My understanding is that Japanese was traditionally written in a top-to-bottom, right-to-left order (縦書き{たてがき}), and that modern Japanese is sometimes written in a horizontal left-to-right, top-to-bottom order (横書き{よこがき}) 1. But in the following painting by 白隠慧鶴{はくいんえかく}, the calligraphy appears to be in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right order. According to the caption on the Wikipedia page, the calligraphy reads 直指人心見性成佛{じきしにんしんけんしょうじょうぶつ}.


Is top-to-bottom, left-to-right writing order common in Japanese calligraphy? Are there rules governing when you would write in this order, or is it just based on the artist's preference? Or maybe it's a Zen koan, and I'm supposed to empty my mind and realize that the order doesn't matter?

Please enlighten me!

3 Answers 3


This text is written left-to-right because the person in the picture is facing to the left. There was a rule that when you put some text (chinese poem, haiku, etc.) in a portrait, the first line must be determined by the orientation of the face. When the person was facing to the left, the text had to be written from left to right. Some sources say this rule was most prevalent in the Muromachi period.

先史時代の右・左 (PDF)


書字方向― 縦書き・横書き

左図は,第四代「足利義持像」(右,1414 年賛),第六代「足利義教像」(左,15 世紀後半)の肖像がであるが,違いは人物の向きだけではなく,上部に禅僧の賛があるが,これが逆方向に行移りしてゆくのである。 賛の行の進行方向は,実は人物の顔の向きによって決まっている。この当時,「画賛は描かれた人物の顔の向いている方が先頭行になる」( 顔が左向き:左から右へ読んでゆく,顔が右向き:右から左へ読んで行く)という規則が存在していた。

Most of Ekaku's works available online seem to follow this rule, although there are exceptions.

  • 2
    This answer is spot on! I just wanted to add that the fact of containing a portrait might be a sufficient but not a necessary condition for the writing to go from left to right. Being calligraphy an art after all, these rules are quite flexible and you can see several "text-only" works written from left to right as well. In my experience it all depends on the type/shape of the paper, how it might be displayed/used (think of fans that unfolds counter-clockwise: you will see the left part first), and of course the calligrapher's feelings.
    – Tommy
    Oct 4, 2017 at 5:53
  • 3
    – user20624
    Oct 4, 2017 at 6:44
  • Brilliant, even complete with historical explanation. You really learn something everyday.
    – keithmaxx
    Oct 4, 2017 at 9:08
  • Thank you Tommy and mackygoo. So looks like the line order is more flexible than I thought in calligraphy.
    – naruto
    Oct 4, 2017 at 13:15
  • Many 百人一首 are shown written top-to-bottom, left-to-right. However, the direction of the portrait's face doesn't necessarily seem to be related? (for instance: kotenseki.nijl.ac.jp/biblio/100338964/viewer/27)
    – sazarando
    Sep 2, 2022 at 22:47

My understanding is that Japanese was traditionally written in a top-to-bottom, right-to-left order (縦書{たてがき}).

Your understanding is perfectly correct.

It seems to be based on the preference of the author aimed at aesthetic effect. However, this work of 掛{か}け軸{じく} a hanging scroll is made of not only the characters of 直指人心見性成佛 but also the portrait of 達磨{だるま} Dharma at the same time, so it should be understood as the aesthetic effect of the author who considered the balance between the portrait and the arrangement of the characters as a whole.

As for the order of reading the characters, it seems that no mistake would happen because of the amount/density of black ink and the location of the author's 落款{らっかん}印{いん} the author's seal corresponding to his autograph.


East Asian languages were traditionally written in the top-bottom, right-left order as explained here and here. The reason it's so common in calligraphy is because it allowed them to write the characters with their brush in the right hand and unroll scrolls with their left as they proceeded.

The current horizontal system only came into being during the Meiji Era when Western influences started coming into common usage. By then more people wrote on pieces of paper rather than scrolls.

As for rules, there really aren't any. Its usage usually depends on the medium, genre, and subject and practicality... many aesthetic scrolls are hanged vertically and thus their characters are written accordingly. Other than that, you can commonly find vertical writing in artistic media (essays, novels, poetry), or reading material (newspapers, comics, and Japanese dictionaries) where space can be at a premium.

  • 4
    I think the question is about why there are instances of top-bottom, left-right. The OP already stated in the question that he/she knows top-bottom, right-left is common.
    – yushi
    Oct 4, 2017 at 3:38

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