Web Design is 95% Typography
(Oliver Reichenstein, 2006)
Oliver Reichenstein, the founder and director of Information Architects, told us that the key to successful website design is typography because most of the information found on the web is delivered in written form. In 2006, it was true. In 2016, it is even truer. The simple nature of minimalistic design like popular flat design and Google’s material design, typography is becoming more important.
The same principle applies to localized versions. Languages do not only differ in grammatical structure and sounds, but also in length, size, design, and readability. Localization of text affects the design, so design should be localized.
In this article, I will describe the aesthetics of Japanese typography and the best practices of Japanese web typography. This will help you reach your Japanese audience more effectively.
Anatomy of Japanese Web Typography
Japanese kanji characters use more pixels than alphanumeric characters because they consist of many strokes. For example, the alphabet character “A” only needs 7 x 7 pixels, but the kanji character “艦” requires 15 x 15 pixels for it to be readable.
Fundamental Size Differences
Typography in English has parameters called cap-height, x-height, baseline and descender height. It also has upper case letters and lower case letters. The Japanese language uses none of these variables. All characters are roughly the same size as English capital letters, and many characters end up bigger than alphanumeric characters even when the font size remains the same. Due to height and complexity, Japanese web localization often requires slightly bigger font sizes, wider letter spacing, and line height.
Tip: To avoid low legibility, I recommend a minimum of 12 px font size, 150% line height, and 0.05 em letter spacing for body paragraphs. Of course, these vary depending on font family.
Alignment and Fixed Pitch
Fonts in which different characters have different widths (pitches) are called “proportional pitch” fonts. On the other hand, fonts in which different characters have same widths are called “fixed pitch” or “monospace” fonts. The Japanese language does not have extremely thin characters like upper case “I” or lower case “l”.
Tip: Proportional pitch fonts are better suited to mobile or UI elements, and fixed pitch fonts are better suited for header or body copy. Don’t forget to set the font family for each design element.
Because the Japanese language does not have spaces, the space between text is always the same and needs no hyphenation.
Tip: Change the text alignment to justified so you can enjoy a beautiful grid design.
line length matters. Typographers adjust line length to aid legibility or copy fit. Generally, for printed text it is widely accepted that line length fall between 45-75 characters per line (cpl). However, it’s different in Japanese.
In Japanese, best line length is
- 20-38 cpl for vertical line on DTP
- 15-35 cpl for horizonal line on DTP
- 15-40 cpl for computer display
- 15-21 cpl for smart phone display
It’s less than half of optimal line length in English.
Gothic or Mincho?
Serif and Sans-Serif — the very first words you learn in typography. In Japanese, Serif is called “Mincho” (明朝) and Sans-Serif is called “Gothic” (ゴシック). The Mincho font was first used in 15th century China, during the Ming Dynasty, as a typeface for woodblock printing. The Gothic font first appeared in Japan around the 18th or 19th century. According to a typeface designer Toshi Omagari, Gothic was invented based on Blackletter (also known as Gothic script). However, nobody knows for sure
Mincho-category fonts have characters with triangular decorative elements at the ends of horizontal lines and have lines of varying thickness. Gothic-category font characters, on the other hand, have minimal decorative elements and have uniform line thickness. Other font categories also exist, including cursive/script (Sosho), Kaisho, Reisho, comic, and handwritten. Mincho and Gothic category fonts are often used in DTP and graphic design (e.g., a website banner image). There are many fonts with many purposes, but we’re focusing on those with the most presence in terms of web text. Don’t worry, I’ll address other, unique font uses in another article.
The Best Font for Japanese
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the best Japanese font; there is only the best font choice based on your individual priorities, including compatibility, legibility, aesthetics, usability, price, and brand identity.
Best for: website body paragraphs (like this blog!)
Worst for: contracts
Times New Roman
Best for: newspapers
Worst for: websites geared towards children
This same principle applies to website localization. It’s not always easy for even an experienced designer to make the right font choice in a different language. There are so many available fonts to choose from, it can be overwhelming. This is one of the many functions of a localization expert.
Let’s compare some the most popular Japanese fonts:
|Google Noto Sans CJK||Free||★★★★★||★★★||★★★★|
|Hiragakino Gothic||250 USD||★★★★||★★★||★★★★★|
|Hiragino Mincho||250 USD||★★★★★||★★★||★★★★★|
* Usability: Usability for designers. Fonts with various weights have higher usability.
* Comparability: Compatibility with browsers. When fonts have higher comparability, the font has been pre-installed on more devices
* Aesthetics: Font beauty and readability, content legibility
Noto Sans CJK JP
Noto Sans CJK JP is a Gothic font developed by Google. It’s like the jeans of the font world: you can dress it up or down. It has 7 font weights, allowing you to use the fonts on many design components. It is more modern than MS Gothic and Meiryo, but not too modern, so you can use it for both traditional and modern design. Overall, it is a very useful font for any occasion.
The only weakness of Noto Sans CJK JP is compatibility. It is not pre-installed on computers, so that can slow down page loading speed.
Hiragino Kaku Gothic Pro
Hiragino Gothic is my favorite Gothic font. It’s like Helvetica in Japanese. It has an amazing 9 font weights and has both beautiful proportional pitch and fixed pitch alphanumeric characters. This is one of the biggest features because it is nearly impossible to find Japanese fonts with beautiful alphanumeric characters.
Hiragino is also relatively compatible. It’s installed on all Mac computers. Its only weaknesses are that it’s not installed on Windows computers and it’s quite expensive.
Hiragino Mincho is a one-of-a-kind font that has both sharp, modern beauty and classy, traditional beauty. It’s the little black dress of typography. It can be used for both official documents and casual blogs.
Mincho fonts tend to be dark and heavy, but Hiragino Mincho has a light, elegant and bright impression. It’s a font loved by all kinds of people, young and old, and can be used for any target audience. It comes with 7 weights that make the font useful for many design components, from the massive heading text of landing pages to body paragraphs.
Yu Gothic is installed on Windows 8.1 and later and Mac OS 10.9 and later. This makes Yu Gothic the second most compatible font currently available. Meiryo is still the number one font in terms of compatibility because it’s also installed on Windows 7. I believe Yu Gohic will replace Meiryo in the very near future.
Meiryo has a very modern design that may give too casual an impression if you use it in a business email. On the other hand, Yu Gothic can be used in both formal and informal documents. It has 5 weights that allow you use the font in both heading and body.
Yu Mincho is installed on Windows 8.1 and later and Mac OS 10.9 and later. Mac users have been blessed with their beautiful Hiragino Mincho font for years, but Windows users have suffered from the absence of the beautiful and readable Mincho font before Yu Mincho and IPA fonts.
The design concept of Yu Mincho is the font for Japanese history novels. This modern font with traditional tastes lets you use the it in both formal and informal documents. It has 4 font weights.
Meiryo means “clear to read”. It is indeed easier to read over other fonts, which makes it the most popular choice for many web designers. While it is not particularly beautiful, it does not share the same strong characteristics as other fonts, making it one of the best fonts for paragraphs.
Meiryo is installed on all Windows computers (7 or later) so that users’ browsers don’t need to load a 1 or 2 MB font file.
MS Gothic is one of the most compatible fonts. It is the default sans-serif font of most older Windows computers and many browsers. However, it’s neither very beautiful nor particularly legible. After Meiryo was introduced with Windows 7, MS Gothic lost its usefulness. MS Gothic is not anti-aliased when the font size is smaller than 16 pt, so Windows renders bitmap characters.
MS Mincho is also one of the most compatible fonts and is the default serif font of Windows computers running XP and older and many browsers. It’s ugly and illegible. I do NOT recommend that anybody use it unless your target audience is Windows XP or 7 users with very slow internet.
Tip: When Japanese is not set in a style sheet, most browsers will render Japanese characters as MS Mincho. Be careful that you don’t end up with an ugly localized website like this.
Web safe font stack in Japanese
47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. (How Loading Time Affects Your Bottom Line)
Page loading speed is an important element of front-end development. In English, typography has very small impact to page loading speed because file size of font is usually less than 500KB. However, in Japanese, it can be a major cause of a slow-loading page.
Japanese font files have double-digit hiragana, both single-digit and double-digit katakana, both single-digit and double-digit alphanumeric characters, many symbols, and from 2,000 to 12,000 kanji characters. Some font files have more than 300,000 characters in total and the file size can be bigger than 2MB.
It is safer to use okay-looking, pre-installed fonts in lieu of using and having to upload beautiful fonts. Web-safe fonts are fonts that are pre-installed to many devices. While not all devices have the same fonts installed, you can choose several fonts that look similar, and that are installed on different devices. Here is a web-safe font stack in Japanese that I have crafted:
font-family : 'ヒラギノ角ゴ ProN' , 'Hiragino Kaku Gothic ProN' , '游ゴシック' , '游ゴシック体' , YuGothic , 'Yu Gothic' , 'メイリオ' , Meiryo , 'ＭＳ ゴシック' , 'MS Gothic' , HiraKakuProN-W3 , 'TakaoExゴシック' , TakaoExGothic , 'MotoyaLCedar' , 'Droid Sans Japanese' , sans-serif;
* “ヒラギノ角ゴ ProN” and “Hiragino Kaku Gothic ProN” are the same font, but some devices or browsers cannot understand when it’s written in Japanese or English, so it’s better to write it in both languages. The same applies to Meiryo and Ms Gothic TakaoEx Gothic.
Font stack of pre-installed fixed pitch Mincho fonts
font-family : 'ヒラギノ明朝 ProN' , 'Hiragino Mincho ProN' , '游明朝','游明朝体',YuMincho,'Yu Mincho' , 'ＭＳ 明朝' , 'MS Mincho' , HiraMinProN-W3 , 'TakaoEx明朝' , TakaoExMincho , 'MotoyaLCedar' , 'Droid Sans Japanese' , serif;
Pre-installed fixed pitch fonts of each device
|Windows XP||MS Gothic||MS Mincho|
|MacOS X 10.4||Hiragino kaku Gothic Pro||Hiragino Mincho Pro|
|MacOS X 10.5||Hiragino kaku Gothic Pro
Hiragino kaku Gothic Pro N
|Hiragino Mincho Pro
Hiragino Mincho Pro N
|Mac OS X 10.9||Yu Gothic
Hiragino kaku Gothic Pro
Hiragino kaku Gothic Pro N
|Yu MinchoHiragino Mincho Pro
Hiragino Mincho Pro N
|Android||Droid Sans Japanese||–|
A big part of the information on websites is delivered in text rather than in graphics. It’s only natural to pursue quality web typography localization as well as text translation.
If your localized website has a high bounce rate, short duration, and low conversion rate, you might check your typography.