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One might think that punctuation only serves to improve, clarify or enhance a sentence. While this is true, punctuation is also vital to meaning.
Without punctuation, a sentence is nothing more than a confusing string of words. This is true of all languages, including those based on kanji (characters), such as Japanese.
Here are some specific characteristics of Japanese punctuation compared to English:
Spaces: in Japanese, there are no spaces between the various kanji. The only spaces visible are used to accompany punctuation (incidentally, a punctuation mark and its associated space are treated as one indivisible character by word processing tools) or to clarify meaning within a sentence.
The comma (、): this little diagonal line running from the top left to the bottom right serves the same purpose as the comma and semi-colon in English, marking a pause in a sentence.
The full stop (。): although it takes the form of a little circle rather than a dot, the Japanese full stop works in exactly the same way as its English equivalent.
The interpunct (・): this vertically centered black dot serves to avoid any confusion that might arise by the immediate juxtaposition of two katakana (characters corresponding to syllables). It also helps to separate items in a list and marks the beginning and end of any foreign words.
The exclamation mark: this is used to indicate volume or emotion, just like in English. Its presence in Japanese texts is relatively new and still rare.
The question mark: this is much rarer in Japanese than in English, particularly in formal writing, for the simple reason that Japanese has an existing grammatical marker that is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a question: the か (equivalent to the syllable ‘Ka’). However, in everyday written Japanese, a question mark often follows this symbol.
The dash: in Japanese, a long straight dash (ー) is used to indicate a long vowel within a katakana. The second variant is the wave dash (〜), which is used in number ranges (e.g. 2~4) or to indicate durations of time.
Quotation marks: where English uses ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks, Japanese uses half-hooks. Les plus courants sont les guillemets simples「」. Les guillemets doubles『』servent uniquement en cas de citation dans une citation, auquel cas les guillemets doubles encadrent les guillemets simples.
The list goes on to include lots of other punctuation marks used in Japanese (the colon or brackets, for instance), but their usage is fairly intuitive.
To finish with something fun, Kaomoji are popular Japanese emoticons created using punctuation marks and inspired by the characters in manga comics. Contrary to their English cousins, kaomoji concentrate on the eyes and can be read without having to tilt your head. Examples include (^_^) for laughing, (#^.^#) for feeling shy, (ToT) for crying and (*^▽^*) for feeling happy!!
Coming soon: The art of Chinese punctuation


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