Applications are now open for the Melbourne Design Market — http://t.co/nV2wZSU5rV
So much of Japanese society can be seen through its letterforms. They show the extremes of this complex society, from the neon mayhem of Shinjuku, Akihabara or Shibuya to the ancient zen ritual of calligraphy. What I really loved on my recent sojourn in Japan were the epileptic neon signs that were inescapable in almost every corner of the Tokyo metropolis. The creativity and harmony between the lights, and at times, super complicated letter forms can be just breathtaking. In the other corner, upon visiting Shinto temples and seeing ancient scrolls you can see that calligraphers were the ancient type designers. They spent hours focused on ligatures and whether the ends were squared, pressed or swept, changing the expression and even the meaning of a character.
To create consistency in a language that has three alphabets used for different purposes is a huge feat. The 2008 release of modern typeface Meiryo took a mix of Japanese and Latin font experts a period of two years to create more than 40,000 glyphs. Meiryo is a vision into the future of Japanese visual communication. With the vast majority of Japanese society reading most of their information on LED screens it is a natural progression is towards screen-friendly modern sans serif type. Westerners look at Asian characters and instantly are confused and intimidated. And then there are the few that get fascinated.
Scott Cosgriff, lawyer and director of translation firm Just Communications, just happens to be one of these individuals, so I sat him down to unearth and demystify some of the complexities of Japanese language. With a healthy focus on type of course.
How would you describe the visual effect of the Japanese language? Non-speakers see it as chaotic and incredibly complex.
It’s great. It is complex, that’s true, the three alphabets create some lovely contrasts and flows. And of course one of those alphabets – kanji or Chinese characters – is an intensely visual one, because the characters themselves have meaning. It is full of beautiful curves and strong, jarring squares and it really has a huge amount of flexibility in how things are expressed. The complexity of it all means that choices about type and lettering really influence visual communications.
How often do you see Japanese characters written in the traditional Western format (left to right)? How would a Japanese person choose which direction to write or type in?
You see Japanese written left to right all the time. But that is a relatively modern development. Left to right is dominant in a huge swathe of things: advertising, instruction manuals, emails, contracts, video games, corporate identities, most traffic signs and almost all Japanese content on the internet. Despite all this, Japanese was traditionally a vertical language; which is to say characters would be written one below the other to create a word or series of words. Those columns of text then go from right to left across the page, such that you would start reading a paragraph in the top right and finish in the bottom left, after moving your eyes from the bottom to the top a few times.
So you can just switch text from vertical to horizontal as you please?
Basically, yeah. The language’s directional flexibility comes from two principles that guide modern-day Japanese. The first is that all Japanese characters – irrespective of how simple or how complex – should occupy the same amount of space. The second is that there is no connection between characters. Both from a type perspective, and from the perspective of, say, the average Japanese person holding a pencil and writing a note by hand, this means that unlike with Roman characters there is no need to join letters or make them ‘fit’. You just line them up like bricks. Of course, this is something we can do in English too, but it is pretty much limited to signage and other very simple visual communications because as a reader you just don’t get any fluency.
But a typical Japanese newspaper will have articles written both horizontally and vertically. And I imagine these are decisions made by sub-editors of newspapers based on what fits best on the page. Interestingly, the same content on the newspaper’s website would be left to right without exception. Comics are another very popular medium in Japan and they also generally contain a mix of horizontal and vertical text. But I guess the last great vestige of up to down type in modern Japan is in bunkobon – the cheap A6 paperbacks that dominate the market for novels in Japan. You would hold one of these with the spine on the right and turn the pages backwards, reading from top to bottom and from right to left.
What do young Japanese think of ancient Calligraphy and script? Do they hold onto the visual values of the past or embrace the globalisation of modern letterform?
Very much the latter, and for the most part that is not a conscious selection, but just a reflection of what young people are exposed to and how they work and communicate. Like in Australia, the combination of personal computers and mobile phones means that there is a whole generation that has not handwritten anything long for years and years, and the result is that people are forgetting how to do it. Japanese grandparents lament the inability of their grandchildren to handwrite certain characters. They recognise them in print, and can bust them out of a computer or a mobile phone without any problems, but people are getting worse and worse at actually writing. To the majority of young Japanese, calligraphy is a dorky and largely irrelevant hobby. It might be an obscure scrawl by a shrine or on the menu of a Japanese restaurant trying to look old-school or classical. In that sense it is still fairly common, but only for short messages. It is fine for the name of a shop or a menu but you can’t use traditional lettering for any communication of length – it will just so much harder to read.
To follow that question up, has the way you write or read Japanese changed in the past two or three generations?
Two strong trends, a move towards digital communications and computer generated type, and gradual move towards left to right layout. Left to right layout first appeared in Japanese in 19th century language dictionaries, after some savvy publisher decided that it was visually awkward to have a German or Dutch word written horizontally and its Japanese translation written vertically. And it is also true that the development of technology had an influence on the trend towards horizontal script, because early computers only supported left-to-right word processing. So for a whole generation it became the only direction if you were going to produce something with a computer. Then at some stage more recently it has simply became so ubiquitous that left-to-right would be the natural choice of young Japanese dude who was penning a love letter to his girlfriend.
How many typefaces did you use or notice while working as a lawyer in Tokyo?
Not that many. Three or so perhaps, and all very clear, uniform ones, the Japanese equivalents of Helvetica. There aren’t nearly as many Japanese typefaces as there are roman ones. One of the reasons is that the same roman ones can be used for dozens of different languages so the market for a typeface is much larger. The second reason is for a Japanese typeface to be useful it has to have at least 3000 characters, which makes creating one quite a big job.
From my brief time in Tokyo I saw an amazing array of neon and signage type, however I felt that it had two emotions: cutesy or clean. Does that sit well with you?
Yeah, I guess with such a huge number of characters, clarity is even more important in Japanese than in English. So there is certainly an emphasis on clean. Of course there is also a lot of signage that uses Roman characters – whether that be with English words or with Romanised Japanese words or brands. The cultural significance of cuteness in Japan is very complex issue, but indeed it gives rise to this particular aesthetic that we don’t necessarily share. The other category – the stuff that looks neither cute nor clean – is the traditional stuff, which as a visual identity isn’t that far from calligraphy. This kind of type has connotations of being classical – the restaurants that offer the finest Japanese cuisine for example will steer away from clear, modern type.
How do people remember the 2000+ characters of Kanji? Is there a system of working out characters you don’t know without scanning the whole dictionary?
It’s a little bit like remembering 2000 words in English. You kind of remember what one means and what it sounds like, and to some extent how the word looks when you write it on the page. Remember that kanji aren’t just random strokes on a page, but have their own internal coherence. A character almost always has some sort of phonetic or semantic structure and that gives you lots of clues.
Final question. Do you think that the Japanese are discarding beauty and tradition through modern typefaces?
No more than Westerners are doing the same. The rise of modern type has definitely happened in parallel with the decline of traditional script and handwriting, and of course it is a shame to the decline of what really is an art form. But what is the alternative? People need to make themselves understood and just like in the Anglosphere clarity wins the day.
Thanks for your time and good luck expanding Just Communications into Spanish and Portuguese.
Scott and Just Communications specialise in legal and official documentation in Japanese and English as well as translation services. He can be contacted on email@example.com.