The authors and names of posters are listed below in the text

Summary of a visual research of thousands of Japanese posters

Typography in Japanese posters

It’s time to uncover the most mysterious component of the Japanese poster

Katya Tinmey
May 14, 2019 · 5 min read

A Japanese poster always caught my eye among many others. Surprisingly, despite rapid globalisation and mixing of styles, works of Japanese designers continue to stand out from the crowd. Of course, in the first place, they are distinguished by their colorful and non-standard illustrations. However, it is time to uncover the most mysterious component of the Japanese poster — typography. Taking advantage of my knowledge of Japanese, I decided to study peculiarities of Japanese designers’ works with texts in posters.

First, you need to understand that Japanese typography is based on a unique and complex writing system. In modern Japanese language, three writing sets coexist: hieroglyphs — kanzdi; two syllabary alphabets — katakana and hiragana; and Latin letters — romaji. Second, variety of directions of writing also enriches Japanese typography — the Eastern vertical way of writing with the direction of the text from right to left and the Western horizontal, with the direction of the text from left to right. The choice of the set and direction of writing depends on the subject of the text.

Using such a diverse typographical salad, the Japanese poster simply cannot be unnoticed.

Let’s proceed to the techniques of text manipulation that are often resorted by the Japanese masters of poster craft.

The most amazing technique, which Japanese artists can afford is use of text as an illustration. The origins of hieroglyphs, as well as other writing systems, come from pictograms, but unlike others, hieroglyphs have retained their illustrativeness. Therefore, the text often does not need additional illustration, because it is already illustration by itself.

“Forest”. Ryuichi Yamashiro. 1954

A striking example of the technique opportunities is the famous poster “Forest”, created by Ryuichi Yamashiro in 1954 to support a forest protection campaign. The only symbol in the poster is the hieroglyph and pictogram of the word “tree” (木). Two adjacent hieroglyphs mean “grove” (林), and three adjacent trees — “forest” (森). Thus, one hieroglyph allowed the author not only to fill the space of the poster, but also to convey the idea of supporting the forests of Japan. This poster has repeatedly been named the most brilliant poster of modern times.

“Japanese typography in the park.” Kentaro Nakamura. 2011

In 2011, Japanese designer Kentaro Nakamura decided to conduct an experiment — using typography to “draw” the landscape of the park, in words depicting all the objects in his field of view. Due to the fact that the Japanese writing, even in simple writing, is diverse and illustrative — the poster came out visually interesting and attractive. It has really unusual approach, is’t it?☺

“Bones”. Shunji Yamanaka. 2009

Another work with a text as an illustration is a poster “Bones”, created in 2009 for an exhibition of bone design objects. The main element of the poster (骨) is a hieroglyph that visually resembles a human skeleton with its head, arms and legs, and means the word “bone”. The idea of the exhibition and the poster was created by industrial designer Shunji Yamanaka #genius


2// The uniqueness of each character

There are about sixty thousand hieroglyphs in Japanese. Therefore, instead of developing a complete font set, it is easier for a Japanese designer to draw the necessary characters by hand. As a result, each poster contains its own unique font. That is why it is Japanese posters that contain a large number of works with an interesting use of typography.

“Lenin. Poster proletarian graphics”. Author Unknown. 1929
“Pulse of the North.” Kazuhiro Kikuchi. 2014
“University of Arts Tama”. Keiichi Sato. 2007
“Tsuchinoko Project”. Toshiki Konayagi. 2013
“Handwritten calligraphy logos.” Author Unknown. 2011
“Image Kanji”. Katsuichi Ito. 1986

3// Absence of the negative space

Because of a small territory, Japanese people accustomed to use every inch of free space. The habit of overcrowding, has also come to the Japanese poster. The Japanese designers are not afraid of text overload and conflict of information, but on the contrary believe that the more of the text, the more informative, and therefore more functional the poster.

“Film Festival 3.11.”. Haruna Yamada and Hirokazu Kobayashi. 2015
“Outstanding Japanese graphic design.” Gurafiku. 2013
“Watto”. Sow Nomura, Rena Kanahama. 2015
Rionosuke Akutagawa: “Love Letter”. Takahiro Furuya. 2014
“Evening short film”. Yutaka Sato. 2014
“POKORART declares!”. Ohara Daihiro. 2014

4// Text as a center of composition

To fully consider the life of the text in a Japanese poster, you need to touch upon a topic of a grid. Japanese poster artists often use a centric composition technique — a main text is centered on a poster, while additional typography and illustrations diverge from it in different directions, like sunshine. I will assume that initially this method came to a poster, as a metaphor of the sun — the main symbol of Japanese culture.

“The mystery is solved.” Kazami Suzuki. 2014
Exhibition “New Font”. Shiro Shita Saori. 2013
“World of Sorao”. Kosuke Ahiro. 2013

5// Text by poster edges

This technique can be presented as a contrast to the previous (“text as the center of the composition”). Designers use the edges of the poster for text, leaving the center without text accents.

The exhibition “Our time:’ Art in post-industrial Japan ‘“. Tokyo Pistol. 2015
“Marry me!”. Okiyama Taiki. 2014
“Wake up from sleep.” Tadashi Ueda. 2015

6// Mixing different languages

Despite the richness of their typography, Japanese masters of poster craft often operate other languages together with Japanese when working with a poster. Often they use English. This trend is associated with the popularity of English in the world and with a large number of foreigners in Japan. With the help of English, designers want to make the poster more informative, and also they use plasticity of another writing system to add a little piquancy to the work. This technique rarefy a complex Japanese typography and adds the necessary air to the poster.

Exhibition: “Flights to Tokyo.” Masaoshi Kodaira. 2011
The exhibition “Young and aggressive.” 2008
“Japanese poster in the style of Kyoto.” Atsushi Suzuki. 2012

Japanese designers can make any masterpiece with Japanese typography. However, they often leave text without any decorations, to apply to it intended purpose — be informative. Even in a neutral set, Japanese typography remains visually appealing and interesting.

The exhibition “Nonoichi”. Akaoni Design. 2014
“Network between two cities”. Tokyo Pistol. 2009
“The Helvetica High School Baseball Team.” Keisuke Maekawa. 2014
“Varsan”. Yutaka Sato. 2015
“Monday of June”. Okiyama Taiki. 2015
“JPN SND 501, more than 0 calories.” Yutaka Sato. 2013

This article was written based on my student visual research, which you can see here on Behance

Katya Tinmey

Read my other publications in English:

Behance | Instagram

Katya Tinmey

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rarely, but aptly

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