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Choosing a Japanese Typeface for Your Hanko

Choosing the correct Japanese typeface for your hanko is very important so you don't get stuck with your official “signature” in Japan being in a Japanese equivalent of Comic Sans.

By 3 min read 17

“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 (明朝体)
Gothic (ゴシック体)

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?

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  • Russ Schaeffler says:

    I have the most ridiculously basic stamp there has to be, just two characters RA and SU(ラス). I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time I just needed one quickly, but on my return later this year after a 5 year absence, I want to see if I can change it. It would be nice if I could change it to some Kanji characters that have the same sound, but perhaps I will be stuck with it for life.

    • Lynn says:

      I’ve heard that banks in particular are rather strict about stamps. If you opened your bank account with your original ラス stamp, you might have a an issue getting them to change the stamp you use with them. Consistency sounds like it might be a good idea (i.e., if you always spell your name with katakana, use a katakana stamp), but your best bet is to consult with your bank and perhaps city hall. Good luck!

    • GeneralObvious says:

      The stamp is only good in the city in which you register it to. If you move to a new city you have to re-register your stamp at the new city hall. Likewise, I believe you can just change your stamp to anything you want by going through the same re-registration process.

      • Lynn says:

        I think it’s a good idea to register one’s stamp, especially for those who think they may stay longer term. If you register your stamp with the city, you can get the “proof of stamp registration,” which is often needed to buy a new car or make other large purchases. Also, registering your stamp is a good way to prevent identity theft (though keep in mind that only certain kinds of stamps can be registered).

        There doesn’t seem to be a law that requires the registration of a hanko, so you won’t get in trouble with the government or anything. Registration is only a few hundred yen and reportedly doesn’t take too much time, so it probably couldn’t hurt even if you think you’ll only stay for a year or so.

        Sadly, there’s little info in English, but here’s a site in Japanese about stamp/hanko registration:

        • GeneralObvious says:

          I was told by multiple Japanese people when I first came that it is illegal to use a hanko without getting it registered first and that if I move I have to re-register it at the new location.

          • Lynn says:

            Hmm, that’s interesting! I couldn’t find a clear statement online about the necessity of registering a hanko, so I called up the Minato-ku and Shinjuku-ku city halls. According to the officials there, hanko registration isn’t compulsory and so there’s no penalty under law for not registering. They did say that companies/banks may request a certificate of hanko registration (印鑑登録証明書) when you attempt to get a loan, buy property, etc.

            Registering a hanko is reportedly pretty cheap and fast, though, so might be worth doing for the layer of protection against identity theft and for less of a hassle if a company requires a certificate of hanko registration in the future.

            That being said, I didn’t think to ask if this applied to all cities/areas, so I’d definitely recommend checking with your own area’s city hall if you’re worried about whether it is compulsory!

          • GeneralObvious says:

            Yeah, I was thinking the same thing; different areas may have different local laws regarding hanko usage. I don’t live in Tokyo.

  • A very interesting article! I have a ton of Japanese fonts and have been using them correctly, thankfully. Lol. Maybe I’ve just seen them used properly enough to absorb this. I want my own hanko. I wonder if I can order one online? I’ll have to google.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      If you live in Japan there are hanko shops on every other street and in most department stores too like Trial, Mr. Max, Don Quixote. You will have to register it with your local city hall before you use it though or you can get in trouble.

  • zoomingjapan says:

    I got my hanko from my first school as a present. It was a high-quality one, so I suppose it wasn’t that cheap. It has kanji that represent my name. I’m not 100% sure which font they used.

    I’m font of my hanko and I recommend getting one as a souvenir when you come to Japan as a tourist. 🙂

    • Lynn says:

      That’s a really good present. A high-quality hanko will get you far in life 🙂 I’d love to get a nicer hanko, but I’ve already used my cheap plastic one for everything.

      I’m definitely thinking of getting family and friends hanko this Christmas. A really unique present, for sure!

  • MangaEngel says:

    Well, I had gotten my Hanko from my three amazing tutors as a present, with my name in proper in Light Gothic.
    I couldn’t choose it myself, but I like it and nobody had critisized it so far 🙂

    But interesting to know, I had no idea about all the different fonts

    • Lynn says:

      Your tutors sound really lovely. Did they give you a katakana or kanji version?

      • MangaEngel says:

        Katakana and – since my family name is very long – only the last part of it.
        It was still a beautiful surprise. They gave it to me on my birthday, they invited me to hanami in the park and gave me a present where the Hanko with a beautiful little case was in, then they sang a japanese birthday song.
        They are wonderful people and I miss them dearly ever since I had left Japan. But they probably make other foreigners now happy with their care 🙂

        • Lynn says:

          What a wonderful goodbye! Thanks for sharing your story 🙂 You had some very thoughtful tutors, and it sounds like they were glad to have you as their student.

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