In The Global Soul: Pico Iyer, (disclaimer: the depiction of Japan may be offensive) Iyer says:

Rather perversely I live in Japan, which, as you know, is the most alien science fiction place on earth for those of us from other countries.

When you get there they read from right to left and back to front.

So far, I've only experienced horizontal writing being from left to right. I've heard that vertical writing is top to bottom, and the next column is on your left, though I've never tried reading any vertical text with more than one column.

Wikipedia states that when there's only one row of text, writing in columns consisting of a single letter can result in text going from right to left.

Are there any other cases where Japanese reads from right to left?


3 Answers 3


Your Wikipedia knowledge is correct - vertical Japanese is top-to-bottom, right-to-left; and historically (i.e. pre-WWII), horizontal text was treated as a single row of vertical text. This meant that since you start on the right when reading vertically, you started on the right here as well. Most of the time this was restricted to places where text didn't really fit well vertically (e.g. over/under images). Since WWII this usage has been replaced with writing horizontal text the same way Western languages write horizontal text, i.e. left to right (because, unlike with scripts like Arabic, you don't have to modify the actual letters in any way).

As a result, with extremely few examples, any example of right-to-left horizontal text you'll see in modern Japan is either historical or historically-flavoured (or period-correct, if it appears within fiction). You'll see it if you look at images from prewar Japan, though (a good example might be propaganda posters).

Japanese is not the only language that has done this, pretty much any writing system derived from Chinese did the same thing (for example, a good deal of Chinese temples have signs across the entrance written right-to-left).

  • 1
    Historically, there are examples of R-to-L text that are clearly not a special case of vertical text, e.g. this image, which contains both L-to-R and R-to-L. The explanation I remember reading is that both L-to-R and R-to-L appeared around the same time, but R-to-L never became popular. I think the evidence against the "single row 縦書き" interpretation includes text in multiple rows, typesetting of small characters such as 読点, and the long vowel marker being horizontal rather than vertical.
    – user1478
    Oct 10, 2013 at 23:33
  • I guess it doesn't have to be the case, then, that it's still considered one-row tategaki; but it may have been extended (and modified) from one-row tategaki. I find it interesting that the only L-to-R in that image is directly above a Roman-letter transcription/translation of the Japanese text, though.
    – Sjiveru
    Oct 10, 2013 at 23:38
  • I never knew this. I was actually wondering about this because there was a sign written R-to-L in a manga I was reading (in Japanese) the other day. Jul 25, 2017 at 12:27

Yes - in the past it was quite usual to see labels written from right to left

eg (if remember correctly):



enter image description here


enter image description here

(The upper image from: http://p.twipple.jp/zAedi; the lower from: http://portal.nifty.com/cs/mitaiwa/detail/100607127809/1.htm)

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