“Wow, cute!” This was not the reaction I wanted in response to my hanko (name stamp). In spite of myself, I did have to admit that my coworker was right: my name, stamped in red ink on a very important document, did look adorable.
If you study Japanese or live in Japan, you’ll have many chances to encounter and choose Japanese fonts. With a little bit of design knowledge, you’ll be able to identify what an author is trying to convey with a font and be able to choose an appropriate font for your own use.
According to an article by the web design company Cyber Intelligence, Japanese fonts can be divided into two large categories:
Mincho is comparable to Serif for the Roman alphabet. Mincho fonts have characters with triangular decorative elements at the ends of horizontal lines and have lines of varying thickness. Gothic, on the other hand, is equivalent to sans-serif. Gothic font characters have minimal decorative elements and possess uniform line thickness. Other font categories, such as cursive/script, “pop,” and handwritten, do exist, but we’ll be examining these two basic categories of fonts.
Japanese Font Impressions
Is it important to know that Mincho fonts and Gothic fonts can give completely different impressions to the person reading them. In addition, the font weight can give another impression. Below, you can see the general impressions of fonts and font weights.
- Normal Mincho: refined, elegant, knowledgeable
- Bold Mincho: authoritative, solid, mature, historical
- Light Mincho: modern, neutral, urban
- Normal Gothic: child-like, high-impact
- Bold Gothic: strong, cheerful, masculine
- Light Gothic: modern, refined, feminine
You can probably guess that my hanko is in a Gothic font. If you look up ポップ体 (popputai, pop fonts), though, you’ll find several Japanese fonts that make Comic Sans look classy.
How to Choose a Japanese Font
The Japanese design website Tsutawaru Design states that thinner fonts are typically easier to read. For this reason, thinner fonts, which tend to be Mincho, are preferred for long paragraphs in novels, newspapers, essays, and textbooks.
Examples of widely available thinner Japanese fonts that are better for print paragraphs are MS明朝 (MS Mincho, on Windows), メイリオ (Meiryo, on Windows), and ヒラギノ明朝 (Hiragino Mincho, on Mac).
Thicker fonts, which include many of the Gothic fonts, generally have a greater impact and are thus often used for titles, headings, and captions.
According to Tsutawaru Design, examples of standard thicker Japanese fonts that are better for print titles and captions are MS ゴシック (MS Gothic, on Windows) and ヒラギノ角ゴ (Hiragino Kakugo, on Mac).
One thing to note is that, in contrast to the “rules” for print, fonts with minimal decorative elements are preferred for long paragraphs displayed on computer screens. For this reason, while print novels may often be in a Mincho font, the font of choice for the body of online articles will be a Gothic one. The heading of an online article is likely to be in a Mincho font. If you do a Powerpoint presentation in Japanese, keep this in mind.
A quick look at the books on my bookshelf shows me that most print materials follow the “Mincho for long text, Gothic for titles” guideline but that manga often use a mixture of fonts, throwing in cursive fonts and varying font weights. These mixtures of fonts in manga compliment the content of the text, allowing the feeling and atmosphere to be conveyed visually.
Can you identify the font styles in Japanese materials around you?