As you learn Japanese, whether online or in a classroom, you may or may not hear about the importance of handwriting in the Japanese language.
In English, handwriting isn’t really something we think about. Of course, everyone has different handwriting, and it can be a mark of our individualism. But whether you have messy or neat handwriting, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, messy handwriting can be a bit of a pain, but we don’t think any less of the person. I mean, come on. Aren’t doctors notorious for having terrible handwriting?
But in Japan, your handwriting can make a big impression. Here are some reasons you should strive to have neat handwriting and some tips to help you get there.
Why is it important?
Good handwriting is a mark of education and professionalism.
This is probably the biggest reason you are going to want to have nice handwriting. In Japan, especially in professional situations, sometimes your handwriting is the first impression people get of you. A lot of job applications are still expected to be done handwritten, and if your writing is bad, they might just toss you out without considering you at all. If you write like a small child, that’s probably not going to be the impression you want to give.
Obviously, these people will understand you are a foreigner as soon as they hear your name or see your face. They won’t expect you to be able to write well. So if you show up and actually can write, don’t you think that would leave a really good impression?
Handwriting is also a mark of a good education. People will think more highly of you if you write well. It shows that you really care about the language you are learning, which is another really good impression you can make as a foreigner.
People can’t read messy handwriting.
I had this experience in Japan once where I was supposed to read handwritten records. Most people would keep records in English or Romaji, which made them pretty easy to read. But there was this one guy (yes, he was American) who decided his Japanese handwriting was so amazing, he wrote everything in characters. It was terrible. His handwriting was absolutely atrocious, and no one could understand what he was writing. We took the record to our other American colleagues, and they had no idea. We ended up taking them to several of our Japanese colleagues, and even they could not determine what this guy was trying to write. Eventually we had to scrap all of his records and start new ones, missing all the information he failed to give us through his terrible handwriting.
Don’t be like that guy.
In English, it’s a bit easier to determine what people with messy handwriting are trying to write because there’s only 26 possibilities for what that squiggle could be. In Japanese, it could be one of literally thousands of squiggles. Thousands. There’s no way you’re going to be able to guess that.
You may be thinking, “But what about all that old calligraphy that just looks like squiggles?” Trust me. I can read that stuff. There is a method to every little squiggle in Japanese calligraphy. Don’t use “style” or your “artistic nature” as an excuse for poor handwriting. If no one can read what you are writing, there’s really no point to it, right? Of course, it’s alright to develop your own style and handwriting. No two people are going to have the same handwriting, just as it is in English. But it’s really important for you to understand how the characters work well enough to make your handwriting legible.
Computers are killing handwriting (making it even more impressive).
Your next thought may be, “What’s the point of learning how to write when I can just type anyways?” Just like handwriting in English, handwriting in Japanese is kind of a dying art. I distinctly remember one of my middle aged Japanese friends having to pull out his phone and look up characters because he was struggling to write a single sentence. It’s not that he didn’t know the characters, it’s that he always typed.
In this digital world, we need pens and pencils less and less. As long as you know how a character is pronounced, your phone will offer the correct characters to you as a suggestion. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how to write. Writing will help you learn characters a lot better. It’s a big step to go from recognizing a character to being able to pull it out of the air and write it. Being able to do that can significantly improve your Japanese.
It can also be very impressive. Japanese people know their language is very difficult for English speakers to learn. Finding a foreigner who is able to write well in Japanese is pretty rare, so have a goal to be that foreigner!
You probably will write in Japanese.
With all these computers and phones people carry around with them, you might think you will never even need to hand write anything in Japanese. But you’re probably going to be wrong.
Obviously, if you are taking Japanese classes, your teachers will have you practice handwriting (at least I hope they do). As you study, you will find yourself writing notes in Japanese characters. Writing notes in a language you are learning is a good way to get used to using the language on a daily basis, especially if you are not in an immersive environment.
When you go to Japan, there’s this interesting culture of giving notes with gifts. I can’t tell you how many times I wrote short letters and notes to friends in Japanese just because that’s part of giving people gifts (also, gift-giving culture is huge in Japan, so be expecting that). You can get all sorts of adorable stationary and cards to include with gifts to your friends, or even just to use to write letters.
You can’t avoid writing by hand forever in Japan. It’s going to come up sometime, whether it’s in one of those handwritten job applications or just a quick note to a friend. Don’t ignore an entire aspect of language learning by not learning how to write.
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How to Write Pretty
Pretend each character is in a box.
This is the easiest way to think of all Japanese characters, whether they are kana or kanji. If you get Japanese writing practice paper (known as genkouyoushi 原稿用紙), you’ll notice that instead of lined paper like we have, it’s a bunch of boxes.
Each character needs to be “balanced.” This means it takes up the space in the box in an aesthetically pleasing way. It doesn’t lean too far to one side, and the sizes of each character are relatively similar. If you’re wanting to practice writing, you can pick up a book of this paper (or just print some off from the internet).
Learn the stroke order.
This might be one of the most important things to pay attention to when learning how to write in Japanese. To go back to my comment earlier about calligraphy having a specific method, stroke order is that method. Your handwriting is allowed to be a little messy if (and only if) you follow the stroke order. If you mess up the stroke order, it becomes a lot harder for people to read the character. Sometimes, it even makes it impossible.
There are a lot of really good electronic dictionaries out there that can give you the stroke order of every character. As you learn more characters, you’ll get used to typical patterns with stroke order, and you’ll get to a point where you can guess the stroke order for a lot of characters. Of course, there’s always weird ones, but it’s easy to remember the exceptions when you have the basics down. Generally, strokes will go from the top left of the box to the bottom right.
Look up tutorials.
Remember how we live in a digital world? Use that to your advantage when learning how to write! There are all sorts of tutorials online for how to write pretty characters. It’s not cheating to use these tutorials to improve your handwriting. You can even find a lot of different styles, which can help if you want to have your own distinct handwriting while still having neat and legible handwriting.
Write a lot.
Practice is a huge part of language learning, especially with writing. You aren’t going to be perfect when you start, so make sure you write a lot. Writing notes to yourself in Japanese is a great way to get some practice in. If you keep a journal, try writing a couple sentences in Japanese each day. As you learn new characters, practice using them in sentences, whether on some fancy box paper or just in the margin of your notebook. You aren’t going to improve your writing unless you actually write.
Have a Japanese person critique you.
This is by far the scariest suggestion I have to improve your writing. There’s a couple things to account for if this is something you want to do.
First of all, you need to find a Japanese person who will actually critique you. Some Japanese people are afraid of giving genuine feedback because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Find a Japanese friend or teacher who you know would be willing to look at your handwriting and straight up tell you that it sucks.
Second, don’t be offended. This is not your native language. It’s okay that your handwriting is not great. If you go to a friend asking for them to tell you what’s wrong with your writing, you can’t blame them when they tell you. It’s hard for a native English speaker to see what makes a character balanced, especially when they are still learning Japanese, so trust the judgement of your Japanese friend. For the longest time, all of my friends learning Japanese told me I had the worst looking えs. Then I asked a Japanese friend to critique my writing, and he said my え was the best he had seen a foreigner write (my お was pretty much the worst, but that’s another story).
Third, accept their advice and work to improve. There’s no point getting feedback if you don’t do anything with it. When I heard how terrible my お looked, I started working really hard to make it pretty. It still kind of sucks, but it’s definitely a lot better than when I received that feedback.
Your friends and teachers want you to succeed with your Japanese language learning. Take advantage of their native intuition to help you be the best you can be.
History Aside—How Handwriting Led to Kawaii Culture
Just as a little historical fun fact, handwriting is actually what started Kawaii Culture in Japan. Kawaii Culture is the scholarly (yes, scholarly) term to describe the fact that everything is super cute in Japan. From bags to notebooks to furniture to cleaning supplies, you can literally get anything in Japan and have it be cute. Even traffic barriers and buses are adorable.
Basically, in the 70s a bunch of young people (mostly girls) decided they wanted to start writing with really loopy letters. This is like that trend in middle school when we were all trying to figure out who we were and 90% of the girls wrote using the same style of handwriting. Except this style got really popular. Eventually, it went past handwriting and became an entire culture of people (mostly girls) acting, dressing, and speaking in “cute” ways. Then it got into the products that people bought, and now you can get tofu with Doraemon on it.
There’s all sorts of scholarly (yes, seriously, scholarly) articles and books on this topic, and it all starting because of some handwriting!
The main thing you should have learned from all of this is that handwriting is much more important in Japanese than it is in English. If you work hard to write well, it will definitely improve your language skills, and Japanese people will be really impressed, I promise.
Everyone learns differently, so make sure you develop a good way for you to learn how to write neatly in Japanese. There’s a ton of resources out there for you.
Besides, then you can impress all your friends who don’t speak Japanese when you whip out some sweet sentences in your beautiful handwriting.