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Japanese subtitling, in contrast to other Asian languages, is a particular challenge due to specific issues of how Japanese is written. To most people who do not read Japanese or Chinese, the two languages look very much alike. Indeed, many of the Japanese characters are derived from Chinese. These are the so-called Kanji, or “logographic” or “ideographic” characters, with each character expressing a complete word or an idea. While a given Japanese Kanji character can have more meanings than its Chinese Hanzi counterpart, the meanings are for the most part the same or similar, reflecting roots in a shared writing system.

There is actually some debate as to how many unique Kanji characters there are. There are about 2,000 – 3,000 such characters that are commonly used and taught in school and a well educated person will know and be able to use about 5,000. Overall it is estimated that there are about 85,000 Kanji characters, though many of them are considered archaic or variants of one another and are not commonly used.

If Japanese only used Kanji characters, Japanese subtitling would be easy, because like Chinese, these characters covey a lot meaning in just a little bit of space. But Japanese also uses two phonetic alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana. With Hiragana any Japanese word can be spelled out phonetically, while Katakana is used to phonetically write out foreign words., which the Japanese borrow with abandon, in particular from English.  By contrast to Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana only contain 46 base characters not counting functional and diacritical marks. These characters are much simpler than the “complicated” Kanji characters, as they are generally composed of only one, two or three strokes, see the image of the Japanese keyboard accompanying this article..

All three writing systems are used and interspersed at will and every character is allotted the same amount of space, what is in typesetting referred to as non-proportional spacing. While Kanji is very compact, given that every word can be represented by one, two or three characters at the most, Hiragana and Katakana need much more space, as every syllable in a word is represented by one or two characters.

And this is what causes problems for Japanese subtitling. While Chinese is highly compact and lends itself to working in the limited amount of space of a typical subtitle extremely well, Japanese decidedly does not: a word spelled out phonetically in Hiragana or Katakana can take up three to four or five times as much space as a word written in Kanji.

Contrary to a non-Japanese speaker’s intuition, the complicated Kanji characters are much easier to read in Japanese subtitling than the simple Hiragana and Katakana characters. Native Japanese speakers will recognize a Kanji character at a glance and can often infer the character(s) that will logically follow next, making this a very efficient reading system. But with Hiragana and Katakana, each character has to be sounded out mentally in order to read in its entirety the word being rendered, which actually requires more time and concentration.

These issues make Japanese subtitling particularly challenging. This is compounded by a completely different sentence structure that makes it impossible to “align” Japanese with English, as the word order is in Japanese is reversed. While in English we would say “The force is strong with him,” a Japanese Star Wars fan will be saying “Strong the force with him is,” just like Yoda would.

For more information about subtitling, please visit our Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts for subtitling at

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