Friday, April 28, 2017

Is Japanese Written Vertically or Horizontally?

In which direction is Japanese written and read? Is it left to right, top to bottom like English? Or is it something else?

The answer is both, actually. On the internet, Japanese is written horizontally, left to right, top to bottom, just like English. Traditionally, however, Japanese is written vertically, top to bottom, then right to left, which from an English perspective makes it look like it goes backwards (from right to left). Lastly, there are also rare cases when it looks like Japanese is written horizontally but backwards.

A diagram showing horizontal writing (横書き) and vertical writing (縦書き).

Japanese Vertical Writing

Japanese is traditionally written vertically, top to bottom, then right to left. This "vertical writing," tategaki 縦書き, is used in books, novels, light novels, manga, and so on.

See rendaku 連濁 for why kaki is read ~gaki.

This direction also affects the layout of certain things.

Japanese comics are read starting from the top-right panel and ending in the bottom-left panel, and they're read "backwards," that is, you start a manga at the last page, or rather, at the rightmost page, and go toward the left to the first page.

How to read manga.
Manga: Hayate no Gotoku! ハヤテのごとく! (Chapter 2, 運命は、英語で言うとデスティニー)

Exceptionally, a single page of yonkoma よんコマ, "four panel" comics, may contain two separate strips that look like eight panels in four rows, but are actually eight panels in two columns. The right column is read first, then the left one.

How to read 4 koma 4コマ manga.
Manga: Machikado Mazoku まちカドまぞく (Volumes 1, 4, 6)

Some applications also follow this pattern. A "next" or "forward" arrow may be a left arrow in a Japanese website, for example.

Two screenshots of an online manga reader showing two consecutive pages of a manga.
Website:, accessed 2021-05-13.
Manga: One Punch Man, ワンパンマン (Chapter 1)
  • Context: two screenshots of an online manga reader with an user-interface that is counter-intuitive for native English speakers.
  • The progress bar shows on the left that the chapter has 28 pages.
  • The purple handle displays the current page, 4 and 5, respectively. Note that these are at the start of the chapter, but the handle is toward the right side of the bar. It goes more to the left as you progress.
  • On the bottom-left there is a link for the next chapter, with an arrow pointing to the left.

The difference between the Japanese writing direction and the English one is also seen in how scrolls are depicted in stories. A scroll in an European medieval fantasy setting is unrolls vertically, the reader opens it pulling one side down or up. An ancient Chinese or Japanese scroll opens horizontally. In both cases, when writing the scroll, the shorter side determines the length of a single line: if a scroll is wide, it isn't written horizontally, but vertically, so lines can't be longer than the scroll's height, and if it's a tall scroll, it isn't written vertically, but horizontally, so lines can't be longer than its width.

In Japan, the family name (last name) comes before the given name (first name). If a character is called Ayasaki Hayate, then his name is Hayate, and Ayasaki is his family.

Due to the last name coming first, and what is written first being written above what is written last, there are two terms for "family name" and "given name" that refer to their positions in writing instead:

  • ue no namae
    Name of above. Top name. (literally.)
    When writing one's full name, the name on that comes first, at the top.
    The family name. Surname. Last name.
  • shita no namae
    Name of below. Bottom name. (literally.)
    When writing one's full name, the name that comes last, at the bottom.
    The given name. First name.

Japanese was originally written vertically, like Chinese, and only started being written horizontally after contact with the west. For example, a certain 19th century Japanese-English dictionary (袖珍挿図独和辞書) wrote it horizontally so it wasn't necessary to turn the book by 90 degrees to read the translations.(

As consequence, vertical text is generally more traditional, while horizontal text is generally more modern.

For example, anything that is written using calligraphy, shodou 書道, like poems, will be written vertically. Due to many idioms having four characters (yojijukugo 四字熟語), it isn't unusual to see four-character slogans written in this orientation.

"Landlady," Ooya 大家, puts Jahy, ジャヒー, in a cobra twist, コブラツイスト.
Attacker: "Landlady," Ooya 大家
Receiver: Jahy, ジャヒー
Anime: Jahy-sama wa Kujikenai!, ジャヒー様はくじけない! (Episode 1, Stitch)
  • Context: the text on Jahy's shirt reads makai fukkou 魔界復興, "demon-world reconstruction," due to the series taking place after the demon world was destroyed.

English Text in Japanese Vertical Writing

There are three ways English words may be written in a vertical text layout:

  1. One character above the other.
  2. The whole text rotated 90 degrees.
  3. With very short English words, like two-letter abbreviations, horizontally occupying a single space.

Some examples:

自分で売った喧嘩やろ 自分で片つけんのが筋ちゃうんか! Do it yourself!!
Manga: Gokushufudou 極主夫道 (Chapter 8)
  • Context: Masa 雅 asks Tatsu たつ for help in a fight, who responds:
  • jibun de utta kenka yaro
    That's a fight [you] picked yourself, [wasn't it]!
    • kenka wo uru
      To sell a fight. (literally.)
      To pick a fight with someone.
  • {jibun de kata-tsuke-n}-no ga suji chau-n-ka!
    {To clear [your mess] yourself} [is only logical], [am I wrong]?
    • kata-tsuke-n-no - contraction of kata-tsukeru no 片つけるの.
    • suji - reason, logic, besides other meanings, can be used to refer to something that you're supposed or expected to do in response to something else because it's the reasonable thing.
    • chau-n-ka - contraction of chau no ka.
    • chau - Kansai dialect, equivalent to chigau 違う, "to differ," "to be wrong about something."
  • Do it yourself!!
    Do it yourself!!
    (I have no idea what this means.)
Examples of gikun 義訓.
Light Novel: Overlord, オーバーロード (Chapter 1, 終わりと始まり)
  • Context: several examples of peculiar furigana usage (gikun 義訓) excerpted from the first chapter of Overlord.
  • "Yggdrasil" is written with characters one above the other.
  • "Non Player Character" is written rotated.
  • "NPC" and "POP" in the furigana are written with characters on above the other.

Horizontal Text in a Vertical Line in Japanese

For reference, some examples of short texts written horizontally within otherwise vertical lines:

Manga: Boku no Hero Academia, 僕のヒーローアカデミア (Chapter 46, 怪奇!グラントリノ現る)
  • Context: characters are asked what's their favorite hero, Mineta Minoru 峰田実 answers:
  • oira wa (maunto) Mt. Redhi!!
    For me, [it's] Mt. Lady!!
    (contrastive wa.)
やあ、Dr.テンマ・・・・・・ あの・・・・・・ すみません、どなたでしたっけ・・・・・・
Manga: MONSTER, モンスター (Chapter 7, モンスター, Collage)
  • Context: Dr. Tenma is greeted by someone whom he doesn't recognize.
  • yaa, dokutaa Tenma......
    Hey, Doctor Tenma......
  • ano......
  • sumimasen, donata deshita kke......
    Sorry, who are you, again.......
おねーちゃん こっちも生中2つね ガヤガヤ おねーちゃん!?気やすく呼びおって!我を誰だとおもっている 生中2つな ピピ 我は魔界No.2(ナンバーツー)のジャヒーさ・・・ ねーちゃんこっちもー あっ!?はい!
Manga: Jahy-sama wa Kujikenai!, ジャヒー様はくじけない! (Chapter 0.1, ジャヒー様とすまいる)
  • Context: Jahy-sama works as a waitress.
  • oneechan, kocchi mo nama-chuu futatsu ne
    おねーちゃん こっちも生中2つね
    Missy, two beers here, too.
    • nama-chuu - from nama-biiru 生ビール, "raw beer," as in "draft beer," in a a jug of "medium," chuu 中, size.
    • oneechan - literally "older sister," may also refer to a young woman casually, "missy."
  • gaya gaya
    *noisy crowd.*
    (mimetic word.)
  • oneechan!? ki-yasuku yobi-otte! ware wo dare da to omotte-iru
    Missy?! Calling [me] so casually! Who does [he] think I am?
    • ki-yasui - relaxed, familiar, casual, as opposed to formal.
    • yobi-otte - te-form of yobi-oru 呼びおる.
    • ~oru suffixed to the ren'youkei 連用形 of a verb works similarly to ~yagaru ~やがる, used to say someone "dares" to do something to you, expressing angers or amazement.
  • nama-chuu futatsu na
    Two beers, right?
  • pi, pi
    *writing down.*
  • ware wa makai nanbaa tsuu no Jahii-sa...
    I['m] the demon world's number two, Jahy-sa...
    (incomplete sentence.)
    • Here, Jahy was about to call herself Jahy-sama. You don't normally use honorific suffixes toward yourself, specially the respectful ~sama ~様, as it sounds pompous. This is typically done by characters that are extremely proud, over-confident, or bossy.
    • nanbaa tsuu, the katakanization of "number two," was used as furigana for its abbreviation.
  • neechan, kocchi mo~
    Missy, here too~
  • a'!? hai!
    Ah? [One second]!
    • hai - "yes," used as an affirmative response in general.

Horizontal Parentheses in Japanese Vertical Text

Sometimes, a short text within parentheses is exceptionally written horizontally in vertical writing.

Morita Mayu 森田真由, example of beta-me ベタ目.
Character: Morita Mayu 森田真由
Anime: Morita-san wa Mukuchi 森田さんは無口 (Episode 1)
  • Context: Morita Mayu's name is written vertically. The number 16 in parentheses is written horizontally after it. In Japanese, a number in parentheses after a person's name means their age, so Mayu is 16 years old.
・・・・・・・・・それだけか? (笑)と書いてあります 笑えるかァァァァァァ!!(怒) うわっ!!
Manga: Gintama 銀魂 (Chapter 10)
  • Context: characters from Gintama do odd jobs. Someone left a monstrously huge dog outside their home, with a letter that said "please take care of my pet."
  • ......... sore dake ka?
    .........only that? (that's all that is written?)
  • kakko-warai to kaite-arimasu
    (laugh) is [also] written. (literally.)
  • waraeru kaaaaaaa!! kakko ikari kakko-toji
    [How] can [I] laugh!! (anger)
    • waraeru - potential verb from warau 笑う, "to laugh."
    • See also: tsukkomi ツッコミ.
    • Although the manga makes no distinction, in the anime adaptation (10th episode), Shinpachi 新八 pronounces (笑) as kakko warai, without kakko-toji 括弧閉じ, "close [round] bracket," while Gintoki 銀時 pronounces (怒) as kakko ikari kakko-toji.
  • uwa'!!

Tables, Columns & Rows in Japanese Vertical Writing

In vertical writing, the columns of a table are horizontal and start at the right side, while the rows are vertical, which may be shocking since it's literally the opposite of how it works in English, but at the same time it makes perfect sense if you think about it.

Rows and Columns in Japanese Tables

Japanese Horizontal Writing

Japanese is written horizontally sometimes, in the same way as English: left to right, top to bottom. The "horizontal writing," yokogaki 横書き, is specially used in digital text. There are also many case in which horizontal and vertical written are mixed together.

Comics and novels are normally written vertically, but titles may be written horizontally.

Kitakohama Lulu 北小浜ルル, example of konsento-me コンセント目.
Manga: Lulumate (Volume 1)

Books and school textbooks tend to be horizontal text. Textbooks about the Japanese language (national language textbooks) are usually written in vertical text instead.

Software uses horizontal text, simply due to the lack of support for the vertical layout. Any forms with OK and Cancel buttons are going to be horizontal. Games and visual novels also tend to be horizontal.

*「いじめないでくれよー。 ボクは わるいスライムじゃないよ。
Game: Dragon Quest IV, Doragon Kuesto Foo ドラゴンクエストIV
The name input screen in a game, example of gojuuon 五十音 layout.
Game: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Zeruda no Densetsu Kaze no Takuto ゼルダの伝説 風のタクト
  • Context: a gojuuon layout for the player to input their name when starting a new game. Observe that although the columns are horizontal, the table is actually left-to-right, which means it follows how text is written horizontally, rather than vertically.

Rare exceptions are text-editing and design software like Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, Clip Studio Paint, and so on.

Websites use horizontal text. This includes Niconico, 2chan, Pixiv, etc. Like software in general, web browsers have historically lacked support for displaying vertical text.

The Legendary Yamada Tae 山田たえ, example of overly long sleeves (moe-sode 萌え袖).
Character: The Legendary Yamada Tae 山田たえ
Anime: Zombieland Saga: Revenge (Episode 6)
  • Context: a random social media user comments on the legendary Yamada Tae, who is also known by the pseudonym "number 0," zero-gou ゼロ号.
  • zero-gou kami-kawa!!!!!!!
    Number 0 is super cute!!!!!!!
    • kami

      God. Deity.
      Epic. Super. Top-level. (slang.)
    • kawaii
      Cute. Adorable.
      (~kawa is kawaii with the ~ii part clipped off.)
うわっ・・・私の年収、低すぎ・・・? 無料5分で、適正年収やビジネス基礎能力が分かる「市場価値診断テスト」。 受けた人は40万人を突破! 結果もすぐ分かると大人気だ。 あなたの適正年収は?
Source:, accessed 2021-07-19

Nowadays, as of 2021, in modern browsers (i.e. not Internet Explorer), it's possible to make text get displayed vertically through the CSS property writing-mode. For example:


  • Context: if your browser supports it, the chihayaburu ちはやぶる poem above should be rendered vertically, and you should be able to select it like any other text.

Ironically, in spite of the great efforts made for the web to finally become able to display Japanese text in its traditional vertical direction, it's unlikely that Japanese websites will adopt it, as internet users are simply used already to using Japanese horizontally.

For example, the famous story website Narou (, on which many isekai stories that somehow got anime adaptations were originally posted, uses the horizontal direction for all its stories, like any other website. That's just how you read Japanese text on the internet.

Some traditional banners and signs of stores feature vertical writing, although horizontal writing is also quite common.

Magazines and newspapers tend to have a mix of horizontal and vertical. The graphics text on covers of books, manga, movies and other products also feature mixed styles. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.

Cover of magazine egg featuring manba マンバ makeup.
Magazine: "egg," eggu エッグ (Volume 22, from 2004-07)
An ad created for Nihongo Gokan no Jiten 日本語語感の辞典, "Japanese nuance dictionary," showing a salaryman apologizing in several ways, from "bowing," ojigi お辞儀, to dogeza 土下座, "prostration."
  • Context: an ad for Nihongo Gokan no Jiten 日本語語感の辞典, "Japanese nuance dictionary," depicting various apologetic gestures, the last (leftmost) one being the dogeza 土下座. The text aren't terms for the gestures, but words related to apology.

The same applies to TV broadcasting.

A furry cat girl, unnamed news anchor.
Anime: Beastars (Episode 6)
  • Context: in a world where carnivores and herbivores are people.
  • mimei no shokusatsu jiken, han'nin tousou-chuu
    Early morning [devouring] incident, perpetrator on the run.
    • shokusatsu
      To kill by eating. To devour.
A real-life zettai ryouiki 絶対領域, appearing in 2005-10-21 in a TV program called Tokoro-san no Gakkou dewa Oshiete Kurenai Sokon Tokoro! 所さんの学校では教えてくれないそこんトコロ!
TV Program: Tokoro-san no Gakkou dewa Oshiete Kurenai Sokon Tokoro! 所さんの学校では教えてくれないそこんトコロ! (2005-10-21)
Image source:, accessed 2021-08-03.

Japanese Written Backwards Horizontally

Japanese can also be written horizontally, but backwards: right to left. This direction was more common in the past, before the second world war, but has largely fallen out of use. You can still find instances of it, specially in period stories.

Manga: Samurai X, Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚- (Chapter 5, 喧嘩の男)
  • Context: this series that takes place in the Meiji 明治 era (1868–1912).
  • akabeko
    The name of the establishment.

It only occurs with text that has only one single line—labels, signs—never with multi-line paragraphs.

This happens because this "horizontal" direction is actually someone writing vertically, top-down, right to left, but there's only space for one character per line, so it looks like it's written horizontally. It's sometimes called:(

  • ichi-gyou ichi-moji no tategaki
    One-row-one-character vertical-writing.
    Vertical writing that uses one character per row.
Character: Medusa, メデューサ
Anime: Jashin-chan Dropkick', 邪神ちゃんドロップキック’ (Season 2) (Episode 2)
  • Context: Medusa suddenly starts talking like she's doing a TV ad for some product.
  • makai-juu minna de makai-shiki senrigan doroppusu
    [Let's eat] demon-world-style clairvoyance drops with everyone in the demon world.
    (incomplete sentence.)
    • Or, maybe, it says:
    • supurrodo ganrisen makai-shiki
      Sprod eye... uh... something thousand... demon-world-style.
    • This makes no sense, so it's clearly right-to-left.
    • The fact that the drops use a right-to-left label implies it's some old, or old-fashioned, product, which is very likely considering characters from the demon world are thousands of years old.
The Kaminarimon 雷門 in real life.
  • Context: the Kaminarimon 雷門, "thunder gate," as written vertically in a huge red bamboo lantern. It leads to a temple called Sensouji 浅草寺. The text above the lantern is read horizontally right-to-left: Kinryuuzan 金龍山, "golden dragon mountain." This another name for the Sensouji, as there is a practice of giving mountain names to temples.

Note that, unlike English, Japanese doesn't use spaces to separate words, relying on grammatical and orthographic cues instead to figure out where a word starts and ends.

Text may wrap mid-words without hyphenation or anything of sort. However, it's still preferred to wrap lines at certain points, like after particles or verbs.

Right-to-left text stopped being used after the war, however, when it was in use, before the war, it wasn't the only way to write Japanese horizontally. People also wrote it left-to-right, which sounds extremely confusing if you think about it.

Books with English text, like dictionaries, would use the left-to-right direction like English, while one-line signs, titles, and so on would use the right-to-left direction.

Are There Characters Written Differently Horizontally Compared to Vertically?

There are a few characters are are written differently horizontally and vertically in modern Japanese.

The furigana ふりがな, also known as ruby text, is written at the right side of characters in vertical text, but above characters in horizontal text.

A diagram of what is furigana, showing hiragana readings on kanji.

The bouten 傍点, emphasis dots written on the furigana space, also follow this rule.

出久くんには関節が2つある この世代じゃ珍しい・・・何の“個性”も宿ってない型だよ
Manga: Boku no Hero Academia, 僕のヒーローアカデミア (Chapter 1, 緑谷出久︰オリジン)
  • Context: in a series about people that have powers called quirks, a doctor examines Midoriya Izuku 緑谷出久, talks about how quirkless people have two joints in his pinky toe, and then says:
  • Izuku-kun niwa kansetsu ga futatsu aru
    Izuku-kun has two joints.
    (double subject construction.)
    • The dots on the right side of the phrase 関節が2つ indicate emphasis. Observe that they stack with the reading aid, creating two "furigana layers." If this text was horizontal, and the furigana above, they would stack on top of each other in the same order.
  • {kono sedai ja mezurashii...} {nan'no "kosei" mo yadottenai} kata da yo
    A type {rare in this age}, [that] {doesn't [contain] any quirk}.
    • yadoru
      To dwell. (in this case, for a quirk to dwell in his body, i.e. for a quirk to be contained in him, for him to contain a quirk.)

While horizontal text is underlined, vertical text is sidelined on the right side, which is also the furigana side. The "sideline" is called bousen 傍線.

Anime: Hyouka 氷菓 (Episode 4)

The prolonged sound mark (ー) is a horizontal dash horizontally, but a vertical dash vertically. Sometimes a it's rendered in a wavy shape, like a tilde (~), which, too, becomes a vertical tilde in vertical writing.

Manga: Historie, ヒストリエ (Chapter 8, スキタイ流)

The kanji for the numbers "one, two, three," ichi, ni, san 一二三, appear similar to the prolonged sound mark horizontally, since they're horizontal dashes, however, they don't become vertical in vertical writing.

もう一度読ませてもらうね おっ
Manga: Bakuman. バクマン。 (Chapter 8)
  • Context: in order to become a mangaka, you must first have your manga read by a professional editor. And after he reads it, he may say:
  • mou ichido yomasete morau ne
    [I'll] have [you] let me read it one more time, okay?
    • I'll read it again. (said politely.)
  • o'


The quotation marks 「」『』 are rotated 90 degrees clockwise in vertical text.

The Japanese quotation marks in vertical and horizontal text.

The iteration marks called ku-no-ji-ten くの字点 are supposed to be one tall ku く-shaped symbol in vertical writing. In horizontal writing, it looks like a he へ instead.

  • 〳〵, or, alternatively:
  • /\.
Diagram of ku-no-ji-ten くの字点 iteration mark, showing examples wakuwaku わくわく, tokidoki ときどき, dokidoki ドキドキ, shoushou しょうしょう, and tokorodokoro ところどころ


It's possible for writing direction to be used in wordplay. For example, kanji characters are sometimes composed of other kanji characters laid out side by side horizontally or vertically. Changing the writing direction may make the kanji components appear to be separate kanji on their own, or vice-versa.

糸色望 絶望した
Manga: Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei さよなら絶望先生 (Chapter 1, さよなら絶望先生)
  • Context: a character's nickname is a wordplay on the components of his name.
  • Itoshiki Nozomu
    (character name.)
  • zetsubou shita
    [I] gave up all hope.
    [I'm in despair.]
    (suru-verb in past form.)



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  1. how do I write Shibui in janenese vertically?

  2. This is different than how I learned why some things were right to left. When writing prominent titles, headings, and signs, it is still in the top-down right-to-left format, only that there is just 1 character in each column. It's not really written "horizontally" or "backwards", it just appears like that to those used to horizontal text. So that shop sign (akabeko) has 3 characters for 3 columns, 1 in each. Japanese navy ships in WW2 also were named like this. e.g. Shimakaze has 4 columns and 4 characters, but reads horizontally left-to-right as ze-ka-ma-shi.

  3. Thank you, I'm just startig to learn Japenese and i wanted to know which form was correct. Now I know, thanks to you. Straight forward exlanation, with little backgroun, just the way I like it!