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There appear to be some kanji and other characters such as ①, ②, ③, Ⓐ, ㊄, ㊗, ㊛, ㊑, and many more, which are enclosed in circles.

These characters are listed in unicode and there are quite a lot of them, with various seemingly unrelated kanji, as well as numbers and hiragana and katakana characters.

There is also a character called 'combining enclosing circle' which appears to be intended to circle the character before it, though this doesn't work in all fonts.

Finally, in Microsoft Word, when the Japanese IME is selected, it even offers a menu option to encircle a character in your document with quite varied settings as to how to display it.

It appears that there has been a lot of effort put into making these characters accessible, and yet they don't have any clear usage that I can find, or even a mention of them at all online. Why do these exist?

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    The encircled letters known as Unicode Enclosed CJK Letters and Months exist for additional printing marks (e.g. for numbering lists). You can see the chart here: unicode.org/charts/PDF/U3200.pdf. – Tetsuya Yamamoto Jul 19 '17 at 0:54
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    Adding to that, the enclosed characters in Unicode are compatibility characters. This means Unicode normally wouldn't have listed those as distinct characters, because they're just visual decoration on actual characters; but they were already in use in pre-Unicode Japanese text standards, so Unicode had to include them to make it possible to convert text to and from the old encodings, without damaging the text ("round-trip convertibility"). – melissa_boiko Jul 19 '17 at 7:07
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These are called 丸囲み文字.

  • 丸囲み数字 or 丸数字 (①②③...) are very common, and their purpose is to write a numbered list of items. The equivalent in English is (1) (2) (3) or i. ii. iii.. Characters ① to ⑳ have been defined long before the introduction of Unicode, and you will see them a lot in Japanese documents.
  • Other 丸囲み文字 are just symbols that means what the enclosed kanji means. ㊊ is "Monday", ㊑ is "corporation", ㊙ is "secret", ㊞ is "stamp/seal", and so on. Although they seem random, they are there because they have been actually used in some fields.

These characters have been used at least partly because Japanese typography preferred characters neatly aligned in a grid. These symbols share the same fixed width as kanji and hiragana, and it's easy to align them using the poorest word processors. We even have fixed-width versions of Roman numbers (Ⅰ, Ⅲ, Ⅷ) and Latin characters enclosed in circles and parentheses.

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Despite the effort of some word processors and Unicode Consortium, the support for 丸囲み文字 has been unsatisfactory, and there were times when even the use of simplest 丸囲み数字 was discouraged in e-mails due to a certain compatibility issue. As a result, there characters became relatively unpopular these days.

  • Do you know what examples of the fields they were used in might be? Would ㊛ be used for gender on a passport, or ㊙ on private documents, for example? – M Palmer Jul 19 '17 at 9:07
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    Perhaps 丸数字 and ㊞ ("stamp here") are the only characters we still commonly see. I don't know where ㊛ is actually used. I occasionally see ㊙ used in a catchy book title or such. Maybe some people use it on real confidential materials, too. – naruto Jul 19 '17 at 15:46
  • There are a few used as short-hand by the police. 容疑者=マル容、被疑者=マル被、被害者=マル害. detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1242081087 – MisterM2402 Oct 15 '18 at 19:37

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