I began learning Japanese when I was 7. My school was independent and rather than teach Maori as the second language (as most primary schools in NZ did during the 1980's) we were allowed to choose an elective language. A chap called Linus Treefoot was my first Japanese teacher - he taught us about the culture as much as the language, we had calligraphy sessions, made sushi and occasionally also got to try wearing Kimono's which I always loved. I was never particularly good at the spoken language - certainly never fluent - my most commonly used phrases were “Wakarimasen” (I do not understand!) or “Shirimasen” (I don't know).
By the time I was 11, I became much more interested in the writing system - I had loved to write the Hiragana and Katakana characters and was becoming (somewhat) proficient at reading the complex systems. But a couple of years later I dropped my Japanese classes for graphics and art electives, and all these years later have forgotten all but the very basics. What has endured is a deep appreciation for the written language and the culture. So I was incredibly excited to see Fontshop's recent series of posts profiling japanese typography.
Japanese typographer Toshiya Izumo published three articles for Fontshop Audiences: how do the Japanese write, how do the Japanese use the Latin Alphabet in design, and an introduction to the Japanese foundry scene.
The First post explores the complexities of the contemporary writing system “Today's written Japanese comprises a number of components: elements of kanji, hiragana, katakana and the Latin alphabet; as well as Arabic numbers and Greek characters for mathematical symbols, punctuation and units of measurement. This means that a typical document could include as many as six different scripts.” Izumo explains that - The different elements are significant; “There are no spaces between the individual characters and words; the different scripts indicate the sentence structure. However, the different script types enable general spellings and nuances to come through. This enables diverse writing expression.”
The follow-up post explains where the latin Alphabet fits in - and how Japanese typographers achieve the harmonious composition of different scripts in a single text. “Japanese designers strive for a particularly calm and unified appearance in a text that uses different typefaces.” Noting the rich use of different genres of type and script in a single text can assist with information hierarchy by grabbing attention and establishing emphasis.
The final in the series describes the landscape for type distribution in Japan, profiling important foundries and touching on licensing models. The font market in Japan is different than that of countries which trade in Latin scripts. As generating a font with such a vast character set requires more labour and bumps up retail prices.
It is an informative and engaging series of short articles for anyone with interest in Type Design, language systems or Japanese culture.