Being somewhat 背が高い (se ga takai, tall), I shamelessly confess my height advantage — I stand about 188 cm — has facilitated my ability to 盗み読み (nusumi-yomi, literally “theft-read,” meaning to read over other people’s shoulders) on public transport.

From this 鳥瞰図 (chōkanzu, bird’s-eye view), it’s hard to avoid the sensational headlines in tabloids, so-called sports tabloids and magazines — although during the earliest stages of studying Japanese I was often confused by the sheer chaos of the headlines in terms of color, typefaces, font sizes and variation between the horizontal and vertical layout of the words.

The one thing about nusumi-yomi is that you learn to read fast, before the person whose reading matter you’re looking at flips the page. But the trouble with reading from a distance is that you can’t always make out the fine print.

In one headline I thought I was reading the word パンスト (pansuto, women’s pantyhose), but in context the rest of the headline didn’t make any sense. And besides, I wondered, what sort of news story about pantyhose could justify a front-page headline? As it turned out, there was no little circle above the ha (ハ) to change it to pa (パ) — the word was ハンスト (hansuto), which means to go on a hunger strike.

Confusing women’s undergarments with political activism isn’t the only danger with misreading headlines, you may inadvertently confuse the name of a country with the price of a kilo of rice.

In headlines, the U.S. of A. — アメリカ合衆国 (Amerika gasshūkoku) — is usually shortened to 米国 (Beikoku) or simply 米 (bei, rice). (The character can also be read mai, mei, yone and kome.) In headlines the term 米軍 (beigun, the U.S. military) appears frequently. Other familiar terms are 英米 (Eibei, British and American), 反米/嫌米 (hanbei or kembei, anti-American or disliking the U.S.), 米大統領 (bei daitōryō, the President of the United States), and so on.

But you need to be careful, because a different bei also often appears in headlines, in words such as 米価 (beika, the price of rice, usually set by the government). One example is in a recent issue of the 日本農業新聞 (Nihon Nōgyō Shimbun), a newspaper that reports on the agriculture industry, which ran the headline 米価下落に農家悲鳴「作るほど赤字」(Beika geraku ni nōka himei: “Tsukuru hodo akaji,” Farmers scream [at] fall in the price of rice: “The more [we] grow, the bigger the deficit”).

No doubt there are certain words that can be counted on to pique reader curiosity or elicit a strong reaction. One character I’ve always found hard to ignore is 急 (kyū, meaning rapid, urgent or acute). It forms such compound words as 急激 (kyūgeki, sudden or radical), 急落 (kyūraku, to plunge or drop sharply), 急増 (kyūzō, to surge or increase rapidly), 急務 (kyūmu, an urgent task) and 急ピッチ (kyū pitchi, a rapid or sharp pitch).

While it has almost become a cliche, the accusatory phrase 日本をダメにしたX (Nihon wo dame ni shita X, meaning the X who ruined Japan) often crops up, usually followed by the names of politicians, educators and people in popular culture or show business who the writer believes has had a seriously negative impact on Japanese society.

It’s important to understand that tabloids and weekly magazines have few subscribers. Because they are mostly sold on an ad hoc basis at railway station kiosks and convenience stores, the fact that their headlines 大袈裟にする (ōgesa-ni suru, exaggerate) can perhaps be understood as a form of 販売促進 (hambai sokushin, sales promotion).

Generally my warning flag pops up when I spot expressions in headlines such as タブー (tabū, taboo), 新聞が報じない (shimbun ga hōjinai, not reported in the newspapers) or 本誌しか報じない (honshi shika hōjinai, only reported in this magazine) as I’ve found these promises seldom deliver. Critics often denounce such deceptive practices using an old Chinese aphorism that goes 羊頭狗肉 (yōtō kuniku, [to display] a sheep’s head and sell dog meat).

But やはり文句を言うのは僕だけじゃない (Yahari monku wo iu no wa boku dake ja nai, I’m not the only one who’s complaining).

Headlines, particularly those that run in the tabloids, assault the eye with so much information they can seem like a study in linguistic anarchy. To do this, they are wont to alternate 縦書き (tategaki, vertical writing) and 横書き (yokogaki, horizontal writing) — something European headlines can’t do — and also vary typefaces and font sizes. Another technique is to mix black letters on a light background with 反転文字 (hanten moji, inverse letters, i.e., white writing on a dark-colored background).

As a recent example, I thought I’d use a headline from a Feb. 5 edition of Shukan Bunshun magazine.

It consists of five independent parts. The first, ロンドン取材 (Rondon shuzai, dateline, in this case London) appears at the top right center and is written horizontally. There are also four independent vertical headlines. One, ジハーディ・ジョン “Jihadi John,” is in black katakana on a white background. Three more are inverse (white letters on a black background), combining kanji, hiragana and katakana. They are 首切り執行人 (kubikiri shikkōnin, beheading executioner), 父親は米大使館爆破犯の元ラッパー (chichi-oya wa bei taishikan bakuha-han no moto rappā, a former rapper whose father [committed] the crime of bombing a U.S. embassy), and 24歳の狂気 (nijūyon-sai no kyōki, the madness of a 24-year-old.

In colloquial English, this might be put together as: “Dateline: London. The madness of 24-year-old knife-wielding executioner ‘Jihadi John,’ a former rapper whose father bombed a U.S. Embassy.”

My rule of thumb when reading headlines is to start with the largest (or most prominently displayed) characters, then work down from there. There doesn’t seem to be any fixed rule about the order — just let your eyes wander over the words to assemble the message.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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