Japanese writing directions

If we have ever skimmed at a Japanese book or manga, we are aware that Japanese books are read in the direction opposite from that of English books: while the English books begin on the left cover, Japanese ones begin on the right one, and while in English books, we read the left pages before the right ones, in Japanese books we read the right pages before the left ones.

The direction of reading within a single page is also different. The following newspaper article illustrates the directions of reading in a single Japanese page, and the use of the four Japanese writing systems – kanji, hiragana, katakana and the roman alphabet – in the page:

Kanji – red; hiragana – green; Katakana – blue; roman alphabet – purple

Kanji, hiragana and katakana are all well represented in this typical newspaper article; there are also a few words in the roman alphabet. The red box shows the kanji that is unusual and some people don’t know it, so its sound – ‘けい’ (kei) – is written by its side, in hiragana; these small hiragana characters that indicate the sound of a kanji are called furiganas or rubys.

On the top-right of the article we find the word ‘Tyranosaurus’ written in katakana as ティラノサウルス (ti-ra-no-sa-u-ru-su), from top to bottom, as shown by the red arrows. This is the traditional Japanese writing direction, i.e., vertical, from top to bottom, and read from right to left. Most novels and books are written this way.

On the bottom-left corner we find the word ‘Tyranosaurus’ again, this time written horizontally, from left to right, as shown by the blue arrows. The horizontal Japanese writing is identical to that of most Indo-European languages and, nowadays, most Japanese textbooks use it. It is also common to find writings that use both the vertical and horizontal directions.

Finally, this article uses Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, …) almost exclusively, a popular alternative to writing them in kanji (一, 二, 三, 四, …). Although it is not the case in this article, commonly we write numbers in kanji when we write vertically, in the traditional Japanese way, and we use the Arabic numbers when we write horizontally, in the non-traditional western way.