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One aspect that contributes to the very high legibility of the Latin alphabet is that the letters have ascenders and descenders which creates a characteristic silhouette for different words. This way, a word can even be read when the top or bottom 50% is cut away. Additionally, it speeds up the reading.

Demonstration of the variable height

In Japanese, all characters have the same height and no ascenders or descenders. Sometimes, Kanji are set bigger than Kana which improves legibility. But writing kana with ascenders and descenders is uncommon.

I saw it written that way on a beer ad in the Tokio metro, ハ was as big as x, some characters were descending like p and some ascending like h. I unfortunately do not have a photo of it and forgot which characters were higher and which ones lower.

Is there a preferred way of setting the kana like this? Which kana should be x high, which ones cap high and which ones descending and which ones ascending?

"That concept doesn't exist in Japanese". But it is being used and does improve legibility. We don't have to do something the way we always did.

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While if there were a "Typography Stack Exchange" this would probably be better there, I personally think JLSE might be the best option to actually get it answered. –  Darius Jahandarie Apr 20 at 0:01
    
You could also perhaps try asking on Graphic Design, though I don't think this is necessarily off-topic here. –  senshin Apr 20 at 0:12
    
I don't know enough about the topic to write this as an answer but somewhere I read that kana are heighted to 80% of the kanji height for the same font. –  virmaior Apr 20 at 6:27
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@virmaior We have a related question which touches on that subject. –  snailboat Apr 20 at 11:25
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This is highly non-standard, so how could there be a "preferred way" of doing it? At any rate, legibility is a matter of acclimatisation – if you start doing funny things, you can be sure that someone is going to say it's less legible! –  Zhen Lin Apr 21 at 21:55

2 Answers 2

As I was randomly browsing through Remembering the Kanji Volume 3, I found what I was looking for.

The kana in this book are set in a font in which the height difference between smaller kana like ロ or ハ and larger kana like イ or さ is more accentuated. Additionally, in katakana, there seems to be a baseline and median line running through the characters such that smaller katakana are x high and larger kana having ascenders and descenders. The start and end of the strokes also seem to be following those two lines. It's less pronounced in hiragana though where the first stroke of い is starting slightly above the median line and its hane going slightly below the baseline.

50% of kanji for small kana

Compared to a font in which the the differences are not as pronounced, it looks like this. Both the baseline and median line are followed only loosely. While in the above font, the first stroke of イ ends on the baseline, it's not the case here. In the above font, the hook of さ starts exactly at the baseline, here, the baseline is ignored.

60% of kanji for small kana

Thus, the proportions are as follows:

  • In both fonts, kana are vertically centered.
  • In the font on the top (where the height differences are more pronounced), large kana are roughly at 95% the size of kanji and small kana at 50%.
  • In the font on the bottom (where the baseline or median line is not closely followed), large kana are at 90% the size of kanji and small kana at 60%.
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Part of the reason why kanji are often written larger than kana is because it improves their legibility due to their more complex nature.

As a matter of what is considered standard, all characters in Japanese are intended to occupy a box of a set, uniform size. That said, kana have a bit more room for variation when you get into handwriting, especially if you get into 書道【しょどう】 and/or 縦書き【たてがき】. Due to the free-flowing nature of Japanese calligraphy, kana have a tendency to become elongated—し can extend to look like a long, slightly curving line without any hook whatsoever, while the end of の can trail off for a while, doubling its height. This also carries over into signage to an extent, especially where a calligraphic feel is desired.

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