Writing Letters in Japanese

Close-up of hand writing on paper with pen
(Getty Images)

Today, it is possible to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, instantly by email. However, it doesn't mean that the need to write letters has disappeared. In fact, many people still enjoy writing letters to family and friends. They also love receiving them and thinking of them when they see the familiar handwriting.

In addition, no matter how much technology progresses, Japanese New Year's cards (nengajou) will most likely always be sent by mail. Most Japanese people would probably not be upset by grammatical errors or incorrect usage of keigo (honorific expressions) in a letter from a foreigner. They will be happy just to receive the letter. However, to become a better student of Japanese, it will be useful to learn basic letter-writing skills.

Letter Format

The format of Japanese letters is essentially fixed. A letter can be written both vertically and horizontally. The way you write is mainly personal preference, though older people tend to write vertically, especially for formal occasions.

  • Opening Word: The opening word is written at the top of the first column.
  • Preliminary Greetings: They are usually seasonal greetings or to inquire about the addressee's health.
  • Main Text: The main text starts in a new column, one or two spaces down from the top. The phrases like "sate" or "tokorode" are often used to start the text.
  • Final Greetings: They are mainly wishes for the health of the addressee.
  • Closing Word: This is written at the bottom of the next column after the final greetings. Since opening words and closing words come in pairs, make sure to use the appropriate words.
  • Date: When you write horizontally, Arabic numbers are used to write the date. When writing vertically, use kanji characters.
  • Writer's Name.
  • Addressee's Name: Make sure to add "sama" or "sensei (teachers, doctors, lawyers, Diet members, etc.)" to the addressee's name, depending on which is proper.
  • Postscript: When you need to add a postscript, start it with "tsuishin." It is not appropriate to write postscripts for a letter to superiors or a formal letter.

Addressing Envelopes

  • Needless to say, it is rude to write the addressee's name incorrectly. Make sure to use the correct kanji characters.
  • Unlike addresses in the west, which usually start with the addressee's name and end with the zip or postal code, A Japanese address starts with prefecture or city and end with the house number.
  • The postal code boxes are printed on most envelopes or postcards. Japanese postal codes have 7 digits. You will find seven red boxes. Write the postal code in the postal code box.
  • The addressee's name is in the center of the envelope. It should be slightly larger than the characters that are used in the address. Make sure to add "sama" or "sensei" to the addressee's name depending on which is proper. When you write a letter to an organization, "onchuu" is used.
  • The writer's name and address are written at the back of the envelope, not on the front.

Writing Postcards

The stamp is put on the top left. Although you can write either vertically or horizontally, the front and the back should be in the same format.

Sending a Letter from Overseas

When you send a letter to Japan from overseas, romaji is acceptable to use when writing the address. However, if possible, it is better to write it in Japanese.

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Your Citation
Abe, Namiko. "Writing Letters in Japanese." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/writing-letters-in-japanese-2027928. Abe, Namiko. (2023, April 5). Writing Letters in Japanese. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-letters-in-japanese-2027928 Abe, Namiko. "Writing Letters in Japanese." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-letters-in-japanese-2027928 (accessed June 9, 2023).