Inside Hiragino: A Closeup of Apple’s macOS Japanese Font

The Founders of Jiyukobo
Hiragino Creators: the founders of JIYUKOBO from left to right are Osamu Torinoumi, Tsutomu Suzuki (center portrait), and Keiichi Katada (photo provided by JIYUKOBO for this article)

This article was originally published in Seybold Reports Volume 2, Number 18, December 2002 issue under the title, “Inside Hiragino: A Closeup of Apple’s OS X Japanese Font.” It contains interviews I had with Osamu Torinoumi, one of the lead Hiragino font designers after being introduced to him by then Dainippon Screen [Screen Holdings] font manager Masayuki Toyoizumi in 1998. Torinoumi discusses the design history of Hiragino and its inclusion as the Japanese system font in macOS. He also gives the history behind the just released Yumin font that was later licensed to Microsoft and Apple. It’s important to note the interviews took place when computer displays were all 72 dpi, well before high resolution smart device displays became standard. Clarifications to the original story are marked with brackets [].

The last section is a 2009 online post followup interview covering the Hiragino Sans design, a Simplified Chinese version of Hiragino that shipped with Mac OS X Snow Leopard. At the time Dainippon Screen’s new font manager Yoichi Mihashi was furious I mentioned Apple’s role in the Hiragino Sans creation story and demanded a retraction but eventually relented.

Hiragino, the family of Japanese OpenType fonts included with Mac OS X [macOS and iOS], has a rich feature set and history that few people are likely to be aware of. There is much more than meets the eye, and knowing the features and history is well worth your time if you have even a passing interest in Japanese fonts and typography.

Hiragino started just about the time that Japanese PostScript arrived in the late 1980’s. At that time, the king of the typesetting market was Sha-Ken KK. Anyone who knows Japanese typography knows Sha-Ken. It had the most sought-after type library, the best designers, the biggest market share. Sha-Ken made so much money that it became arrogant and absolutely refused any offers from Adobe and Apple to jump on the PostScript bandwagon.

But there was trouble in paradise. A few designers felt Sha-Ken was becoming stagnant and left the company. Each sought his own vision, yet they came together to create the fonts that would eventually end up in macOS.

The principals of the Hiragino story are Tsutomu Suzuki (who died in 1998 at the age of 49, leaving a design legacy that will probably never be equaled), Osamu Torinoumi and Keiichi Katada. Together they founded a company called JIYUKOBO. For this article, we interviewed Torinoumi, who now runs the company, carrying on the work he started with Suzuki.

The JIYUKOBO story
Osamu Torinoumi: We started at Sha-Ken. Suzuki was there for 20 years. I was with the firm for 10 years. At that time, Sha-Ken did not make fonts digitally. Sha-Ken would output the outlines to photographic paper, then make hand adjustments to the glyph designs. It was a very involved process—high quality, but an inefficient way to make fonts. In those days, there was lots of time and money to do things this way. And we didn’t quite completely trust the Ikarus digitizing system. [The Ikarus system appeared in the early 80’s.] At that time, I think, there were nearly 40 designers working at Sha-Ken.

JB: Was Suzuki the top designer?

OT: Kazuo Hashimoto was the top designer. Then there was Ishihara, the section chief. Then there was Suzuki. Suzuki was the first to quit Sha-Ken, followed by Katada and then me, each for our own reasons. Suzuki had a dream of designing fonts and somehow making a living [laughs]. My dream was to create a new mincho typeface. Sha-Ken had created the Honran Hoso Mincho typeface in 1981. I left in ’89 and, in those years, Sha-Ken did not create any new mincho fonts. They decided they had enough and didn’t need to create any more. So my dream was to create a whole new mincho typeface.

Mincho vs Gothic
Comparing strokes: a gothic design has cleaner, simpler lines—the analog to a sans-serif face. Gothic fonts are generally used for titles; they are also easier to read at small sizes and low resolutions.

Suzuki then contacted me and asked if I’d like working together, even though he joked that we’d probably end up strangling each other. We were too alike and neither of us had much business experience either. So we asked Katada-san to join and started the business with the three of us.

The Creation of Hiragino
Our first project was for Canon: to create a kana typeface. We got ¥200,000 for it, and we thought we had hit the big time. That’s tiny compared with what you can get now, but for us it was a big thing. Then, six months after we had set up shop, we got a call from Toyoizumi of DaiNippon Screen. Toyoizumi used to work at Sha-Ken and quit the same time we did. He told us that Screen wanted to create a new typeface and asked if we could do it. That was in 1990.

There was nobody at Screen who knew how to make a font or what the design should be.We were designers, not managers. I’d never written a business plan, and coming up with one was a real challenge. We looked at all the Sha-Ken typefaces and wrote a business plan that pretty much copied what they had. Screen didn’t want that; they said, “If we are going to compete with Sha-Ken, we want a product that has originality. We don’t want designers choosing between two look-alikes.

But we did agree on some basics; we wanted to create one mincho typeface and one gothic typeface. We felt it was important for us to create lasting designs. We didn’t want to create some flashy typeface that would run out of steam down the road. On this basis we agreed to go ahead with DaiNippon Screen. The next problem was creating a new mincho typeface for a market already crowded [with mincho typefaces]. We had to do many presentations for Screen to explain all the design differences between what was already out there and what we wanted to design.

For example, it is easy for us, as designers, to tell the differences between different mincho typefaces, but that’s not the case for most people. So we had to explain why this design is better for magazines or this is better for newspapers and so on.

JB: Was reading text on computer screens part of the equation at this step?

OT: Paper was the main consideration. We did our analysis and found there had not been a mincho typeface created especially for magazines. There were some revised typefaces from the Meiji era [1867–1912] that were sometimes used for magazines, but that was about it. There weren’t any modern typefaces for magazines. Also, DaiNippon Screen was very strong in the color prepress market. It made a good fit. That was the plan that was approved, and so we started working on Hiragino. It took two years to create an analog [handdrawn] version of Hiragino Mincho.

JB: Did one person draw all 7,000 glyphs?

OT: No, it was a group effort—four people plus some part-time tracers. Up to then, I had never drawn a whole Japanese typeface, only bits and pieces. Only Suzuki had created a whole typeface before. So our deadline kept being pushed further and further back, and Suzuki would get angry with us. On average, one person would draw 12 or 13 glyphs a day, which is not much change of pace from the days of creating block type.

We completed the analog version and handed it off to Screen thinking our part was all finished. But digitizing the font turned out to be another story altogether. Screen had the Ikarus software, as we did. But their digitizing team was made up of older men who had been let go from other positions in the company and ended up there. They were a group of ten who knew nothing about design.

When Screen showed us their work, we couldn’t believe what we saw and told them to stick with the analog master we had given them. We then went over and tried to train them, but that didn’t work. Finally, Screen asked us to help with making the digital data. One of our staff already had experience with Ikarus. Then we picked up a used copy of Ikarus M and a few Macintoshes, which we heard were easier to use than MS-DOS.

JB: How long did it take to make the digital data?

OT: It took a year. So the whole process, from start to finish, took three years. At the same time, we were also making other weights. Hiragino Mincho [W3–W8] went on sale in 1993, followed by Hiragino Gothic [W1–W9] in 1994. Those versions were only interpolated data. At Sha-Ken, we had printed each glyph and made corrections for the weight. We didn’t do that for the first Hiragino release because we didn’t have time. We fixed all of that with the CID version.

JB: If you had to do it all over again, knowing about personal computers and the Internet, would you take a different design approach?

OT: We probably would. Hiragino was really designed for phototypesetting, not digital typesetting. The stroke ends become more rounded [in phototype]. We were aiming for a sharper, more modern look. You can really tell the difference of Hiragino and other mincho typefaces by looking at the stroke end.

With phototypesetting, you get a soft looking stroke. But with digital, it is very sharp looking, which has been criticized by some, but that is what the design is supposed to be. I’m satisfied with the bigger weights, but I feel that we should have made the horizontal lines of W3 a little heavier. They are just a little too thin for computer screens.

Comparing mincho stroke ends
Sharp by design. Traditional mincho designs end in a point (1). Hiragino’s defining feature is the “sharp” cut-off end (2). Digital type preserves this, but phototypesetting (3) has a softening effect.

Apple OS X Japanese system font
With Mac OS X we made new kana glyph designs for the system font. At one point, Apple was going to call it New Osaka. I don’t know what they are calling it now. Apple wanted to use Hiragino as the system font, but I told them it doesn’t match Lucida. So what I did was suggest Hiragino Gothic for the kanji.

With gothic, the vertical and horizontal line width is the same. But Lucida’s horizontal lines are thinner than the verticals. How do you balance the two? The kanji font was already decided; the alphabet was decided. What to do? So I came up with the idea of creating a special hiragana and katakana design to balance out the two.

JB: Which makes sense because you use lots of katakana in menus, dialogs and such.

OT: Yes. Also, Lucida is thicker than Hiragino Gothic. In order to equalize out the balance, we created a gothic kana where the vertical line was thick and the horizontal line thinner. We figured the style would match. The katakana looked thin in comparison to Lucida, so we asked Apple to fine-tune them when they are anti-aliased. Apple engineers said they could and, when they sent some samples, I thought they looked good; and that’s what we decided to use.

New Osaka Kana Design
A comparison of the ‘New Osaka’ system font of MacOS X (top) and Hiragino Gothic W3 (bottom). The hiragana and katakana of New Osaka have a flatter, simple and bolder feel than Hiragino, to match Lucida Grande and are easier to read on computer screens.

JB: So the Japanese system font name is New Osaka?

OT: The kanji are Hiragino Kaku Gothic W3. The hiragana and katakana are new designs specifically for Mac OS X. The roman font is Lucida. Actually, we had a joke of calling the new hybrid font ‘Takadanobaba’ [the name of the train station near his company].

JB: What kind of designs are you thinking of doing from now on?

OT: I don’t think you really have to change font designs just for the screen. I don’t think fonts for books need to change. For doing e-mail and things, I think it would be better to have different designs.

Also screen technology is getting better. Screens in the future will have higher pixel densities. In that case, I don’t think Japanese font designs need to change. With today’s screen resolutions, you do need to fine tune things for better display. In today’s Japanese DTP, what you get on the screen tends to look more rounded than what actually comes out.

I think gothic is basically good for most things. Mincho is a problem. Mincho was basically designed to be easy on the eyes when reading long sentences— books, basically. Gothic has a springy, bolder, eye-catching feel that is better for reading e-mail and cellphone messages.

JB: You have a new font, don’t you?

OT: Yes, the Yumin font. We’re releasing it as an OpenType font. But it doesn’t have the OpenType Pro glyph set. We will add other glyph sets gradually as an upgrade. It was Suzuki’s last design. He died in 1998. He looked like a yakuza, especially when he wore sunglasses. But he had a soft voice. Before he passed on, he wanted to create a new font for reading novels. It went on sale in September [2001].

Suzuki's Last Design was Yumin
JIYUKOBO’s new Yumin. This was Suzuki’s last design, and it is one of the most beautiful Japanese digital fonts. It looks very similar to Hiragino, but it has a more petite, balanced feel that is very easy on the eyes in long sentences–perfect for novels.

Adobe Japan 1-4 doesn’t have all of the Japanese Industrial Standard [JIS] X0213 glyphs. JIS X0213 has all the possible characters used in Japan. So that is a standard that will probably be used as we go along. Apple’s APGS [Apple Publishing Glyph Set] has all of X0213.

JB: Are there any designs you want to do in the future?

OT: I’d like to create some kana fonts, Yuitsuki, for example. We’re expensive. Our Yumin is ¥100,000 for a single license, and that is just for the first year. The second year, it costs ¥70,000. We also have volume licenses. We have to have a business model so we can keep adding more features [glyph sets, etc.]. I think Morisawa must be having a tough time with OpenType…. We really don’t know how it’s going to pan out.

The bundling of Hiragino with OS X • macOS • iOS had a huge impact on the Japanese print market and subsequent development of Japanese font character sets. For details of that side of the Hiragino story see: Inside Hiragino: Hiragino Shock and Apple Publishing Glyph Set.

Hiragino Sans GB
(Unpublished followup interview with Torinoumi san in 2009)

Hiragino Sans GB is the new Chinese font included in Snow Leopard. According to sources close to Apple, the design started as a request from Apple during negotiations to renew Dainippon Screen’s Japanese Hiragino license for Mac OS X and iPhone. Apple reportedly drove a hard bargain and a Chinese version of Hiragino was part of the deal. Perhaps Apple realized the chance to get a high quality Simplified Chinese font for Snow Leopard and iPhone was too valuable to pass up.

Screen contacted one of the designers of Hiragino, JIYUKOBO founder Torinoumi san, “When Screen approached me about it I told them they should find a Chinese designer to do it because they would know what is right for China.”

Screen searched font design houses in China and eventually selected the ‘Beijing Hanyi Keyin Information Technology Co., Ltd.’ a company of 20 font designers and 20 engineers. Torinoumi san said, “We (JIYUKOBO and Screen) visited them in December 2007. The top designer is a young woman, Ms. Zhong. We couldn’t talk to each other because of the language barrier and didn’t know if we had the same design sensibility so she started pulling out the hand drawn templates for one of their designs and we went through them one by one. I would point out the design problems and she would nod her head in agreement and after a while I realized we both thought alike.”

“We worked with the Adobe GB 1-4 character set (29,064 glyphs) at 2 weights. Basically we had to finish one weight in 6 months. One year for the entire project. At first we only thought we would be there as backup, but Screen kept passing us all the questions from Beijing. It turned out to be a lot more work than we anticipated.”

JIYUKOBO sent all the original Hiragino design data to Hanyi Keyin through Screen and they adapted the designs for China. Torinoumi said that one of the major differences is that Chinese design demands that Gothic (sans serif) characters mimic handwritten style. This means the character should be slightly off center within the virtual body. “Even after the project was over I still didn’t understand the difference between Japanese and Chinese “Kokoro” glyphs which the Chinese designers insisted were different.”

Hiragino Sans comparison with Hiragino
Hiragino Pro and Hiragino Sans GB side by side The red circles highlight the Chinese design differences.
Hiragino Sans Comparison 2

Despite the design differences and the time constraints the project was successfully competed. Torinoumi said, “The 70 year old Chinese inspector from the Conformance Test Center for Information Technology Standards sent a letter praising the design. Beijing Hanyi Keyin told us that was the first time they had ever heard of that happening.”After handing off the designs to Screen, Screen’s font engineers did the 2 byte roll-up and encoding and delivered it to Apple for testing and font table tweaking during the Snow Leopard beta process.

The final product isn’t noticed much by westerners but has earned some praise in Asian typography blogs. Torinoumi explained that one of the criticisms some Japanese people have with Hiragino is it’s ‘too sharp’ looking. “When we designed Hiragino printing was still very much a photochemical process which rounded the corners going from film to plate just enough to give the effect we wanted. With computers and CTP (computer to plate) there is no blurring and the total effect is one of sharpness.

But this very sharpness is a quality that Chinese favor. “I don’t know if this is because Chinese characters were first written on bones then later in stone but sharpness is a key quality of Chinese font design.”

Dainippon Screen has released a package version of Hiragino Sans GB for sale in the Japanese market. Torinoumi said that since China is now Japan’s largest trading partner there is growing demand for high quality Chinese fonts for local printing needs. A single Hiragino Sans GB license with tax included costs 52,500 JPY. At present there are no plans to sell the font package outside of the Japanese market but Hiragino Sans GB is included in every copy of Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard.

Taiwanese blogger Lukens Liu has a lovely thoughtful review, Hiragino Sans GB: A typeface with Japanese soul and Simplified Chinese look.

In rough summary, Hiragino Sans GB is the Simplified Chinese version of the Hiragino typeface. The glyphs use the forms that are Chinese national standard. It’s designed to make Chinese characters look good in Japanese texts, and vice versa.

Japanese Typography and Font Posts

This is a collection of long form Japanese typography posts. They were written as stand alone pieces, so there is some background explanation overlap, always a weak point of the blog format.