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I was reading Crayon Shin-chan—a Japanese manga—and came across a frame where the characters' speech bubbles contain circles, triangles, and crosses where words should be. I asked a couple of my Japanese friends about what the shapes meant but none of them could tell me what they meant or why they were used.

A frame from Crayon Shin-chan

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Those are just placeholders. You should understand that instead of a meaningful text those symbols were inserted in order to avoid putting actual text. That can be done for various reasons: censor a word, make the reader unaware of something the characters are aware of.

That being said, here, judging from the image the characters seem like they are quarreling, thus we might think that the placeholders are just used to cover up inappropriate words (for the audience).

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    I certainly believe it's for censoring purpose in this case, given the amount of adult-themed context in Crayon Shin-chan even though it's targeted for kids. – Andrew T. Dec 15 '17 at 14:26
  • Yes, the original manga (especially in early volumes) is full of adult-themed materials, so I suppose they are sayng something dirty and explicit. – naruto Dec 15 '17 at 22:49
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    I read it as skipping over the argument itself rather than covering up inappropriate words, because I took the point to be that they are arguing -- not what they are arguing about, but maybe I just don't know the inappropriate words that fill in the blanks. – virmaior Dec 16 '17 at 2:57
  • I've also seen it used to open a discussion on what a character's true thoughts were or what they meant. Honestly, this is probably one of my favorite parts of written Japanese. Like, I know there are ways to do the same thing in English, but I see it way more in Japanese, and it's always something interesting for me. – Pleiades Dec 16 '17 at 3:26
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Those symbols do not mean anything. You, as a reader, can replace them by actual words if you so desire.

From the surrounding words, the double exclamation marks and the プンプンマーク placed over the heads of the Mom and Dad, the readers will know instantly that they are having a heated argument about their trip three years ago. The content of the argument however, would be irrelevant to the story. 「プンプン」 is an onomatopoeia for expressing anger.

The surrounding words that I am referring to are 「だいたいいつもおまえはな」("You know, you always..")、「なによあなただって・・」(Whatcha talkin' bout? It's you who...)、「そーゆーあなたこそ」、「だったくせに!!」, etc. I will not translate everything here for free.

Another big reason that the content of the argument was made unclear on purpose, IMHO, is to make Shin-chan's goofy remark stand out and make you laugh at the end.

"Hey, how old was I then? Was I as cute as I am now?"

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