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I was driving the other day and say a truck with 一般 written as 般一 on the drivers side door. My wife was telling me that this is often the case with trucks, where it is actually written from right to left in 縦 style, as if there was only 1 row. Just was wondering if there was a particular reason for it or if this is limited to just trucks or can this be found elsewhere.

Of note, it was NOT written flipped so as to be seen correctly when looked at through a mirror like ambulances and such in the U.S.

Note: This question is on the border in terms of being off-topic, but since it is referring to language use within Japanese culture, I felt it was appropriate to ask.

Examples of text
http://septieme-ciel.air-nifty.com/nikubanare/2005/09/post_5b58.html

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I think that it is more reasonable to interpret the situation as “the letters are written so that they can be read from front to rear.” By the way, it is uncommon to flip letters as if they are in the mirror. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 31 '11 at 5:05
    
The Dave's fifth paragraph and Tsuyoshi's comment really brought it home for me, especially after looking at some example pictures. –  Louis Oct 31 '11 at 6:47
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To make a long point short (and in agreement with most of what's below): some words are sometimes written right-to-left because it is implied that they are written vertically (with one character per line). This is not the prerogative of trucks: I have seen it on many occasions in store names etc. –  Dave Oct 31 '11 at 9:26
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@Dave No offense, but your summary ignores the two key points covered in the answers here: first, as Tsuyoshi's comment explains, there's a reason for using this kind of writing on one side of a vehicle; it's not just "sometimes that happens", it's not to imply vertical writing, and it's not just for historical/period-atmosphere reasons (which it usually is on storefronts, books, etc.) Second, I hate to be a pedant about this, but right-to-left writing in general isn't just a special case of vertical writing (this issue is covered in detail in the book "横書き登場"). –  Matt Oct 31 '11 at 14:14
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You stated “Of note, it was written flipped so as to be seen correctly when looked at through a mirror like ambulances and such in the U.S.” but as I stated in a comment, that is very rare. None of the examples on the page you linked to shows mirrored letters. No offense, but is it really what you saw? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Nov 2 '11 at 2:25

5 Answers 5

Matt's answer is right enough, and Axioplases's description does have historical accuracy, but I felt differently enough to propose another answer.

First, here is the truck in question, with the words カンガルー便 written on the side, "backwards".

ooragnak

Note, though, that the text for the parent company, Seino, is the "right" way round, presumeably because it's in romaji, which is not as flexible as Japanese kanji and kana in terms of direction. If this were simply a matter of viewing the car in a "front is top" concept, then why not also include the romaji? It's only the Japanese text that is flexible enough about direction.

How flexible is Japanese in terms of direction? A little. The root of the issue lies in the fact that Japanese text is traditionally written vertically. The choice to go left or right when writing horizontally is, or was, therefor somewhat arbitrary. Back in the day, one would have come across writing right to left more than today, as in this old train sign:

kyoto sign

Or how the car brand "Ford" is written ドーォフ (or ドーオフ) on this Taishō era building:

taisho era Ford factory

Or in this awesome political map:

political map

Note in all these pictures that the romaji offered goes left-to-right, but both kanji and kana are right-to-left.

Why do these historical examples matter? Because it's evidence that there is a cultural basis for accepting text right-to-left that makes the truck sign possible in Japanese culture.

What I'm driving at is the contrast with English culture where the direction of text is 100% locked in to be left to right. If a hypothetical delivery company in an English country wrote "Yreviled Ooragnak" on the side of their trucks, because they wanted to follow a "front is top" logic, or any other rational, no one would have any doubt they were doing something wrong. The horizontal direction in English is non-negotiable, with the only exception being deliberabe subversion of the norm in some kind of artistic context.

Of course, the massive exposure to English text has influenced textual presentation in Japan, to the point where you don't see this much anymore. But it's not a rule that writing must go left to right, and some people will still go right to left, like this racist jerk here, who probably did it precisely because he doesn't want to play by the west's rules (Just so its clear, although the text direction supports my point, the content of this jerk's sign is unredeemable, and I strongly oppose the sentiment):

racist jerk's sign

So the "backward" phenomena is not just about vehicles or flags, or a front-as-top logic. Japanese text, insofar as it has escaped English cultural hegemony, can be flexible about which horizontal direction it goes in. Why exactly Seino opted to go right-to-left on the right side of their trucks, I'm not sure, I just know that the option to do so existed for them because the language permits it in a general sense.

Maybe right-to-left writing will die out, as it does seem to be the exception these days. Or maybe not. Consider this nostalgic retro-branding of a biscuit box, made available in 2014, preserving the right-to-left writing, for the Japanese text only, to give an old-timey feel. Maybe one day a retro trend will spark a revival...

biscuits

What I'm pretty sure you won't see, though, is bottom-to-top. The text direction is not that flexible.

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you make a good point about how Japanese may not pay attention at all to the direction text is written... –  Mark Hosang Oct 31 '11 at 7:23
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Dave, I admire your dedication to investigating this issue, but your conclusions are over the top. It is possible to write R-to-L in Japanese, but it is an exaggeration to say that the choice between R-to-L and L-to-R is arbitrary (at least in 2011). L-to-R is the default and R-to-L is only used for a special reason. Often that reason is just "Old-timey look desired." But in the case of trucks, it is "To write from front of vehicle to back." (The English in your photo isn't a counterargument -- there are lots of reasons why that might not be reversed, #1 being "It's English, not Japanese".) –  Matt Nov 7 '11 at 2:16
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I'm afraid I still disagree. There is no scope for individual choice on this issue in 2011. Right-to-left writing is only used for specific reasons, like "It's the starboard side of a vehicle" or "I want an old-timey effect". It's not just one truck designer's whimsy at work here. (But I will grant you that the reason that right-to-left for no technical reason gives an "old-timey" effect is because it evokes the time when the choice was freer, or even in favor of right-to-left, as you say.) –  Matt Nov 7 '11 at 14:56
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Re the sign, my bad. If it is actually old, though, then it is not relevant to a discussion of what is normal in the present day. [BTW, the きやうと thing is "Historical kana orthography" (歴史的仮名遣) for きょうと.] –  Matt Nov 7 '11 at 15:03
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Okay, thanks for the replies. Clearly we will have to agree to disagree on the best way to answer questions like this. –  Matt Nov 8 '11 at 4:09

On trucks and other vehicles I've mostly seen it written "backwards" on one side and in the more common direction on the other side.

But to me the much more usual place to see such "backwards" writing is on the traditional signs on traditional gates such as are or were part of castles, city walls, etc.

(I quote backwards because one way of looking at Japanese writing is that it doesn't have a correct direction, just a more common one, with the other also being used.)

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It think it is to make it easier to read off a running car. When a person staying still at a side of a road watches a car passing by, it is easier to read if the letters run from the front of the car to the rear because the letters will flow through the eyes of the person in the correct order. That is why you see this more often with trucks that have longer body and longer message rather than with shorter cars. If the characters were to be written left right on the right side of a truck, a reader has to skim thourgh the characters (moving their head) faster than the speed of the truck.

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There are two different issues to consider here.

The first is right-to-left horizontal writing as explained by Axioplase. (Note: Sometimes this is considered a special case of vertical writing, with columns of height one as your wife suggested. This is not necessarily the case. For example, the ー (choonpu) is always written horizontally rather than vertically in these situations, which would indicate that the writing is indeed "horizontal". But that's a side issue.)

But I don't think that this is what you saw. [edit: I overstated this point. Right-to-left writing is obviously what you saw, but my point is that there is a reason for the right-to-left writing in this point, and it isn't just "sometimes Japanese is written that way."] I think you saw a similar but different phenomenon. I don't know the right phrase to google up a detailed explanation, but think of the way that most flags have an obverse side (that we all recognize) and a reverse side which is the mirror image of the obverse side (so that the design nearest the flagpole stays nearest the flagpole even when the flag is viewed from behind). The same principle is often applied to writing on Japanese vehicles.

So, viewed from the left (passenger's side), it says 一般. The 一 is nearest the front bumper, the 般 is further towards the back bumper. If you want to maintain this state on the driver's side, you have to put the 一 on the right. So you get 般一. I bet that if you had gotten a look at the passenger's side of that truck, it would have said 一般 in regular order.

Put more simply, don't think of it in terms of "writing from left to right" vs "right to left". Think of it as "writing from front of vehicle to back of vehicle."

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i have to go hunting for a truck now to see if i can find this... –  Mark Hosang Oct 31 '11 at 7:21
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@MarkHosang: I've added an example in my answer. –  Dave M G Oct 31 '11 at 15:43
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般一 is not the symmetrical of 一般 though. So sawa's "side viewer" theory would fit better than the mirror theory. –  Nicolas Raoul Nov 7 '11 at 7:47
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@NicolasRaoul The confusion is my fault for bringing up the flag thing, but I'm not espousing a strict mirror theory -- just a character order theory. (Put another way, the order is mirrored, the characters are not.) Sawa and I both agree on what is happening, but Sawa is also offering an explanation as to why. –  Matt Nov 7 '11 at 8:20
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"But that's a side issue." <-- I see what you did there! –  Kaji Apr 14 at 5:05

For ambulances in police cars, I thinks it's often written in mirror on the front of the vehicle.

For the side of the trucks, yes, this is quite common. It can also be found on the billboard of restaurants, and on reprints of old beer posters.

This has a name: 右横書き. It was used before WWII, when horizontal writing was applied to Japan during Meiji, but never really made it outside the corner cases I just cited: left-to-right had more success.

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