Japanese Text Layout for the Future* (hint: there isn’t one)

I finally had time to catch Adobe Nat McCully’s ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation. He covers the topic that I have covered in depth many times before: the (sad) state of CJK typography. As Nat points out most software developers and system engineers talk about CJK support as typography without any idea of what it means. Throwing CJK glyphs on a screen is not typography, they are not the same thing at all.

The defining feature of CJK typography and layout in general and Japanese typography in particular is that space is an essential composition element equal with text and graphics, with fine space element control way beyond a baseline. Instead of thinking about how much space should be between text, flip it around and think about how much text should be between the space. Baseline font metrics will never deliver great CJK typography because there are too many limitations. So everybody implements the missing stuff on the fly and everybody does it different. Unfortunately the irony of it all is that Adobe played a huge role in how these limitations played out in the evolution of digital fonts, desktop publishing (DTP) and the situation we have today.

QuickDraw GX was probably the only time in computer history that fonts, layout engine and the basic OS came together to solve these limitations for all language systems, all language typography as equal from the bottom up. Parts of that effort survived, such as Apple’s San Francisco variable system font based on the TrueType GX model, and the inclusion of the TrueType GX model as the base technology for OpenType Variable fonts. Nice as this is, it’s only a tiny sliver of the GX vision pie that survived, all the other baseline font metric and CJK typography limitations still exist. Outside of a handful of people like Nat at Adobe, and the Adobe CJK typography ghetto approach of keeping all the good stuff corralled in InDesign J, very little is being done to address them.

Call me a pessimist but after 20 years of watching things slide sideways, I don’t see much hope for the future evolution of great CJK typography on digital devices. Most western software development people think that having CKJ glyphs on a screen is ‘good enough’ CJK typography, end of story.

Already I see the OpenType Variable Font effort devolving into a bauble for web developer geeks, always stuck in demo-hell, never going mainstream. It is the same story for quality CJK typography on digital devices. When the current Adobe CJK leaders like McCully and Ken Lunde reach retirement age, whom have devoted their careers to fixing these problems, I think it will be the end of an era. In many ways we are already there.

Apple prides itself on having good typography but cannot be bothered with such Japanese typography basics as not mixing Gothic and Ryumin Japanese font styles seen here in the Photos app

Ken Lunde posted a wonderful overview of his Adobe career to date, also his ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation.


You thought the Apple Pay Octopus launch was taking too long? Just ask EasyCard

Japanese transit companies like the JR Group (JR East, JR Central, JR West) are often criticized for being opaque and buddy buddy with politicians, but every transit agency around the world has to deal with politicians and governments on some level. That just comes with the job.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are unique transit markets with tight integration and highly evolved transit card systems. Hong Kong and Taiwan have it easier than Japan in some ways as smaller usually means less baggage to carry going forward. But, being smaller has a downside too in that the breathing space between transit companies and government agencies is uncomfortably small, and sometimes suffocating.

Because of this, Hong Kong residents occasionally have a sarcastic distrustful view of Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) management, despite the fact that OCL delivers best of class services. Witness the frustration of OCL dragging out the Apple Pay Octopus launch details announcement. As one Hong Kong iPhone user told me, “I won’t believe it (Apple Pay Octopus) is really happening until Apple (not OCL) announces it.”

A similar situation is happening with Taiwan’s EasyCard. In mid August 2018, service updates for Mastercard kiosk recharge indicated that MRT was preparing some kind of mobile service. I assumed MIFARE was coming to iOS 12, bingo, and that Apple Pay would add EasyCard and iPass, but Samsung Pay snagged EasyCard with a formal announcement on April 11 and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. The reality is that EastCard has yet to launch on Samsung Pay and will start ‘testing’ from October. What happened?

A few days ago an older post about SuicaENG and the Wallet UI suddenly got lots of hits from Taiwan. I was scratching my head as Taiwan traffic is usually smallish and tried to Google Translate the Taiwanese site generating the traffic, but the result was incomprehensible. Fortunately a reader from Taiwan living in Japan kindly provided an explanation of EasyCard politics:

OK, EasyCard Corp is catching flak for…being slow to launch a mobile transit card service, on their own, without Cubic running the show? Being slow to launch a mobile transit card is not unique. Just ask the companies that run ICOCA, Toica, PASMO, etc., they don’t have their transit cards on mobile either and have far larger infrastructure budgets. This stuff takes time because everything transit absolutely has to work perfectly all the time. 7pay fuckups are not an option.

I can understand why Hong Kong iPhone users are a little frustrated with OCL taking their sweet time to launch Apple Pay Octopus, but when it finally launches, the tidal wave of iPhone users will make Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay look like the tiny beta test group that it is. Let’s just hope that Sunny Cheung and OCL are on it and working hard. And you are working hard on it, right Sunny?

Train Manner Posters

Train station posters promoting safety and good manners are a stock item in Japan and are all about promoting safe transit. No drunk naked Halloween partying Aussies on the Yamanote line for me please. Boring, punctual, safe, fast transit is all I want.

Manner posters are usually humorous and light hearted. It’s easier to keep good manners when you can laugh at yourself. The latest JR East effort is along the lines of ‘don’t be a bird brain’ that plays on the different meanings of the Japanese word ‘toori’ which can mean bird, street, or on time. Japanese love word play and are well aware that, ‘Manner de Keep’ is not grammatically correct anything, it’s just fun and catchy.

And the message is a good one: don’t be a bird brain and walk around while looking at your smartphone. It’s dangerous. Put it away and pay full attention to your surroundings. That will help everybody be on time.


The mercilessly hot Japanese summer is mercifully short. It is also silly and serious in equal measure. There is the mundane business of summer vacations, parents keeping kids occupied with things to do, visiting family, Obon and Bon Odori. There is also the higher order level serious and silly connected with the end of the Pacific War. Part of my job includes helping out with an annual ceremony honoring all victims of the war and praying for World Peace at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. It’s a quiet dignified ceremony, but the number of participants has dwindled since the time the ceremony was started in the early 1960s and continues to shrink every year.

The number of family members from Japan and abroad honoring their war dead at nearby Yasukuni Shine continues to shrink too, but I am always surprised by the growing number of silly noisy activists, from Japan and abroad, lining the sidewalks leading up to Yasukuni and Chidorigafuchi. They are far too young to have any direct connection with the war, yet their numbers swell each year. I don’t know who funds those groups but it’s a demented kind of matsuri festival vibe of people not connected with the war that’s not only in Japan but also Korea. That’s why I call the first half of August the silly season.

The recent Aichi prefecture art exhibit After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ tempest in a teacup is a perfect example of silly season nonsense. When perennial troublemaker Daisuke Tsuda first hinted that his latest effort might be controversial, I checked and saw all the classic signs of silly season: early August, check, burning pictures of Showa Emperor, check, Comfort Woman statue, check.

I knew the resulting brouhaha would turn out to be the perfect summer gift to Motoko Rich of the New York Times who loves to write articles that illustrate what a bad society Japan is, I was right. There are lots of western journalists who make good money in Japan by bashing it. It’s a kind of fun sport for them, but it’s not good journalism or reportage of what’s really going on in Japan.

The fuzzy origins of comfort woman statue used in the After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ exhibit are interesting. The statue was originally designed to commemorate the tragedy of two junior high school students killed by an American army truck in 2002. I had always wondered about the empty chair. As the Japanese tweet points out, the other statue was removed because the image didn’t translate well to the appearance of the Pacific War era, but the chair remained. The comfort woman statue is repurposed history that has grown into a cottage industry. It is said a comfort woman statue costs about 3 thousand dollars to make and is sold for installations 100 times that, often more. Nobody asks where or whom the money goes to.

There was a lot more silly season nonsense this week from the Washington Post too: How Japan’s failure to atone for past sins threatens the global economy. In it, Gregg A. Brazinsky makes his case that Japan removing South Korea from the A group of preferred nations for the export of semiconductor materials, and returning it to the B group where it had been up until 2004, is ‘economic war’ saying “Japan’s moves have already caused a spike in the price of memory chips and are having a chilling effect on the global tech market.”

Actually, there’s a glut of memory chips in the highly cyclical industry. Korean manufacturers are still experiencing an inventory glut that is expected to last until at least January 2020. It’s a sly deception that Brazinsky does later on in the piece by mixing comfort women and war labor issues, finally arriving at his punchline: “Japanese society has failed to acknowledge and show remorse for what its armies did during World War II.”

I seriously question the morality of forcing a highly flawed history narrative, or any historical narrative for that matter, on younger generations that have no connection with said history, and demand that they must atone for it. Even from the tiny vantage point of Chidorigafuchi, I guess all that money and effort spent on all those memorial ceremonies 60 years running to honor all victims of the Pacific War and pray for world peace doesn’t mean anything to Gregg A. Brazinsky.

One of the interesting things about living in Japan is that there are lots of Koreans living here who don’t agree with the history narratives reported in the media like the New York Time and Washington Post. Particularly for the generation who lived during those times. One elderly Korean woman who’s family moved to Japan in the 1930s lectured me for over an hour once saying, “the Japanese were stern but fair.” Her family had done well, with her brothers and sons getting a good education, becoming lawyers and successful businessmen. Her story of those times is remarkably similar to others I have heard over the years and the one that Seoul University emeritus professor Lee Young-hoon discusses in a Japan Forward piece from 2017.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned from living in Japan a long time, is that things are never what they seem, and that history is just like any human creation. Like any human creation, like religion or philosophy, history can be used for good purposes or bad. History comes with a point of view, an ego, and the agenda of the person telling the narrative. It’s one small piece of a larger story that we, as outsiders, can never truly know.

To me, if history is not living in the history book, it’s being used as a tool to get something in the here and now, be it money or power politics. That’s not history, it’s something else. Two history wrongs don’t make a history right. Nothing can. That’s the reason I don’t listen to media reports about the Japanese, Korean or Chinese ‘history problems’ anymore. I listen to people, one on one, but not the media.

Tomorrow, August 16, is Okuribi, the small flames set outside a house at the end of Obon, sending the family ancestors back to heaven after honoring them. It marks the end of summer and the silly season, a slow return to regular life.

As we move farther away from the events and the people who lived in past times, it’s less about history, more about us. There’s a Buddhist saying that forgetting about ancestors is just as important as remembering them, it’s all part of respecting them. At some point we must let go and move forward to better things that I truly believe the people of those time wished us to do.

Apple Music Japan Updates “For You” Section

The Apple Music ‘For You’ section that was updated in the USA store on April 15, finally arrived on the Japan store today. The update offers much more customized content than the previous ‘For You’ for which I am glad, the old one had too much weekly repeats to keep my interest.

After listening to the Ramones, Apple Music immediately offered Punk bands galore, Monkees, Rolling Stones and many other interesting offbeat content. I look forward to playing with it. One thing I like right off is that disliking something immediately removes it from suggestion lists. Goodbye U2, may you never pollute my suggestion lists again. The real test will be how much good Japanese rock ‘n roll listening Apple Music offers up in addition to the standard western stuff.

It’s very strange that HomePod is still missing from the Japan market. There are lots of audiophiles with money here, with the right marketing approach HomePod could do well. Unfortunately Japanese artist kana sorting tags on Apple Music are still such a mess that kana sorting is remains broken since iCloud Music Library appeared. Every Japanese artist from Yumin to Utada ends up at the very bottom in the under # in iCloud Music Library no matter what you add to the Japanese kana sorting fields in iTunes. And if Japanese kana sorting is broken, Siri on HomePod is broken too. And if iTunes is going away in macOS 10.15, Japanese kana sorting for iCloud Music Library may be broken forever.