An introduction to Japanese punctuation!

Posted by on May 23, 2016 – Japanese Study

Without punctuation, language is doomed to be ambiguous. And yet, you would be quite surprised to discover that in Japan, punctuation did not exist before the 19th century. Indeed, despite widely spread during the Meiji Era, it was only in 1946 that the Japanese punctuation as we know was imposed by the Ministry of Education!

Yes, apart from the period imported from Chinese – and barely used, 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 started studying the language, you might have been surprised by the Japanese punctuation commonly used. Some marks greatly differ from those found in other languages – in particular, Western languages. And in order to be comfortable reading Japanese, one must understand how a Japanese text is structured. And the first step is to get an insight on the Japanese “spacing” system.

Getting by the Full/Half Width:

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 spread out.

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

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.

The second thought you should keep is that depending on the speech style – casual or formal, the usage of Japanese punctuation mark will differ!

Meet the Japanese full stop!
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.

Ashita, do you have plans?
Do you have plan tomorrow?

But where is the question mark?

Many are surprised to not see any question mark around and wonder how questions are indicated in Japanese. In fact, the Japanese grammar already marks the inquiry with the particle “ka” (か).

Jyuria san ga imasu ka.
Is Julia san here?

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

Jyuria san ga imasu ka?
Is Julia san here question?

The absence of the question mark rules in formal Japanese. But when it comes to casual speech, “ka” is often dropped and therefore, a marker is needed to convey the inquiry.

The exclamation point!
感嘆符 (kantanfu) or 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 the speaker. However, this mark is not used in formal Japanese but used for interjections and so on in casual Japanese.

It’s been a long time!

In between brackets and quotation!
括弧 (kakko)

The Japanese language seems to have taken a liking in brackets, considering the frequent usage of many various styles! 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)

{ }

波括弧: nami-kakko (wave shape)

〈 〉
山括弧: yama-kakko (angle shape)

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

鈎括弧: kagi-kakko

二重鉤括弧 : nijyuukgi-kakko

The Japanese wave dash
波ダッシュ(nami dasshu)

Meet the cutest Japanese punctuation mark, the wave dash. Used in “from – to” constructions, it indicates ranges such as time or distances, but it can also be used to drawn-out a vowel:

It’s great!!

Getsuyoubi – doyoubi
From Monday to Saturday

The interpunct
中黒 (nakaguro)

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

Anna Maria Gonzales.

Kaneki shachou
Director Kaneki

The Ellipsis
点線 (tensen) or リーダー(riidaa)

Who never wondered about the meaning behind the ellipsis’s three little dots following an “ok” 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 as many as 6 dots. Sometimes Japanese will pronounce them out loud when telling a story and they will say “ten ten”.

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!

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