Learning Japanese: Knowing the Punctuation used in Japanese Writing

Without punctuation, language is doomed to be ambiguous. And yet, you would be quite surprised to discover that in Japan, punctuation did not even exist before the 19th century. Despite it being widespread during the Meiji Era, it wasn’t until 1946 that the Japanese punctuation we know of today was imposed by the Ministry of Education!

Yes, apart from the period imported from the Chinese language, Japanese people were not using any type of punctuation when writing texts. One cannot help but wonder how to read ancient Japanese scrolls!

When you studying the Japanese language, you might have been surprised by some of the Japanese punctuation commonly used. Some marks greatly differ from those found in other languages and in particular, Western languages. Therefore, in order to be comfortable reading Japanese, one must first understand how Japanese text is structured by getting an insight into the Japanese “spacing” system.

 
Getting by the Full/Half Width: スペース (Supeesu)
Meet the Japanese Fullstop: 句点 (Kuten), 丸 (Maru)
Get to know the Japanese Comma: 読点 (Touten)
Japanese Question Mark: 疑問符(Gimonfu)
Exclamation Mark: 感嘆符 (Kantanfu)/エクスクラメーション・マーク (Ekusukurameeshion Maaku)
In between Brackets and Quotation: 括弧 (Kakko)
The Japanese Wave Dash: 波ダッシュ(Nami Dasshu)
The Interpunct: 中黒 (Nakaguro)
The Ellipsis: 点線 (Tensen) or リーダー(Riidaa)

 

 

Getting by the Full/Half Width: スペース (Supeesu)

In Japanese punctuation, space (an empty zone between written part) is quite different from what you might be used to!

1 -The Japanese typography is wider than usual typography: they use some extra space and this is called “Full Width” whereas, in English, space is called “Half Width”:

Half Width: abcde
Full width: あいえうお, アイエウオ
You can notice that the hiragana and katakana characters are more spread out.

2 – Usually, there would be no space between letters and no space left after a Japanese word. Space may be required to avoid confusion in some cases.

English: Hi, my (Space) name (Space) is…
Japanese: こんにちは、お名前は…

3 – The Japanese punctuation marks already include extra spacing! Check it with by selecting with your mouse: 。、・.

 

Keep in mind when studying the Japanese punctuation, that text can be written horizontally or vertically. The punctuation adapts to the direction of the text by changing a little its place or by rotating clockwise at a 90° angle.

 

 

Meet the Japanese Fullstop: 句点 (Kuten), 丸 (Maru)

The Japanese full stop is a cute small circle, ““, placed like the English “.” after a word. You can see that a little space is indeed already included. However, it differs from the Western one as its function is to separate sentences more than finishing them. Therefore, a sentence standing alone won’t need to be finished with a full stop.

 

 

Get to know the Japanese Comma: 読点 (Touten)

The role of the comma is to separate elements within a sentence. Like for the full stop, extra spacing is already included with the comma.

 

明日予定がありますか。
Ashita, do you have plans?
Do you have any plans tomorrow?

 

Japanese Question Mark: 疑問符(Gimonfu)

Many are surprised when they do not see any question marks around in Japanese text. This leaves them wondering how questions are typically indicated in Japanese. In fact, the Japanese particle “ka” (か) can already be used to mark an inquiry.

ジュリアさんがいます
Jyuria san ga imasu ka.
Is Julia san here?

So ending a question with “ka” + “?” would be redundant like…

ジュリアさんがいますか?
Jyuria san ga imasu ka?
Is Julia san here (?)?

 

The absence of the question mark is predominantly carried out when writing in formal Japanese. But when it comes to casual speech, “ka” is often dropped. Therefore, a question mark would often be needed to convey a question.

 

Exclamation Mark: 感嘆符 (Kantanfu)/エクスクラメーション・マーク (Ekusukurameeshion Maaku)

No surprises here, the exclamation point indicates the strong feeling (or the strong voice!) of a speaker. However, this mark is not so much used in formal Japanese. Rather, it’s mostly used for interjections and so on in casual Japanese.

 

久しぶり
Hisashiburi!
It’s been a long time!

 

In between Brackets and Quotation: 括弧 (Kakko)

The Japanese seem to have taken a liking for brackets, considering how there are so many different styles of these! They set apart text within a sentence in dictionaries, for annotation etc.. Their names are all composed with “Kakko” :

( )
丸括弧: maru-kakko (round shape)

[ ]
角括弧: kaku-kakko (square shape) used in specialized fields in the same way as in English.

{ }
波括弧: nami-kakko (wave shape) enclose words or lines considered to be together. It is not used very often.

〈 〉
山括弧: yama-kakko (angle shape) to add emphasis to the text. Ex. 〈完全攻略〉JLPT N1.

【】
角付き括弧: sumitsuki-kakko (angular filled brackets) used in headings, for example in dictionary definitions. Ex. とも‐だち【友達】.

In Japanese, single quotation marks and double quotation marks (a quotation inside a quotation) are half brackets.

「」
鈎括弧: kagi-kakko (hook brackets) are usual Japanese quotation marks. Ex. 「元気ですか?」と彼女は言った。

『』
二重鉤括弧 : nijyuukgi-kakko (double hook brackets) are used to mark quotes within quotes: 「…『…』…」 as well as to mark book titles. Ex: 「『僕に任せてください』と彼は言ったけど、少し心配です。」、芥川龍之介『羅生門』。

 

 

The Japanese Wave Dash: 波ダッシュ(Nami Dasshu)

Meet the cutest Japanese punctuation mark, the wave dash. Mostly used in “from – to” constructions, it can be used to indicate ranges such as time or distances. However, it can also be used to draw/extend the sound of a vowel out:

すごいですよね
Sugoine(e)!
It’s great!!

Instead of Sugoi Ne, it became Sugoi Nee.

 

月曜日土曜日
Getsuyoubi – Doyoubi
From Monday to Saturday

 

The Interpunct: 中黒 (Nakaguro)

This middle dot break words up that go together so as to make the meanings clearer. It also separates listed items, composed foreign words, foreign nouns, names titles and positions.

 

アンナマリアゴンザレス
Anna Maria Gonzales.

金木社長
Kaneki shachou
Director Kaneki

 

The Ellipsis: 点線 (Tensen) or リーダー(Riidaa)

Who ever thought of what the three little dots following an “ok” would mean in a text message? While we should not try to read too much meaning in this punctuation mark, it represents hesitation, omission or a wandering thought. Japanese adopted the European sequence of three dots. However, the rule is not strict, the sequence can start at two and go up to as many as 6 dots. Sometimes Japanese will even pronounce them out loud when telling a story by saying “ten ten”.

なるほど。……そうなのか。
Naruhodo… Sounanoka.
I see… Is that so.

We cannot possibly imagine covering all of the existing Japanese punctuation in one article, especially as some marks are not per se punctuation but important for Japanese phonetic. We encourage you to discover more about specific marks such as the “々” (called noma or kurikaeshi) indicating the repetition of a previous character or the “っ” (sokuon) marking a double consonant!

Having learnt all of these, do you think you’re ready to do some Japanese calligraphy? Why not give it a shot!

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