Japan’s Helvetica

It seems to me that hip, cultured young people always have some sort of interest in design, whether its architecture, graphic design or web design.

But no form of design seems to have attracted more attention than typography, or the design of letters and fonts. In recent years, it seems like everybody and their dog has an opinion on fonts, whether it’s rage against Comic Sans or, more importantly, the doting admiration of Helvetica.

Somehow over the years, Helvetica has become the font. People praise it for its simple, clean, and utilitarian looks, and the love for Helvetica is so great, that there’s even been a documentary made about the font, the aptly named Helvetica:

With all the fuss over Helvetica, it makes you wonder — do people use it in other languages? Can you write Japanese in Helvetica?

Helvetica proper wasn’t created to writer Japanese. After all, it was designed in Switzerland which, as you may already be aware, doesn’t speak Japanese (shocker!).

That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried, but efforts to design the font for the Japanese language is kind of silly. Even though Helvetica is just a font, a lot would be lost in translation if it was retooled for Japanese.

As one commentor on Quora said, “Helvetica simply has too much cultural baggage that is specific to Helvetica.

So what does that leave us with? Obviously, the Japanese haven’t exactly been sitting on their hands when it comes to designing fonts. Japanese has its own set of fonts, although none of them are probably as renowned as Helvetica.

But at least one person thinks that they’ve found Japan’s Helvetica: it’s called 新ゴ, or “New Gothic.”

It shares a lot in common with Helvetica: it’s clean, simple, and sans-serif. It’s used in a ton of public signs (just like Helvetica), and was designed by Japanese type foundry Morisawa with Helvetica in mind.

I’m sure there are those of you out there who are so over Helvetica; post-Helvetica, if you will. The font (and maybe its Japanese equivalent) just aren’t cutting it for you anymore.

What else is there in terms of Japanese fonts? As it turns out, quite a lot. Nihongoresources has a pretty good rundown of the different styles of Japanese type.

Probably the most common style is 明朝体, or Minchoutai, a typeface that’s named after the Ming Dynasty. There’s a reason that Minchoutai is named after the Ming Dynasty: it’s kind of old fashioned in a few ways. Minchoutai still has little marks where the brush would rest and lift off, harkening back to a pre-keitai, pre-computer, pre-penicil and pen world.

If that’s a little too fancy and old-fashioned for you, then there’s ゴシック, or “Gothic” fonts. There aren’t any marks indicating brush strokes, and all of the lines are pretty much the same width. This is a typeface designed for the modern world, and it’s used a lot in Japan because it’s clear and legible.

Those are the two big ones, but the list goes on and on. Fonts designed after woodblock prints. Fonts designed after name seals (hanko). There are even, just like in English, fonts designed to look like handwriting, including kawaii handwriting.

If you’re impatient, first of all I’m impressed that you’ve read this much (well done!); but second of all, you might be wondering why you should care about any of this. After all, aren’t hipsters and old dudes with perfectly circular glasses the only people who care about typography?

Each of these guys probably goes nuts over Helvetica

Well, yes, but that should be changing because, as we’ve been talking about for a while now, writing things by hand is slowly going the way of the dodo.

Just last week, a survey by the Japanese government said that more than half of Japanese people say that they’re getting worse at writing kanji because they use their phones and computers more than their pencils and pens.

More and more, you will write Japanese in a font that a company worked hard at for years designing instead of your own handwriting. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

I mean, I can understand being upset that that personal mark is gone from your writing, but look at it this way: People are always a bit apprehensive during big technological shifts; I’ve heard that when writing was first introduced, people were worried that it would give people terrible memories.

But I’m not so worried about a future where you primarily type instead of writing by hand. I mean, it’s kind of cool to think that when you type, you use a font that took a team of professionals years to painstakingly craft; especially considering that my handwriting has probably, if anything, devolved since elementary school.

Now that you have a field guide to Japanese fonts, you can impress those sophisticated 20-somethings at parties. Just don’t tell them that you read it on a website that uses Merriweather.

  • Tiffany Harvey

    All this talk of Helvetica makes me think of this scene in “Shorts” (a cheesy kid’s movie) ~
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZPHuENr1ek

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Looks like she’s going to have to wish for a not broken neck now

  • DAVIDPD

    As a Microsoft user: I have no idea what Helvetica is… T-T*

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, fonts are usually pretty damn expensive to buy for personal use. I’ll edit in the link tho

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Naming a kid after a font? Can I call my kid Times New Roman?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Y’know, like Arial!

  • Jackson

    Hahaha, noooo! Don’t encourage this!

  • x_stei

    This is really ironic lol.

  • x_stei

    Erik Spiekermann!! (I feel so incredibly nerdy right now.)

    Fonts are expensive, Japanese fonts even more so. The best free Japanese font that I’ve found is AoyagiKouzan.

    Love the Helvetica movie. Surprised there wasn’t a photograph of Massimo Vignelli in this post.

    *nerd*

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    No Hashi! Arial is like Helvetica the same way Rupaul is like a real woman! Not enough space here to discuss typography and the subtle differences that make Helvetica more elegant than Arial.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Wow, I assumed nobody would recognize Spiekermann, but you nailed it. Now all I’m waiting for is somebody to tell me who the third guy in the picture is.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Woah woah woah, let’s not bring RuPaul into this, she is too fabulous for this nonsense!

  • Koichinist

    Koichi, also known as the infamous Destroyer of the Japanese Learning Industry. Kanji in Japan needs a saviour, needs KOICHI!!!!!

  • besterthenyou

    Hey, how can I make my own font?

  • HatsuHazama

    Hey, I’ve seen that font before. It’s on those Superdry clothing, and I’ve got this feeling I’ve seen it plenty more times, just can’t remember where exactly.

  • HatsuHazama

    Steve Jobs!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Ah, boo. You beat me to it. =P

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    I’m wondering what’d happen here if I mentioned Comic Sans. =)

  • Guin Oyaji

    Does anyone know , what the font that ” Neon Genesis Evangelion ” used is called?

  • x_stei

    I couldn’t tell you Hashi lol. I wish I knew!

    Erik Spiekermann has one of the coolest design Twitter accounts that I know: https://twitter.com/espiekermann =D. I didn’t even know he had a verified account, super cool! =).

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I meant the guy on the right :)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I couldn’t tell you, but I know it’s hard and usually involves specialty software.

  • belgand

    Duh, one of Etheline’s former boyfriends from The Royal Tennebaums.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Dingdingdingdingding!

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    My wallet cries every time a new weight of a typeface I previously purchased gets released. I know the feels. :'(

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    BUT AKZIDENZ GROTESK

  • AnonymouS

    It’s a Mincho font. idk which one. MS P明朝 Bold is pretty close though. It’s one of the built in Japanese fonts for Windows so you should have it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    The real question is, what is the Papyrus and Jokerman of Japanese fonts?

  • meebles

    Am I one of the few people that still likes Courior?
    And use Ubuntu Mono as my modern font?

    Anyone else?

    No?
    Okay….-goes and sits in my corner-

  • boogaloo

    There’s a font making app in the app store you could get for like $6.

  • Guin Oyaji

    Yeah it is pretty close. But i don’t think thats it. The font in the series is a lilttle fatter.

  • Kiriain

    Times New Roman 4 lyfe yo.

  • x_stei

    OMG AKZIDENZ GROTESK!!!

  • ジョサイア

    @hatsuhazama:disqus

    @TofuguHashi:disqus
    @facebook-551181750:disqus
    Anyone who does not recognized Steve jobs needs to: 1 get slapped in the face for stupidity. 2 get there mac taken away(Although they wont have one if they have long beards and like control). 3…Get one of those annoying eye sight tests…You may go now….I’m done….*Gets off soap box and walks away*

  • ジョサイア

    *Slowly raises hand*
    I’m using Ubuntu mono right now… :D

  • ジョサイア

    Need I say more…

  • ジョサイア

    That’s why I just use the default font that I have for each language on my computer. :D

    Like for example :b

  • ジョサイア

    No No, All you need is a Buddhist monk(Just wait for Koichi to become enlightened), A drawing program(and digital pen), And some knowledge of Unicode. :/
    (P.s. Just kidding if you did make a font like that it would be off the charts ugly)

  • lychalis

    Am I alone in taking preference to handwriting?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    If I can’t use Papyrus, how else are people going to know what I’m writing about is ~exotic~?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/blinking.bleeping David Mulligan

    Another real question is what is the COMIC SANS of Japanese fonts?

  • coldcaption

    How do they make kanji fonts, anyway? I assume there has to be some autonomity (made that word up) so they don’t have to handmake every character that has ever existed.

  • drayomi

    Nope. You are not alone. :D

  • Codeacula

    You say you use Merriweather, but we all know Helvetica is your backup.

    Just like you keep your perfectly circular glasses tucked away in your closet.

  • http://corebasis.com/ Henning von Vogelsang

    Erik Spiekerman hates Helvetica. Not so much the font, but the fact that it is omnipresent. He was ranting all about it back in the nineties, when he was promoting his own fonts, Officina and Meta, which share the same language of shapes. To my understanding, Meta was created as the “improved version” of Officina.

  • David

    Yeh thanks for that. yawn

  • http://whois.arunsunner.tk/ Arun Sunner

    Looks like the font on the PSP.