Writing Essays in Japanese

If you’re studying Japanese, it’s important to learn how to write in Japanese. More on that in an upcoming post. This means learning the proper stroke-order for characters, balance, etc, but it also means learning how to write documents in Japanese format. Japan, like Korea, China and Vietnam, traditionally wrote vertically, not horizontally, and this is still often used in formal writings, books, letters and essays for grade-school children.

I never learned how to do this, so recently I spent some time researching proper writing and found this very helpful guide. This will show you how to properly write a Japanese essay, including how to do punctuation and so on.

To summarize what the document says (for those who can’t read it):

  • Japanese is traditionally written from top to bottom, right to left.
  • On the right-hand side, the name should be written as a separate line, starting with the family name, then a dot, then the personal name if need be.1
  • The composition itself should start on the third-line from the right.
  • Periods 。 and commas 、 are considered one “box”. They should be in the upper-right part of the box.
    • However, a punctuation should never be the first box on the top of the line. If this happens, just put the punctuation in the last box of the previous line, in the lower-right corner.
    • Small hiragana characters for よ ゆ や つ follow all of these same rules.
  • When using ー for elongated katakana characters, it goes top to bottom, not horizontal.
  • Furigana characters (the ones used to help pronounce/read kanji) are written in between lines, just to the right of the pertinent kanji.
  • Lastly, quotation marks in Japanese look like this: 「 」, but when writing vertically they are mirror-opposites: the opening character faces left, the closing character faces right.

Using practice sheets, or genkōyōshi (原稿用紙) you can try this at home. You can find them on the Internet easily, and print them out. It’s not difficult to get used to (since you should be practicing writing anyway), but it’s a good skill to have if you seriously plan on doing any writing in Japan. For simple notes and such, you probably can write Western-style, but if you get into more formal writing, you won’t regret learning this writing style.

1 Foreigners though are expected to write given name first, then family name. You don’t have to, but a Japanese reader might get confused as to which is your first name an which is your family name. I could be wrong on this though.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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