Talking the talk in Japanese Design: Typography

A curated list of essential vocabulary for discussing typesetting in Japanese. and you thought we had a lot of Jargon in English!

Welcome to the second instalment of “Talking the Talk in Japanese Design”. This time we’re focussing on typography. As Japanese uses different characters to English and it can be set both vertically and horizontally, there are a lot of different terms! But there are also some interesting similarities too. There are a lot more terms on this subject but we’ve curated a list of those we hear the most in the office.


書体 shotai typeface
Possibly one of the most important terms in this article and a nice simple one to start with.

行間スペース gyokan supe-su (space) leading
Remembering that one of the meanings for “行” is “row” and then that the following kanji “間” means “between”, we can easily see that this word refers to the space between the lines in text. A useful phrase that you’ll hear this in is “gyoukan supe-su ga semasugiru”, which means “the leading is too tight”.

文字間を詰める moji kan wo tsumeru manual kerning
This is the kerning that you’ll be you’re familiar with from Roman typography. The biggest challenge for those new to working with Japanese typography will be the different visual alignment of Japanese characters compared to English.

位置を揃える ichi wo soroeru to match the sizing
“Ichi wo soroeru” refers to the type of space each character takes up and the method of kening between the characters and alphabets. In Japanese typesetting there are two types of spaces – full and half width.

位置を揃える ichi wo soroeru to match the sizing
“Ichi wo soroeru” refers to the type of space each character takes up and the method of kening between the characters and alphabets. In Japanese typesetting there are two types of spaces – full and half width.

Generally, Roman letters take up one byte of space, also known as “han kaku moji” (half-width characters), whereas Japanese characters take up two bytes of space, also known as “zen kaku moji” (full-width characters). While this can be challenging to get your head around, it is important that it is done right and native Japanese readers or your art director will notice very quickly when it isn’t.

This challenge is further compounded when you are working with four alphabets in one paragraph – Kanji, Katakana, Hiragana and Roman letters. Then, attention is needed to make sure all the different alphabets work visually together.

異体字 itaiji Variant characters
Kanji in particular is an alphabet with a very long history. This provides learners of Japanese with the possibility of finding out many interesting factoids about them, but also with many hours of study. This long history also has relevance in design fields as you will have to choose what variant of kanji characters to use to give your work the atmosphere you want. A good example of possible variants can be seen when looking at traditional and simplified characters. The kanji for country in modern or simplified language is written as “国”, whereas as its traditional counterpart is written “國”.

文字の縦横比 moji no tateyokohi the aspect ratio of a character
I’m something of a kanji enthusiast, so I find the “tateyokohi” part of this phrase quite interesting. “Tate” refers to the vertical part, or the height of a character. “Yoko” refers to the horizontal, or width part. Finally, “hi” refers to the comparison, or proportion of “tate” and “yoko”. Makes sense to me!

明朝 minchou serif
Mincho typefaces are like the serifs of roman typefaces. They carry a similar heritage having been developed based on old type used for movable type printing presses. The word Mincho is derived from the “Ming Dynasty” of China; the era in which this technology was imported to Japan.

ゴシック goshikku sans serif
Gothic fonts are the Japanese equivalent of san serif fonts.The word “san serifu“ (sans serif) is sometimes used, but be sure to keep “goshikku” in mind as it refers specifically to Japanese.

斜体 shatai italic
“Shatai” is one word used to mean italic, but just as common is the katakana form of the word with “tai” attached to the end; “itarikku tai”. Generally this will only be used to refer to Roman letters as Japanese type should never be set in italics.

太字 futoji bold
Just as with italic, bold can be said in two ways. One is “futoji”, and the other is, you guessed it, the katakanaised “bo-rudo tai”. Don’t forget that “tai” on the end!

文字を取りづめ moji wo torizume delete and justify character(s)
“Moji” means letter or character. “Torizume” is a compound verb. The “tori” part means to take out, or more appropriately in this case, delete. The “zume” part of the verb means to pack, as in pack together.

文字を削除します moji wo sakujou shimasu delete words or characters
The word “sakujyo shimasu” means to delete, which is a useful word to remember because although many Japanese people understand “deri-to” (delete in katakana), it is more natural and easier for native Japanese speakers to say “sakujyo”.

改行 kaigyou line break
Just about anyone who has done some basic Japanese language study will be able to recognise the second kanji of “kaigyou” as the kanji for the verb “to go”. What is not taught until much later is that “行” has quite a few other meanings, one of which is “line” or “row”. When that is paired with the first kanji, “改” which means “renew”, we can see how “kaigyou” means line break.

Now that we have the more difficult ones out of the way, here are a few simple but necessary terms that don’t need any extra explanation.

フォントを変更 fonto wo henkou change the font
フォントを左寄せ fonto wo hidariyose left alignment
フォントを右寄せ fonto wo migiyose right alignment
下線 kasen underline

Knowing these words will go a long way to helping you communicate about your work in Japan more smoothly. Not to mention your colleagues will be very impressed by your technical knowledge and the effort you’ve put in.

If you’re interested in researching a little more here are some sites that I found very useful when researching this topic.

I’ll see you in our next vocab article where we’ll be talking about digital design!

Ashleigh Leyshon

Ash is a translator and localiser in the mobile games industry. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia where she began learning Japanese in primary school. Which started a life-long passion for language and writing, and has now extended that passion to coding. Ash lived in Nagoya for a year before moving to Tokyo and has now been in Japan for 2 and a half years. In her spare time Ash loves to draw, play games, read, ski, knit, practice martial arts, and travel.


  • Reply August 26, 2015

    Roman Davydko

    Great article! Thank you for sharing that precious information with us (:

    • Ashleigh Leyshon
      Reply August 30, 2015

      Ashleigh Leyshon

      Thanks for your comment, Roman. I’m really glad you found the article useful! There are more coming, so keep your eyes on TGD!

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