How to Not Be Befuddled by Japanese Design
Japan is famous for its Zen Buddhist aesthetics. People come with certain expectations. They expect to find tranquil gardens, serene temples, and exquisite calligraphy.
The truth is “Japan perfect” is a myth.
Modern day Japan is a cacophony of sights and sounds, complete with glittering neon lights, haphazard architecture, snarled power lines, and people everywhere.
To appreciate the real Japan, you need to focus on identifying pockets of beauty. Through the frenzied haze of umbrellas, shopping bicycles, and ubiquitous vending machines, you can find beauty and order.
The same principle applies to Japanese typography design. Written Japanese befuddles many Westerners. But once you acclimatize, your mind opens to new possibilities.
The cluttered look of menus, websites, newspapers, and magazines takes some getting used to. But I assure you there is method to the madness of Japanese type design.
Typography is the art of arranging type
Your choice of typeface and how you make it work with layout, grid, color, and so on makes the difference between good, bad, and great design.
Let me stop right here and reiterate that everything you know about typography is different in Japan.
Japanese can be written left to right, or vertically top to bottom (with vertical lines proceeding from right to left). Sometimes both directions are combined on one page, which gives the impression of a cluttered layout.
This is especially true for chirashi (fliers) distributed with newspapers and for posters displayed inside trains. It looks like total chaos — but it’s not.
When it comes to Japanese typography, please bear in mind — there’s a culture gap.
Why use one alphabet when you can have three?
Written Japanese is very different from English. It uses a combination of Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana alphabets.
Kanji (Chinese characters) is used for nouns. There are over 2,000 Kanji symbols used in everyday Japanese writing.
Hiragana (simplified Kanji) is used for adjectives and verbs.
Katakana is used to render “borrowed words” from other languages.
The three-alphabet system renders Japanese a most readable and compact language. It takes up less space than English (as much as 20% to 30% less on a single page).
Western eyes scan differently
White space is helpful to isolate messages on the page. This makes sense when you consider that our Roman alphabet is made up of 26 letters. Strung together in sentences, words on a page can be hard to distinguish. This is why longish paragraphs in English appear dense and impenetrable.
In contrast, Japanese people are trained to scan by focusing on Kanji (the nouns) to quickly find the info they need. This is why you will often find a lot of content upfront on Japanese websites and in brochures. The “inverted pyramid” used for mass communication in Western culture, where the most newsworthy items come first, followed by background details, has not landed much of a foothold in Japan.
Japanese typography is fit-for-purpose in Japan.
As you can see, there is little merit in judging Japanese typography design by Western standards. In a different context, different principles apply.
Top 5 rules for Japanese typography
1) Choose the right typeface style
When you are localizing typefaces for Japan the general rule is to match sans serif with Gothic and serif with Mincho.
Mincho is the most common font style you’ll see in Japanese typography. It shares the aesthetic qualities of a serif typeface.
Gothic is the second-most common typeface. It is like sans-serif type.
2) Don’t use italics
Italics don’t exist in Japanese. Use font weight variation or brackets to create emphasis as needed.
3) Justify your text
Horizontal text is fully justified (both left and right sides).
4) Increase line height by around 15%
The dense nature of square Kanji characters needs some buffer between lines.
5) Horizontal text is used for most commercial layout design
Vertical text (shown below) is used mostly for newspapers, novels, or letter writing.
My design aesthetic was different when I arrived in Japan. I was a novelty back then — a gaijin (foreign) designer. Over time I evolved a hybrid graphic design style.
You can go your entire life without questioning the universal “truths” you take for granted in your culture. Once you step outside your known orbit, you gain new insight and perspective.
Advice for designers who aspire to work in Japan
Learn the language and understand what makes Japan tick. Do not abandon your Western design sensibilities. Adapt and evolve your style as needed. You will find work because you are different from Japanese designers.
Advice for visitors to Japan
Keep an open mind. Japan will change your outlook if you’re open to new insight and perspective. Be ready to be charmed, challenged, and inspired throughout your visit.
The only limit to your experience is your mindset!