 2015 so you can understand my journey and why you can trust my content.
Enrolling in Japanese language school and moving to Japan 2015-2016
In January of 2015 I moved to Osaka, Japan to enter a Japanese language school. With the influence of people I had met, I decided that if I was going to study Japanese…it might as well be in Japan! If you want to read about my experiences when I first moved to Japan and entered a Japanese language school, you can read more about it here: https://growkaru.com/2021/05/01/studying-at-a-japanese-language-school-my-experience/
Enrolling in Japanese university and that experience. 2016-2020
I then enrolled in university in Japan from the 2016 to 2020. After cramming Japanesee into my brain for the better part of two years, I decided “What better way to test myself, than by taking university courses in Japanese?”. So…I did that! And failed at many things…but I still did it! You can read about that experience and some of crippling failures here: What’s It Like Studying at a Japanese University? My Experience. In addition, I also recently wrote about a strange experience I had while on a university Gasshuku (A kind of ulta-Japanese take on a class field trip), which you can read about here: Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had
My experience working in Japan after graduation 2020-now
After graduating from university in early 2020, I moved to Tokyo to work in the marketing division of a company. My primary job would be in working with videographers to create company live stream events, and occasionally editing and adding English subtitles to videos myself. After a year of working at home because of the state of 2020 and 2021, I eventually decided to branch off and try doing a similar job, but as a freelance worker and my own boss. Becoming a freelancer is rare in Japan, but it’s even more rare for a foreigner to set up a sole proprietorship. I would like to write more about these experiences in future.
If you are interested in learning Japanese, and want to learn more about Japanese linguistics and my experiences in Japan:
Through this website and my YouTube channel (on the menu above) I try to provide a clear and realistic view of life in Japan and the Japanese language and culture, based on my experiences living in Japan as both a student and employee over around 7 years. If you are interested in learning Japanese, or learning more about the intricacies of life in Japan, please consider checking out one of the articles I have linked below. Everything I write about is backed up by years of practical experience, trial and error, and all of my own personal sweat and tears. (Personal sweat and tears are the best kind of tears)