In written Japanese, it’s punctuation, but not as we know it

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

Punctuation is the salt in the soup of writing. Without all those periods, commas, colons, brackets, quotation and question marks and so on, we’d have a hard time making sense of the words that come flying by. However, even though peppering texts with little ink spots is a common phenomenon, specific languages handle this in quite diverse ways.

Even languages with the same script may have differing conventions. ¿Or didn’t you know of the inverted question mark that, quite conveniently, pre-announces an interrogative sentence in Spanish? And don’t forget the French custom of leaving a space before an exclamation point, here -> ! Needless to say, Japanese has its own set of punctuation marks too, and a number of special rules regarding their usage.

Let’s start with “。” (句点, kuten or マル, maru), the Japanese full-stop mark, and “、” (読点, tōten or just テン, ten), the Japanese comma. What makes things a bit confusing is that these two coexist with “.” (ピリオド, piriodo) and “,” (コンマ, konma), respectively. Use of these latter two is restricted to horizontally written text, whereas “。” and “、” can appear in both vertical and horizontal writing.

Another punctuation mark that is very much like its English version is “?” (疑問符, gimonfu), also known as はてな (hatena). It is not part of the core set of Japanese punctuation marks, since it is possible (and sometimes stipulated) that interrogative sentences end with a maru rather than a gimonfu. A similar situation applies with “!” (感嘆符, kantanfu), aka ビックリマーク (bikkuri māku, surprise mark), which, despite its popularity, is not considered a full-fledged Japanese punctuation mark either.

Returning to domestic products, there is “・” (中黒, nakaguro). This one is mainly used for aligning things of equal status in an enumeration or list, such as 小・中学校 (shō chū gakkō, elementary and junior high school) or 月・水・金 (gessuikin, Mon./Wed./Fri.). In English translation, a nakaguro can be quite difficult to handle, with the options at hand including a slash, a hyphen, “and,” “or” or “and/or.” A second frequent usage of nakaguro is within katakana names, as in マイケル・ジャクソン (Michael Jackson) or ヨハン・ ゼバスティアン・バッハ (Johann Sebastian Bach).

Where three or more consecutive nakaguro marks come together, this indicates that something has been left unfinished, like in 申し訳ございませんが・・・ (Mōshiwake gozaimasen ga …, “I’m awfully sorry but …”). Another common function of these dots is to indicate a notable silence when you might expect a response. You’ll find them not only in dialogues in novels and other works of literature, but also in the テロップ (teroppu, derived from “television optical slide projector”) subtitles of many TV shows, where even nothing has to be represented as something.

Japanese punctuation includes various types of brackets, called 括弧 (kakko). Rounded brackets are referred to 丸括弧 (maru kakko) and they work basically the same way as in English. Also classified as a type of bracket are 「」, called 鉤括弧 (kagi kakko, corner brackets), which are used to mark quotations and direct speech.

Note that the kagi kakko coexist with more English-like quotation marks (“”), called 引用符 (inyōfu). For quotes within quotes, as well as for titles of books and journals, pairs of 二重鉤括弧 (nijū kagi kakko, double corner brackets) are used. They look like 『this』.

One more Japanese punctuation mark that is definitely good to know is “~,” which is called a 波ダッシュ (nami dasshu, wave dash). It is used to indicate ranges, such as in 新宿~池袋 (Shinjuku kara Ikebukuro, from Shinjuku to Ikebukuro) or ①~④の中から最もふさわしいものを選べ (Ichi kara yon no naka kara mottomo fusawashii mono o erabe, “Choose the most appropriate item from options 1 to 4”), which is a standard phrase in multiple-choice tests. In more casual writing the wave can also be used to indicate lengthening, like in the recent buzz term そだね~ (Soda nē, “You’re right”), a Hokkaido variant popularized by the Japanese women’s curling team.

A most critical issue with respect to punctuation is the use (and non-use) of space. For foreign learners of Japanese this is not really a problem, given that the only thing you need to know is that you won’t need it anyway: All Japanese punctuation marks come as full-width characters, which means that there is no space at all (except after the not-really-Japanese “?” and “!”).

The same spacing rules do not apply in English, unfortunately, which gives Japanese learners of the language a really hard time. Thinking about it, the rules are in fact quite complex, and are rarely explained in English-language instruction in Japan. Anyone who has ever had to correct written assignments by Japanese students will certainly know what I’m talking about.

The toughest job of all, though, is when you have to work with texts that include both Japanese and English writing. So let me take this opportunity to apologize to the editor of this column for always giving him such a hard time deleting and inserting our spaces!