The history of Japanese text direction

Most of our readers are aware that, when written horizontally, Japanese is generally read left to right. When written vertically, as was the traditional method, paragraphs start on the right and each line is read down the page in order from right to left. Traditionally, though, Japanese and Chinese were both read right to left at all times, even when written horizontally.

The history behind this is kind of interesting. Here’s a timeline culled from the Japanese Wikipedia article on the subject.

* Traditionally, Japanese was written vertically, and lines were read from right to left. Horizontal writing only appeared on signs, and in those cases it was also read from right to left.
* Horizontal writing first appeared in print in the late 1700s as Dutch books were reprinted. (Dutch traders in Nagasaki were the only Europeans allowed in Japan at that time.) In 1806, a Japanese book was published in Japanese hiragana characters skewed to look like Latin characters and printed from left to right.
* In the first foreign language dictionaries printed in Japan, foreign words were written horizontally from left to right, while the Japanese words were written vertically from top to bottom. The first dictionary to have both foreign and Japanese words written horizontally came out in 1885, and both were written left to right.
* Japan’s first printed newspapers and advertisements had headlines and call-outs written horizontally from right to left.
* In July 1942, at the height of World War II, the Education Ministry proposed that horizontal writing be from left to right rather than from right to left. Although the left-to-right standard was showing up in some publications at the time, switching over entirely was a controversial idea which didn’t make it past Cabinet approval.
* The military also tried adopting left-to-right as an official standard during the war, but many people viewed this as too Anglo-American and refused to switch.
* Because of the patriotic zeal surrounding text direction during the war, there were cases of stores being pressed to switch text direction on their signage, and cases of newspapers refusing to print advertising with left-to-right text.
* After the war, Douglas MacArthur’s occupation team pushed for left-to-right text as an education modernization reform measure, along with the abolition of Chinese characters and other more extreme ideas.
* Yomiuri Shimbun was the first newspaper to switch text direction in its headlines, making the changeover on January 1, 1946. The Nikkei switched over by 1948.
* Japanese currency was first printed with left-to-right text in March 1948; before that, it had been printed right-to-left.
* Asahi Shimbun conducted some internal design experiments around 1950 to switch its front page to an all-horizontal, left-to-right format, but this never made it past the drawing board.
* In April 1952, the Chief Cabinet Secretary adopted a guideline that all ministry documents be written from left to right using horizontal text. Despite this, the courts kept vertical writing until January 1, 2001–the bar exam was also written vertically until that time–and the Diet itself continues to use vertical writing when publishing draft bills.

Right-to-left writing is still found in certain contexts. Sometimes it is used simply to appear more “traditional”: Wikipedia cites soba shops as a common culprit in this category. Another common context is vehicles such as trucks and ships; there, Japanese is often written from front to back, so on the right side of the vehicle it is written from right to left. Here’s an example which I spotted on a right-wing sound truck outside Odakyu in Shinjuku during my first trip to Tokyo, way back in 2000. Note that the text 愛国党, or “Patriot Party,” is written right-to-left on the side of the truck, but left-to-right on the back.

"Kick some Communist ass!"

(Thanks to our commenter Peter for suggesting this topic.)

12 thoughts on “The history of Japanese text direction”

  1. Interesting post, but what’s on the other side of the truck in the picture? Sometimes Japanese script is written right to left on the right side of vehicles because it is easier to read the script from the front of the vehicle to the back when it is moving.

  2. I was amused when I first observed the direction of writing, front to back, on Japanese vehicles. I usually make the analogy to US flag patches on uniforms, the stripes always fly towards the rear, as if the flag was being carried forward in the direction the uniform-wearer is facing. So a flag patch on the right shoulder would be reversed from one worn on the left.

    However, I was disappointed that in your comprehensive survey of orthography, you did not specify a customary direction of writing on the FRONT of vehicles. I am particularly interested in ambulances, which often have writing in mirror image, so it can be read in a rear-view mirror. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate images of Japanese ambulances with ANY writing on the front, other than the auto manufacturer’s name in romaji.

  3. I’ve only seen writing on the front of vehicles from left to right. I suppose Japanese ambulances might not need mirror-image writing because they have those annoying loudspeakers that frenziedly tell everyone within a radius of several blocks to get the hell out of the way.

  4. As mentioned, writing on vehicles (ships, cars, and planes) in the traditional sense is done bow to stern. So the port side the writing is left-to-right, but the starboard is right-to-left. This style is most commonly seen on ships, but you can see it on (old pictures of) Japanese planes, and on some cars and trucks.

    In addition to right wingers vehicles, you can sometimes see the bow-to-stern style used by a few taxi and freight companies.

  5. Additionally, Japanese elementary/middle/high school textbooks provide an interesting timeline.

    After WW2, all the writing was top-down, right-left for every subject except for English, Science, and Math.

    In textbooks these days, it’s all left-right, top-down except for the subject of Japanese.

  6. Japanese ambulances do have 救急 written in mirror image.

    For some reason, this topic makes me think of “kaibun” (回文), the Japanese palindrome. Because Japanese doesn’t really employs spaces in their writing, a palindromic name if written in kana could appear the same on either side of a boat/truck.

    Apparently there are two schools of thought as far as dealing with all the diacritic marks and other tweaks to clean Japanese syllables. Anyhow, if you’re bored today, Google 回文, and see how amused you get.

  7. I wasn’t about to pull over just because this guy had a tricked out truck with flashing red lights and his name painted on the front. It’s one thing when you paint your name on your car becuase it’s cool like “Hernandez,” but what kind of name is “KCURT ERIF”?

    – Maddox, The Alphabet of Manliness

  8. 横書き登場 by Yanaike Makoto 屋名池誠 is a fantastic in-depth look at this subject, for anyone interested, with lots of images of primary documents and so on. (It’s also the source of most of the Wikipedia article’s info, it looks like.) It also contains some nice mythbusting on the whole “right-to-left horizontal is just vertical with one character per column” misconception.

  9. Thanks for the tip Matt! I actually will try to remember to check that book out some time. I need to make an actual list of “books I need to read” somewhere.

  10. So why did they switch? The only reason I can think of is that when you are writing with your right hand, the ink tends to get smudged if you write right-to-left.

  11. Christopher, it’s complex (Yanaike’s book has the details!), but the summary is that a whole lot of separate influences (originating in the West) combined to create a general trend which ultimately won out about halfway through the 20th century. (It wasn’t a unified movement or a knee-jerk “imitate the West” thing, for example.)

  12. That mention of 回文 reminds me of the 山本山 ads: 上から読んでも、山本山、下から読んでも、山本山….

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