The Two Writing Systems of Japanese

The Two Writing Systems of Japanese Anime

Japanese writing system has two ways: vertical and horizontal. Vertical writing in Japanese is “right to left” and horizontal writing is “left to right”.

Most Japanese textbooks for foreigners to study are written horizontally, “left to right”.  This is also similar how Western books, magazines, and educational books are written.  This is probably the case for majority of the school textbooks across the globe, except for Japanese. 

Commercial paperbacks and manga on the other hand are written vertically, “right to left”.

In other words, in Japan, “right to left” is used for vertical writing and “left to right” for horizontal writing, and Japanese people naturally read according to this rule.

Why is vertical writing “right to left”?

Mystery of vertical writing. In Japan, when writing vertically, characters are moved from top to bottom and lines are advanced from “right to left”. This is because it follows the Chinese writing system. All Japanese characters are kanji, or hiragana and katakana created from kanji. Both kanji and kana are created in a stroke order that presupposes vertical writing, so, it is only natural that the Japanese language is written vertically in this way.

Why horizontal writing from left to right?

The reason for Japan’s adaptation of horizontal writing is due to Western influence.

Leaving aside whether it was a policy to align with Western powers or not, there must have been a desire among many people to adapt the brand new and glamorous Western culture. Incidentally, the “left to right” horizontal writing style was first seen in Japan when Dutch studies began to be introduced from the Netherlands in the late 18th century. After the publication of “The Dutch Study Ladder” in 1788, which introduced the Dutch script, the “left to right” horizontal writing style became known to the people. It was after the war that this “left to right” horizontal writing became common as it is today.

As interest shifted from the Japanese and conservative to the Western and new, newspapers changed their headlines to “left to right” horizontal writing in 1946, and later, banknotes and publications also changed to “left to right” horizontal writing.

Today, even the “Guidelines for Preparation of Official Documents,” a document format guideline prepared by government offices, states that “documents should be written horizontally left to right as broadly as possible.

Books are also written from left to right

Books, too, were originally written vertically.

Books were generally written vertically, with right-to-left layouts, which were easier to read.

The number of left-to-right books with horizontal layouts seems to have increased since the 1900s.

In the postwar period, the use of left-to-right horizontal writing became the norm, the alphabet and other horizontal characters came into use, and the spread of word processors also helped to spread the horizontal format of books.

Thus, both left-to-right and right-to-left horizontal format books and right-to-left and vertical format books are now available in bookstores.

Exporting Right-to-Left in Manga

Japan imitated the West and popularized “left-to-right. Conversely, however, there is something that is exporting Japan’s “right-to-left” presence to the West. That is manga!

A decade ago, when manga was translated and sold in the West, it was common to reverse the pictures and have the reader read the “left-to-right” panels.

However, whether it is due to the popularity of Japanese anime and manga in recent years, or whether it is because the authors felt it would be bad if the images were reversed, I do not know, but the way the panels are read has been changed to “right-to-left.