How to Not Be Befuddled by Japanese Design

When everything you know about typography is wrong

Lucy King
Published in
5 min readSep 19, 2018


Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo ©SeanPavonePhoto

JJapan 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.

nicola (ニコラ) 2012年 10月号 [雑誌] (left) / Doshin Sports Newspaper (道新スポーツ) (right)

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?



Lucy King
Writer for

Mind. Spirt. Creativity. Ideas to change your life (^_^♪)