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Japanese Typography – Latin Alphabet

March 06, 2017 by Guest Author: Toshiya Izumo (

Why do the Japanese use the Latin Alphabet? How long have they been using it? Francisco de Xavier, a Catholic missionary from Spain, set foot on Japanese soil in 1549. He had been sent by the Portuguese King João III. After having worked in various places in India, he was to become the first Christian missionary on the archipelago. In order to learn Japanese, he and his successors used the Roman letters of Portuguese to write down the pronunciation of the Japanese words.1

The use of Latin letters did not spread throughout the country, however, not least because of a decree which banned the spread of Christianity.2 The complete isolation of the country (sakoku)3 soon followed. During this era of closure to the outside world, only trade with the Dutch remained, which is why there were relatively many Japanese scholars of Dutch. They also used Latin letters, but the general use of Latin characters grew increasingly rare. The sakoku period lasted until 1853; the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873. Since the influx of Western culture into Japan had been strictly limited up to this point, only a small portion of the educated class used the Latin letters.

James Curtis Hepburn, a Presbyterian medical missionary from America, published the first Japanese-English dictionary in 1867. The book was based on Hepburn's own transcriptions of the Japanese language using Latin letters. He kept improving this system up until the third edition, and as a result, the dictionary also found widespread use in Japanese society. Although the Japanese later made minor changes to this writing system, the Hepburn system of transcription was officially recognized by a government directive in 19544 and remains in use to this day.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, the Japanese lagged behind—a result of the isolation of the country from the development of Western industrial nations. Instead of a modern nation-state, feudal conditions from the Edo shogunate5 period persisted, ruled over by the descendants of the Tokugawa family. Japan found itself in a critical situation and risked falling under the wheels of the international capitalist system as well as becoming a victim of colonialism.

A radical modernization took place, including the abolition of the existing social system, the foundation of a national people's assembly, a modern army and other properties that then characterized the modern Western states. At the same time, kanji were to be abolished and instead the Japanese were to use hiragana, katakana or Latin characters. This is because the writing system in Japan was seen as inefficient and complicated compared to that of the West. This last demand was not adopted, however; instead, the Japanese government later tried to simplify and rationalize the writing system by reducing the total number of kanji.

The start of the 20th century saw more and more words from Western culture in Japan, mainly from the areas of medicine, pharmacy, science, physics, astronomy and information technology. Nowadays, new everyday words are imported more often and more quickly. As a result, the Latin alphabet is seeing increasing use.

When is the Latin alphabet used?

Latin characters are used for names of foreigners, foreign proper names, quotes from foreign texts, and for terms that are nonexistent in Japanese, as well as for the translation of complicated technical terms.

Today, when you write Japanese on a computer, you first write the transliteration with Latin letters. Hiragana then appear on the screen, and third, the user selects the various matching options with the space bar. In this way, it is possible to select the correct kanji among various characters that have the same pronunciation or make the text appear in katakana characters. To do so, you can use the Hepburn system of transcription or the slightly modified Japanese system: the result of the matching options with the space bar is the same. Hence, even foreigners who have only learned the transcription can write Japanese.

This type of transcription is best explained using an example of a Japanese name.

An example of typing Japanese on a computer
An example of typing Japanese on a computer

How do the Japanese use the Latin alphabet when it comes to design?

As already noted, four different scripts can be used when composing a Japanese text. Composite script recognition (e.g. using InDesign CJK) helps in the process of Japanese text composition. This function enables the use of different types of typefaces as composite scripts to compose a text. Of course, it is possible to use manual adjustments as well.

Kana means hiragana and katakana together.
Kana means hiragana and katakana together.

Japanese typefaces for kanji, hiragana and katakana are used in the process of text composition. Hiragana and katakana are generally displayed in the same typeface. Latin typefaces are selected for Latin letters.

Since all typefaces have their own defined sizes and heights, designers have to align them with one another.

When setting vertical text, the Latin words and sentences need to be rotated 90 degrees.

Why all the effort to blend the various font types during composition when one typeface could be used for all four scripts?

Whoever studies Japanese typography in detail finds the following answers:

1) The Latin alphabet in Asian typefaces is often designed by Asian designers or technicians who have no special training for the alphabet. This creates problems6 in the appearance of the typeface.

The characters of HG Heisei Minchotai W3
The characters of HG Heisei Minchotai W3

The characters of MS Gothic
The characters of MS Gothic

2) Since the Japanese characters have no ascenders, descenders or x-height, setting Latin letters in a Japanese text is a challenge: the descenders in the Latin typeface force the designers to adjust the line spacing. Changes to the proportions of inner spaces in letters, ascenders or descenders makes the Latin characters appear distorted, in some cases.

The characters of HG Heisei Minchotai W3
The characters of HG Heisei Minchotai W3

3) A greater heterogeneity of the existing fonts results from the fact that cross-script typefaces have only been designed for hiragana and katakana. As fewer characters (i.e. omitting kanji characters) are required, these typefaces can be offered at more favorable prices and conditions. Since hiragana, in particular, constitutes a majority of Japanese texts, the cross-script typeface will determine a certain look and feel of the overall appearance.

4) The Mincho contains different scripts in one typeface. The kanji comes from old Chinese print script in which the horizontal lines are thin and the vertical lines thick. The hiragana, nonetheless, is modeled after a script font that seems written quickly with curves—as with a brush. The katakana, on the other hand, is created like a regular script7. All strokes are designed separately and slowly. There is also the Latin alphabet, which was not originally designed with an Asian brush, obviously.


The harmonious composition of different scripts in a single text is a challenge. Japanese designers strive for a particularly calm and unified appearance in a text that uses different typefaces. Pop culture or advertising makes use of contradictory movements. In this case, the different typefaces make the overall appearance of the design stand out more.

The Trilogy of Japanese Typography


Takeyoshi Sato: Gaisetsu Nihongo no Rekishi, Tokyo 2007
Makoto Yanaike: Yokogaki tojo, Tokyo 2003
Website (from in September 2016)


1. Takeyoshi Sato: Gaisetsu Nihongono rekishi, Tokyo 2007
2. 1587 Deportation order for the missionaries. 1612 Prohibition of Christianity.
3. From 1616, foreign vessels, except the Chinese, were allowed to enter the Hirado port of Nagasaki.
5. Edo-Shôgunat: from 1603 to 1867. Ieyasu Tokugawa sealed his leading position by receiving the title of Shōgun and became the leader of the country.
6. In addition, the Latin alphabet in asian typefaces usually has neither italics, capitals, ligatures, nor diacritical characters.
7. Regular script is a style of Chinese calligraphy. The shape of the characters are very clear and harmonious. All strokes are carefully written.