handwritten "POP" characters in front of Japanese drug store.

Japanese font workshop#2: Handwritten Japanese fonts

I watched some Japanese movie the other day. It was a slapstick comedy set in this big prestigious hotel. Visitors and workers kept running around and …. No- hang on! I am not going to talk about this movie! Just about that one thing which really surprised me when I watched it. Since it was set in a hotel, many of the characters were hotel staff, so they had the guy from the service desk, concierge desk, housekeeping staff, a manager and a professional calligrapher (called Hikkou in Japanese)!? The Hikkou is in charge of the all handwritten materials such as banners for a party, wedding cards, the direction board for an event and so on. Wow, I didn’t know that such a profession exists!

written by Kyoko & Uleshka


One example of Hikkou’s work. Writing address for invitation cards.

Another example. These ribbons are often used at award ceremony. Name and appointment are written.

This made me very curious so I did some research on this profession afterwards. I found out that besides the Hikkou in hotels, there are many individuals and companies who specialized in this kind of handwriting service. It is still common to get handwritten graduate certificates and testimonials in Japan and someone has to take care of that. Wedding invitation cards also seem to be a big business. Since everything “feels so digital” nowadays, I am amazed about the number of different Hikkou-services I could find. It seems like there are enough people who consider it to be more apropriate to go for unique handwriting – especially at big occasions like traditional celebrations or some religious rites – as opposed to reproducable, “cheap” computer text.

hand written testimonial

The free choice of rare, beautiful, exclusive Japanese paper might contribute to this hand-written trend (since those kind of papers would probably cause a print problem). Besides that, many people simply consider handwriting to be warmer.

But I can also think of another abvious reason why handwriting is still popular in Japan: because of the Japanese writing system.

At the end of the 16th century technology of typographical composition was introduced to Japan from Europe and Korea. However those common ways of printing didn’t really get popular in Japan at that time. Since the Japanese writing system consists of Katakana and Hiragana – which makes over a 100 characters already, there are vast amounts of Kanji – which adds up to several thousands of characters. Now I would call this pretty disencouraging when trying to make a piece of type for all the characters!

Besides – around that time, Hiragana was written in “running hands”, which means that those seperate characters melted to one long flow of writing and people felt weird to uncouple them. So how did the Japanese print their books etc. then? They kept curving sheets of wood to create the printing plates for another 250 years!

hiragana in running hands. Japanese traditionally write words from top to bottom

Obviously typesetting and Japanese didn’t get along very well…

Changing the writing direction from up -> down to left -> right is one of the reasons this one long writing flow changed to seperate characters. Besides the digital fonts of today ended the whole Japanese typesetting problem altogether.

However the Kanji problem still exists. The characters didn’t really reduce in numbers, so when designing a Japanese type face, font designers still have to create thousands and thousands of characters. Of course people tried to solve that with software. Since Kanji are often based on repetitive elements called Radicals – some font software takes one radical a designer defined before and combines it with other radical to create a “new” Kanji. However, the balance of these computer generated designs is mostly pretty terrible, so if you want to do it right, you still have to sit down and look at every little Kanji and correct, correct, correct….

In case you didn’t know that by now, that is the reason, why there just aren’t that many nice Japanese fonts and that’s why there are still so many hand-written characters to be found when walking in the streets of Japan.

Here is where I’d like to share some of the examples I found in the past few days – just for you.

POP characters with ham and sausage

Did you ever pay attention to those flashy handwritten characters in front of a Japanese supermarket? These characters are called POP characters. I always imagined that POP comes from “popular” or something, since they are colorful and cute. But I just found out that POP stands for “Point of Purchase” – advertising, meaning that these characters are promotional tools to make people buy stuff!

Lately many stores started using software to create POP characters. But I have to say that handwritten POP stands out more – in positive and negative ways. (Sometimes they use their POP to such an extend, that it makes me want to leave the store!)

Surprisingly, there are several correspondence courses of POP – “art”. In their course descriptons they say something like: “Would like to earn money from home? Learn how to draw POP characters!” Hmm, does that sound promising?


very common POP art at drug store. colorful and kitsch

another POP art at pet shop. Often accompanied with illustration

You often come across some beautiful signs or menues written with a calligraphy-brush, too! (Especially at Japanese restaurants and Izakayas (Japanese style bars). Just take one walk through a street in Shibuya and you will find countless calligraphy examples.

sushi restaurant. Japanese restaurants often use calligraphy-brush signs

Just as with POP characters, calligraphy font software becomes popular. Try to find out, if you can tell the difference.

I was quite surprised to find this handwritten shop-sign – one of these plastic glowing lights you place in front of your business. I don’t know why, but this plastic texture and the light lead me to believe, that the typography should also be plastic and printed, or at least some sort of a sticker… The idea that someone actually draws on it with a real brush is something which I thought to have vanished ages ago.


handwritten poster for town fair. Warm and welcoming

handwritten shop-sign – one of these plastic glowing lights
another calligraphy-brush sign. This one is for apartment

And now look at these: hand carved signs!

greengrocer’s sign
Curry restaurant. this might not be a hand written typeface.. but hey, it is still nice.

If you now think, that everyone is a real calligraphy champion in Japan you are unfortunately wrong! It is becoming quite a big issue in Japan lately, that many children cannot write words or read handwritten letters since they are so different from what they are used to: the computer. Who knows!? Maybe these lovely handwritten signs will all be replaced before long.

  • http://www.yussefcole.com Yussef Cole

    Double true on that last paragraph. When I visited a couple years back everyone was using txt messaging. You never have to draw a single line! Sad.

  • http://www.acapulcoweb.com Eriksen

    I never thought in Japan the artesanal way to write signs and posters was so common.

  • http://www.aaronroselo.com/blog aaron

    now if everyone here in the Philippines would be as creative as the Japanese people, the world would be a more aesthetically pleasing place. lol

  • http://www.jamesbowskill.com James

    The other day I was waiting in the subway (Roppongi Itchome I think) when I noticed a huge hand-drawn (and crayon-coloured!) map of the surrounding area instead of the usual computer-created version. It must have taken ages to draw it all, and looking at it made me start to imagine what the person was like, and what they knew about the places they were drawing… perhaps they were thinking “and here’s my favourite cafe, and that’s where I had lunch yesterday…” It was a bit of a heartwarming moment in the middle of a typical Tokyo day.

  • http://www.ianlynam.com Ian

    Really cool article. I am always drawn to the numerals and layout that smaller supermarkets and Don Quixote branches have on display in Tokyo- theys are suprisingly similar to the zippy numerals that American signpainters have used for generations in American supermarkets. The American signpainters would whip out a hundred or two hundred showcards with the week’s sale items, and the numerals and layout are similar to the POP signs that you have shown here. American type designer John Downer has been collecting these showcards (and the accompanying paper banners that signpainters would create) for years. He is currently working with type foundry House Industries to publish a book of his collection. I mention this all because I am really curious about the cross-cultural pollenation- I would be interested in how the shared aesthetic occurred. This kind of signpainting is dead in most supermarkets in the U.S. except for MexicanAmerican supermarkets who still employ signpainters to showcase their weekly specials. The only digital vestige of the signpainting tradition in use in the U.S. that I have seen is in the Ralph’s chain of supermarkets in Southern California- they made a series of fonts from signpainters’ characters and use a semi-traditional layout.

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  • Pat

    I don’t have any example photos but I notice that every ‘French country style’ restaurant in Tokyo uses the same kind of calligraphy in their menus. It’s similar to the izakaya sign above, with some differences. I’ve always wondered why they settled on that particular style; it doesn’t look particularly ‘French’ to me!

    On a tangential note:
    Are you familiar with Merissa Walker’s clever “English shodo”?
    Fascinated with Japanese calligraphy (shodo), she was surprised to find that it is mutually illegible to (most) Japanese and foreigners alike. “What the hell–may as well do English shodo!”
    http://home.swiftdsl.com.au/~inkslinger/masters.htm
    Take a look at the “Original Art” section too!

  • http://saladamixta.com Yorch

    In México is common find Handwritters named Rotulistas, and you can find some Rotulos some used to riots in the city. Is not exactly a professional calligraphy, but there’s a few Rotulos made with brushes and they looks so good. Something common is – Arial Bold is so much used, so popular.

  • http://www.thebrownbagstudio.com nukie

    Interesting article! I suppose having handwritten types or signages is more personalised in a way. Its also adds character and mood to the material be it a POP or restuarant signages. The different written types sets the tone of the materials… friendly, warm, formal, authentic etc. I love the different japanese restuarants’ cloth signages…they are usually very interesting!

  • http://www.dreamingforest.ca Sara

    I love the way POP characters look in Japanese. It’s bold and fun looking. I wasn’t aware that they do alot of it by hand even at the stores, that’s interesting!

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    That typography is beautiful! I really like the ‘poppy’ style fonts – they look so nice!!!

  • http://inkslingerart.com merissa

    Hi All, great article. Someone called pat pinged a mention of my work, but the web address is actually inkslingerart.com lots of alphabet shodou there, go to the chinese masters page and compare styles, cheers from merissa in sydney

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  • anon

    its funny that someone mentioned Don Quixote stores in the comments above…wasnt that the theme of feel-good song in the movie mentioned at top of the article?!

  • aarthans

    really interesting article. i am currently taking shoudo lessons from a Hikkou and mind you, TORTURE. that last paragraph’s really true. young people who cant write and read kanji cause of computers and even worse, cellphones. i really hope kanji and calligraphy won’t be replaced.

  • Ayon

    Whats the name of the font on the curry restraunt?

  • http://www.calmiva.web.tr calmiva

    Hi All, great article. Someone called pat pinged a mention of my work, but the web address is actually inkslingerart.com lots of alphabet shodou there, go to the chinese masters page and compare styles, cheers from merissa in sydney

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