When you’re sitting there writing or typing something, you may take for granted the little things… little things like periods, commas, and quotation marks. That’s cool – they only hold together everything a sentence holds dear. If you didn’t have these little things, this “punctuation” if you will, the fabric of sentence time would tear apart, creating some kind of super-black hole (it would just look like a period). In the Japanese language, punctuation exists as well. It’s not that much different from English punctuation, which makes it easier, but there are definitely a few things to learn if you want to read Japanese more easily. In this article, I’m going to go over the main Japanese punctuation (and even some of the more obscure stuff). In order to learn all of it, I imagine all it’ll take is a quick read. Feel free to use this article as reference, as well! Let’s get started:
One of the things that stand out to me in Japanese punctuation (as well as Japanese in general) is the space. While it differs between operating system, handwriting style, your Japanese IME, and so-on, Japanese typography tends to be something known as “full-width.” What you see here, in English, is half-width. Can you see the difference?
While you can type in half-width in Japanese, it looks too crowded. The Japanese language was made to be nice and spread out, and that also carries over to the punctuation as well. There’s technically no spaces between letters or words in Japanese. You don’t hit the space bar often, except to choose the kanji you want to input while typing. So, with a lot of Japanese punctuation, an extra space is added in (once again, sometimes depends on operating system). So, a lot of punctuation includes an extra space on one side or the other, so you don’t have to put it in.
Basically, to sum things up, you don’t usually have to worry about adding spaces between sentences. Punctuation has you covered. For example:
Find the comma and the period. There’s a little half-width (normal width in English) after them, even though I didn’t add them in. All I added in was the comma and period themselves – it all counts as one “letter,” even when you try to highlight it.
Okay, so now you know about the spacing, so what about learning about all the (main) punctuation available to you? Let’s do it!
Japanese punctuation is quite similar to Western-style punctuation, and there’s a lot of overlap. Still, even when there is overlap, there tends to also be a lot of subtle differences, which I’ll go over below (along with the big-picture ideas each punctuation mark has as well).
The Japanese period is used much in the same way the English period is used (same spot, except in vertical writing, then it’s in the bottom right below the character right before it), though the rules tend to be a little bit more liberal. If a sentence is on its own or has quotes, for example, a lot of times the Japanese period is omitted. It would look like this:
The period itself is a small circle, and not a dot (though occasionally you’ll see Western-style periods ending things when the sentence ends with something in English, strangely).
The Japanese comma, like the Japanese period, is used in much the same way as the English one. It’s put in the same place as the period (bottom right of the last word), and can either be the style you see to the left (line from top left to bottom right) or a regular period you see in English (like this: ,). Comma usage in Japanese is super liberal compared to English. You can pretty much stick it wherever you want a break in your sentence. Just don’t abuse the power, please, it, is, irritating.
Instead of things that look like “this” for their quotation marks (it would get confusing, because of dakuten, which add little quote-like things to kana), the Japanese use little half-brackets to indicate quotes. Although these are called “single quotes” which would make you think they’d be like ‘this’ – they are the most common style of quote to use in Japanese. Almost any time you need to use a marker for quotes, you’ll use the single quotes one, though there are exceptions (which you’ll read about in Double Quotes, below).
The double quotes are a lot less common than the single quotes, but they do have one good purpose. You know when you have to quote something that’s quoting something else? When you do that, usually it looks like this: “The dog said ‘woof’ and ran away.” In Japanese, these double quotes would be the outside quotes, and the inner quotes would be the single quotes. Other than that, I don’t see much use out of the double quotes.
The wave dash isn’t really that similar to the Western (straight) dash in use, but I’m guessing the wave dash became popular because straight-line-dashes are already used in katakana to show a long vowel, and not making this look different would be confusing. There are some uses that are like the Western dash, like showing a range of something (４〜５, ９時〜１０時, etc), but there are some other Japanese-only uses of this punctuation as well, including drawing out drawing out a vowel sound (そうだね〜), showing where something is from (アメリカ〜), marking subtitles (〜こんにちは〜), and so on.
Japanese Question Mark
You’d think the Japanese question mark is self explanatory, so I shouldn’t need to put it here, but there’s a thing or two you ought to know about it. Just like a Western-style question mark it marks a question, but the thing about Japanese is that there’s already a grammar-based marker (か) to show that a sentence is a question already, making it redundant to use a lot of times. You won’t see question marks in formal writing, because formal writing will have the か, but in more casual writing you’ll see the question mark more often because 1) it’s casual and 2) most casual speech forms drop the か in exchange for a questioning tone of voice, which you can’t really put in writing very well without a question mark.
The interpunct is a round circle that vertically aligns center with the words next to it. It’s usually used to break up words that go together, most often in katakana, for example:
It’s also used with Japanese words, too, though the use is more specialized. Some Japanese words, when placed side by side, can be ambiguous (because combinations of kanji can mean different things, and if you have too much kanji next to each other for some reason, it can get confusing). It’s also used to break up lists, as decimal points when writing numbers in kanji (why would you do that, please don’t do that), and break up anything else that needs breaking up in order to make certain things or phrases less ambiguous.
Japanese Exclamation Mark
The Japanese exclamation mark is used just like the Western one. It shows volume or emotion or both. You won’t see exclamation marks in formal Japanese, though it’s really common everywhere else.
Bonus: Part Alternation Mark
This one will probably be totally useless to you, unless you’re planning on joining the Noh Theater. This punctuation mark shows the beginning of the next player’s part in a song. It’s also found in Noh chanting groups, which makes it kind of awesome.
There are plenty of other punctuation marks in Japanese, but these are the main ones (or the ones that I thought were important to learn). You’ll see brackets, colons, and so on in Japanese as well, but it should be pretty simple to understand how they’re used and what they’re doing there.
That does bring me to one other thing, which I think is pretty interesting though, and that is:
Kaomoji As Punctuation
Kaomoji (顔文字), which basically translates to “Face Letters” is basically when someone uses text to draw little faces which show some kind of emotion. While kaomoji is probably never officially going to be considered punctuation (and I probably also just don’t understand the definition of punctuation either, but hang in there with me), I feel like it sort of is punctuation, in a way.
When put together, they are characters that represent emotion, kind of like the exclamation mark. They can also represent confusion, or a questioning tone, like a question mark. On top of all that, there are probably 20-30 different “feelings” they can represent too, that add to your sentences or paragraphs or phrases. While they aren’t a single character (neither is an ellipses, so take that punctuation nazis!), they do represent something which adds something to the sentence. Seems to me basically what punctuation does, so why not kaomoji too?
If kaomoji could indeed be considered punctuation, there’d be a lot of them – too many to add to this list. Facemark Party, one of my favorite sites ever, organizes kaomoji by emotion, feeling, and action. The action part probably doesn’t really correlate well to my argument, but the others do pretty nicely. For example, if you’re writing something and you feel bad about it, because you’re really sorry or something, you might add the following kaomoji “punctuation” to your sentence:
Shows you’re sad and you’re sorry. Or, let’s say you’re really happy about something, you could add this kaomoji “punctuation.”
So much happiness. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands more examples, but you can look them up on your own (careful, it’s a black hole of awesome time suck over there).
In terms of using kaomoji in Japanese, they usually go at the end of sentences or phrases. They’re a lot like periods that also convey emotion. Take that period. Go back to your soulless home in the country of boring-ville.
Anyways, there you have it. I hope you learned something new, and thought about kaomoji a little bit as well. There really isn’t a lot to learn when it comes to Japanese punctuation because you have most of the concepts down already (assuming you’re not super young and reading this). It’s really the subtleties that are interesting, I think, so I hope you got something from there as well.