In English, it is considered a best practice to emphasize differences between the names of medications that are fairly similar, so as to minimize the risk that a medical practitioner will misread the name of one medication as another medication, thereby potentially causing a harmful or fatal medication error.

The preferred way of doing this is via so-called "tall man lettering", in which one capitalizes the section of the name that is distinguishing. For example, the drugs "hydralazine" and "hydroxyzine" are typically typeset as "hydrALAzine" and "hydrOXYzine" in medical contexts. (Other methods of sub-word emphasis, like boldface or use of a different font, are not preferred, since they may not always be available. For example, if you have a system that prints prescriptions using a dot-matrix printer, you're boned if you rely on boldface or multiple fonts being available.)

What is the equivalent of this in Japanese, if any? I would be interested in knowing the answer in any context where distinguishing between similar-looking words is critical, whether in medicine or elsewhere.

(Note: I am aware of various ways to emphasize individual glyphs in Japanese, such as by using 傍点. I am specifically interested in knowing what is actually used in practice in medicine or other fields where distinguishing between similar-looking words has implications for safety/etc.)


Distinguishing drugs with similar names is a critical problem in Japan, too. Some notorious examples include リピラート (hypolipidemic agent) vs. ソピラート (antiarrhythmic agent), and タキソール vs. タキソテール (both used for chemotherapy). Medical workers are working hard to prevent 取り違え.

However, at least in medicine, there is no similar convention which is directly related to the language features of Japanese. Some drugs have abandoned their brand names altogether (like this and this) to avoid confusion (BTW in Japan, most drugs are referred to using their brand names, rather than the generic names). Some drug packages use larger font. Aside from these, there's not much worth discussing in this site.

Partially using hiragana wouldn't work, because they don't stand out. To highlight a part of a word, one method that works everywhere is to use brackets (i.e., タキ「ソ」ールとタキ「ソテ」ール), but that's not done routinely in medical practice (AFAIK).

  • I'm quite surprised that they use katakana for these words. So far I've thought that kanjis are a genious tool to describe technical/medical terms, e.g. 気管支炎 is easier to understand than bronchitis - if you've never seen the word before. Is there a reason why katakana words are preferred over kanjis in this context here? – David Jablonski Sep 3 '15 at 14:48
  • 2
    Modern western drugs are relatively new, and are generally written in katakana just like other recent loanwords. Kampo drugs are written in kanji. – naruto Sep 3 '15 at 15:49

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