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Written Japanese ordinarily doesn't use any spaces to separate words. But Japanese children's books do.

For example, the opening of Tomi Ungerer's The Three Robbers (すてきな 三にんぐみ)

あらわれでたのは、

くろマントに、 くろい ぼうしの さんにんぐみ。

それはそれは こわーい、 どろぼうさまの おでかけだ。

Are there general rules by which spaces would be inserted? (For example, always after particles, always at "word boundaries" (suitably defined).) Or do editors/authors just insert spaces at "natural" reading pauses? (Natural for small children at least.)

For example, in the same book きがついた is written without spaces (which would be fine if the rule were "no spaces in phrases which are a unit"), but then だれも かれも is written with space, but I think of the phrase as a unit.

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There's a quick way to know this. The place where a space can be inserted is roughly the same place where ね can be naturally inserted.

あらわれでたのは
くろマントに、くろい、ぼうしの、さんにんぐみ。
それはそれは、こわーい、どろぼうさまの、おでかけだ。

Actually this structure is known as 文節. Basically, a 文節 starts with a noun/adjective/verb/adverb/etc, optionally followed by one or more subsidiary verbs and particles.

Inserting spaces between all words (i.e. あらわれ で た の は) is overkill in most cases.

But this rule is not strict, and you will find a lot of exceptions in children's books and old video games. Don't worry too much.

  • 2
    I love this answer. One correction in my question: I missed a space in くろい | ぼうし, so you might have to adjust your answer. Sorry about that! One question, too: Would you really consider だれも かれも as a natural insertion of ね's? – Earthliŋ Aug 24 '15 at 21:50
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    I think だれもかれも wouldn't make sense if split like だれもねかれもね. But it's still two words, and very few people would care if there's a space or not. – naruto Aug 24 '15 at 22:05
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This practice is known as 分{わ}かち書{が}き. As you said, it's not really used in normal written Japanese. Spaces, however, are used in texts that are mostly kana based, such as those for kids or for foreigners new to the language. Its purpose is to separate words and to help avoid confusion. Wikipedia gives the example of:

こうしまるやさいいち

being interpretable as either 講師丸谷才一 or こう閉まる野菜市. If there were spaces, the writer could clearly indicate as to which one of those the sentence actually means.

Now as to what the rules are for how to use these spaces, this website appears to be dedicated to children's book writers and says some things about it. It notes that the ways to do 分{わ}かち書{が}き include by [文節]{ぶんせつ} (phrase) or by [単語]{たんご} (word). However, it mostly seems to be case dependent.

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Because it's just kana it would be easy to get confused and join together words improperly (foreign learners can certainly attest to this). Although it's a different language with different rules, as a general rule of language processing, providing visual separation enhances readability until such point that the learner can move on to kanji and/or quickly separate words.

Note that this same style — words separated by spaces but conjoined with their particles — is present in proper Korean writing. For instance, the place marker で in Japanese equates with 에 in Korean. In Korean this is more important because in common use the entire language is written using the alphabet (hangul), whereas everyone in Japan is expected to use kanji.

Is it proper? No. Does it aid learning in the short term? Yes.

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