Should Japanese Writing Be Horizontal or Vertical?

Traditions Vary but It Can Be Written Both Ways

Kanji Wall
Pietro Zuco/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Unlike languages that use Arabic characters in their alphabets, such as English, French, and German, many Asian languages can be written both horizontally and vertically. Japanese is no exception, but the rules and traditions mean there is not a lot of consistency in which direction the written word appears.

There are three Japanese scripts:

  1. Kanji
  2. Hiragana
  3. Katakana

Japanese is commonly written with a combination of all three. 

Kanji are what are known as ideographic symbols, and hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets which make up the syllables of Japanese words. Kanji has several thousand characters, but hiragana and katakana only have 46 characters each. The rules on when to use which alphabet varies greatly and kanji words usually have more than one pronunciation, to add to the confusion. 

Traditionally, Japanese was only written vertically. Most historical documents are written in this style. However, with the introduction of western materials, the alphabet, Arabic numbers, and mathematical formulas, it became less convenient to write things vertically. Science-related texts, which include many foreign words, gradually had to be changed to horizontal text. 

Today most school textbooks, except those about Japanese or classical literature, are written horizontally. Most often it's the young people who write this way. Though, some older people still prefer to write vertically citing that it looks more formal. Most general books are set in vertical text since most Japanese readers can comprehend the written language either way. But horizontal written Japanese is the more common style in the modern era. 

Common Horizontal Japanese Writing Uses

In some circumstances, it makes more sense to write Japanese characters horizontally. Particularly, that's the case when there are terms and phrases taken from foreign languages which can't be written vertically. For instance, most scientific and mathematical writing is done horizontally in Japan.

It makes sense if you think about it; you can't change the ordering of an equation or a math problem from horizontal to vertical and have it retain the same meaning or interpretation. 

Likewise, computer languages, especially those that originated in English, retain their horizontal alignment in Japanese texts. 

Uses for Vertical Japanese Writing

Vertical writing is still frequently used in Japanese, especially in popular culture printing like newspapers and novels. In some Japanese newspapers, such as the Asahi Shimbun, both vertical and horizontal text is used, with horizontal lettering more frequently used in the body copy of articles and vertical used in headlines. 

For the most part musical notation in Japan is written horizontally, in keeping with the Western style. But for music played on traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) or the kugo (harp), the musical notation is usually written vertically. 

Addresses on mailing envelopes and business cards are usually written vertically (although some business cards may have a horizontal English translation 

The general rule of thumb is the more traditional and formal the writing, the more likely it will appear vertically in Japanese.