Why do Japanese write from top to bottom?

There are a number of languages used around the world. Almost every country has its own national language. Moreover, there are different regional languages specific to a limited area or community. Essentially, language provides a mode of communication between people. But it can be used as a sense of identity and nationality as well. 

All the languages differ from one another in many aspects. Some are easier than others, while some possess greater value in the professional world. But one thing is mostly similar in all languages, the writing styles. Most of the languages are written in a horizontal script. But of course, a few expectations are seen in this matter too. A small number of languages are written vertically. Which languages are these, and what the history behind this script style is, let’s discuss!

Classical Japanese

The scripts of East Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese are considered the most complex in the world. The scripts of these languages are more of artwork rather than just letters, which changes meanings according to the contexts, making themselves a lot more difficult to grasp quickly.

Almost all of the languages are written horizontally, from left to right, and in a couple of cases, like Arabic, from right to left. However, the most peculiar thing about the Japanese language (also Chinese and Korean) is that they are traditionally written from top to bottom. Even though the emergence of science and technology and the influence of western culture have paved the way for horizontal writing to dominate, the ancient literature is continued to be written in the vertical mode.

It is really interesting to trace back the origin of vertical writing. Most of the linguists believe that the vertical script originated according to the writing materials. The writing media of ancient Chinese were primarily bamboo sticks, animal bones, and other wooden slips. The letters used to be written using a brush. It was long before the invention of paper. 

The bamboo slips were in existence from at least 12th century BC. Writing horizontally on the sticks would have caused the ink to run since the sticks are curved. The vertical writing got stuck then and continued to thrive until the gradual invasion of the western languages.

When western culture started to take over, people struggled to understand different script styles. Even some locals preferred the horizontal way as opposed to the ancient vertical script. As a result of this confusion, both script styles were accepted, and people used whatever they liked best.

The horizontal writing system in Japanese is known as ‘Yokogaki,’ whereas vertical writing is called ‘Tategaki.’ The Tategaki system was inspired by the Chinese. 

The modern Japanese writing system is a combination of two-character types. The first one, Kanji, is the collection of adopted Chinese characters while the next one, Kana, consists of a pair of syllabaries. Since these languages consist of mainly disconnected syllabic units, it is easy to write vertically, with no difficulty of comprehension. The words are written vertically in columns, from top to bottom, and ordered from right to left. 

Every new column starts to the left of the preceding one. Also, in the early times of paper, it was easy to write in vertical columns since it helped writing with a brush in the right hand while unrolling the paper scroll with the left hand.

Currently, both writing styles exist side by side with no preference whatsoever. But still, it is seen that all the classical texts are normally written in a vertical system while the modern materials are all written in a horizontal style.

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