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Why Japanese fonts matter

The translation and localisation of web content presents many challenges to even the most experienced professionals.

Clearly, the meaning of the source material must be accurately conveyed in translated content. That content should also be localised to properly resonate with its new audience.

It is equally vital that translated content is presented well and that it fits neatly into the relevant design.

When text is translated into a language that is written using the same letters or characters, typography is rarely an issue. But when translating Western languages into Japanese, choosing the right typography is crucial.

It is all too easy for web designers or those responsible for uploading content to overlook the impact of typography. Making the wrong typographical choices can result in content that appears unnatural, foreign or untrustworthy to a Japanese reader. Poor typography can also render content difficult to read or unattractive. In addition, it can produce text that simply doesn’t fit.

As with most aspects of web design, apps and copywriting, it is generally easier and more effective to pre-empt issues rather than to address them after the fact.

For this reason, Japanese typography should be a consideration from the outset if a site, app or text is designed for the Japanese market or could later be translated into Japanese.

Why is Japanese typography so challenging?

Written Japanese is unique in that it features four character sets – hiragana, katakana, kanji and the Latin alphabet. The four sets are used in combination, often within the same sentence. Of course, hiragana, katakana and kanji are pictographic character sets which complicates matters further. Each of these sets boasts its own purpose, rules and visual weight. Kanji is visually complex while hiragana is flowing, and katakana (used to represent non-Japanese proper nouns and concepts) is more angular.

The complexity of written Japanese impacts just about every aspect of content typography including font choices, font size, font weight, line spacing and line width.

Often the times, Chinese fonts are chosen rather than Japanese, that’s also a big mistake, these two look similar but in fact are very different in detail.

Font size

Latin fonts feature both lowercase and uppercase letters, unlike Japanese fonts, which do not differentiate between upper and lower case; all Japanese characters are the same size, distinct from the Latin alphabet. Additionally, while Latin alphabets consist of single-byte characters, Japanese fonts use double-byte characters. This means that, although Japanese characters take up more space in each line, fewer characters will fit within the same line compared to Latin text.

Font size options

For this reason, content can be more visually appealing and boast a more uniform, balanced look if the font size of the Japanese characters is smaller than that used for any Latin characters.

When reducing font size, it is important to retain legibility. Due to their complexity, kanji characters become illegible when very small. The appropriate font size will depend on which font is being used.

Line length

It is accepted that with Latin characters, line length is best restricted to 45 – 75 characters. But things are different with Japanese characters where shorter line lengths of 15 – 40 characters will ensure that text is legible and that the copy is a good fit for design elements.

The appropriate line length will depend on the context. While 15-40 characters per line (CPL) will work well for displays on computers, a maximum of 21 CPL would be suitable for smartphone displays. Shorter lines are also most appropriate where just a few lines of text are displayed or for multi-column layouts, and captions.


Line Height

Line height should be increased by around 10 – 15% for Japanese text. The complex nature of Japanese characters and their square profiles mean that greater line heights aid readability by allowing the eye to travel across a page with ease without skipping lines.

However, any decrease in font size must be considered when assessing the appropriate line height and it is possible that adjusting line length or line height rather than both will produce the right results.

If a column featuring Japanese is to be displayed alongside a column using Latin characters, altering the line height of the Japanese would destroy the harmony of the page. In these instances, it would be advisable to merely adjust the font size.

Don’t use Italics

Italics do not exist in Japanese and CSS italic rules could force the rendering of oblique Japanese characters in the display. Font weight variation could be used for emphasis instead.


Horizontal is best

Japanese may be set both horizontally and vertically, often on the same page. But vertical sets are difficult to read and to paginate in mobile apps or websites that scroll vertically.

Font pitch

Fonts which boast characters that vary in width are called proportional pitch fonts while those that have characters that are all the same width are known as fixed pitch fonts or monospace fonts.

The font family should be set individually for each design element of a site. Fixed pitch fonts work well with mobile and user interface (UI) elements, but fixed pitch fonts are ideal for header and body copy.

What is the best font for Japanese content?

As with English content, the best font for Japanese content will depend on the context. Legibility, compatibility with browsers, usability for designers, aesthetics, and brand identity should all be considered.

It is incredibly difficult for designers to select the best font for a foreign language. Font selection is therefore best made by a localisation expert.

Two type styles dominate Japanese content as they do with English content – Mincho which is the equivalent of Serif and Gothic which is the equivalent of Sans Serif. Mincho characters boast decorative elements and lines of varying thickness. Gothic characters have minimal decorative features and uniform line thickness.

The most commonly used Japanese fonts right now are as follows:

Noto Sans CJK JP

Noto Sans CJK font

This font by Google features 7 font weights ensuring that it can be adapted to suit a variety of design elements. This would be suitable for websites. It is a timeless choice that is neither overtly contemporary nor very traditional. Its principal drawback is that it can slow down page loading speed as it is not pre-installed on most devices.


Hiragino Kaku Gothic Pro

Like Helvetica for Japanese, Hiragino Kaku Gothic Pro boasts 9 font weights and both proportional pitch and fixed pitch alphanumeric characters. This font is developed by Adobe and installed on all Mac computers but not on Windows computers as yet and it is costly to buy. It was developed specifically for online content. However, it works well in print too.

Hiragino Mincho

Japanese Font_Hiragino Mincho

Sharp, timeless and beautiful, this font is suitable for most applications including blogs and business documents. Mincho fonts tend to be dark and somewhat heavy, but Hiragino Mincho is a lighter and more elegant choice. It was designed to permit fine-tuning that allows the sizes of both kanji and Katakana to be adjusted for greater visibility. The font gives you 7 font weights to work with and could be utilised for both headings and paragraphs.


Yu Gothic

Installed on both Windows and Mac computers, Yu Gothic is a highly compatible font with a modern feel that could be considered too casual for business communications. 5 font weights provide reasonable flexibility for designers.

Yu Mincho

Yu Mincho

A modern font inspired by Japanese history novels, Yu Mincho is installed to both Windows and Mac computers. Suitable for informal and formal applications, it boasts 4 font weights and is a beautiful yet readable choice.

Meiryo

Meaning “clear to read”, Meiryo is a Gothic font created by Takeharu Suzuki that lives up to its name and that is popular with web designers. It isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as many other fonts, but its readability is a significant plus. It sets text lines in Japanese with Latin seamlessly and harmoniously. Meiryo is installed on Windows but, as yet, not on Mac computers.

Meiryo font

Additional Japanese fonts

Numerous additional Japanese fonts are available including brushstroke and cute fonts that designers can work with when creating banners, logos, video games and more. It is worth fully investigating the compatibility, usability and aesthetics of any font before making your choice. If you wish to use fonts in Word, it’s advisable to choose the pre-installed Mincho and Gothic fonts. This helps prevent issues where the other party may not be able to read the text or might see garbled characters instead.

Why do some Japanese fonts result in slow loading pages?

Consumers can be irked by slow loading web pages, and many are not prepared to wait more than 2 seconds. Western typography has little impact on speed, but things are very different with Japanese fonts. This is because Japanese font files may have double-digit hiragana, both single-digit and double-digit katakana, both single-digit and double-digit alphanumeric characters, numerous symbols, and from 2,000 to 12,000 kanji characters.

Ill-advised font choices can deliver high bounce rates, shorter visits and low conversion rates. Typography is, therefore, an important consideration when designing websites and any online content for a Japanese audience.


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