Stroke Fonts Forever

The start point is the end point. The first time I saw Japanese stroke fonts in action, I had the same revelation Steve Jobs did when he visited Xerox PARC and was blinded seeing the first Graphical User Interface: this is the way it’s supposed to work. Stroke fonts are the way digital Kanji based CJK fonts are supposed to work. But they don’t work that way.

When one set of cultural priorities drive a technology standard, everybody else outside that culture is forced to adapt. This is the duality of technology and context at play. In one context a technology can be constructive and foster innovation, in another context the same technology can be stifling or even destructive. When DTP and PostScript fonts (the baseline font metrics layout model) were brought to Japan (the virtual body layout model) in the late 1980’s, it was both. It brought some innovation, but didn’t address important market needs because the technology was western centric and deemed ‘good enough’ for everywhere else.

Limitations of current outline font technology and the Japanese glyph set problem
When writing Hiragino Shock, it struck me how little things have changed, that 20 years later the most basic problems of digital Kanji fonts are still with us: a poor imitation of traditional virtual body layout using inadequate baseline font metrics, large files for each different weight of the same font family, confusing collections of different glyph sets. Regarding the last one I wrote:

For many developers (Adobe included), creating larger and larger fonts was not the best solution to handle the ever-evolving character standards. Adobe did go on to create more Japanese glyph collections but their ability to rally the industry around them diminished over time. Back in 2002 I thought that most Japanese fonts would probably stop at AJ 1-4, leaving Apple in the enviable position of giving users a industry standard super-font with every copy of Mac OS X…not a bad place to be. It’s pretty much how things panned out.

Former Apple MacOS text and layout architecture engineer Yasuo Kida echoed the same opinion and nailed it in the Hiragino Shock interview:

Another regret was that we should have created a solid subset (or subsets) of Apple Publishing Glyph Set / Adobe Japan 1-5. Applications that really need the whole set of APGS are books. Display typefaces obviously do not need the whole set, nor do magazines and so on. We were concerned that font developers might think it necessary, or be pressured from customers to develop whole AJ 1-5 or whatever whole set for every single font that they have when it is not really necessary.

To demonstrate this was not the case, we intentionally left some of our bundle fonts with a smaller subset. But it was not enough, it did not establish a solid character set category that everyone can follow. I should have worked with Adobe to develop a good standard subset based on X 0213 and give it a name. AJ 1-4 is not a good subset as it contains itaiji that many of applications do not need, and it does not contain important characters from JIS X 0213. AJ 1-4 is effectively used as a fallback subset right now.

The necessary glyph set depends on the job. Japanese book publishers need the Adobe Japan 1-5 glyph set, Japanese newspapers publishers need Adobe Japan 1-6 or 1-7, most magazines can make do with Adobe Japan 1-4 while most digital device display for apps only needs Adobe Japan 1-3. The situation is similar for all Kanji based CJK font collections in their respective markets and countries.

Font creation and end-user dilemmas
So what are customers supposed to do? Buy the most expensive font license subscriptions with the largest variety of glyph collections for each and every computer? Mix and match? And how much time and effort goes into managing all that when the production line or designer is juggling many different jobs that require many different fonts?

Going back to the original list of problems, let’s look at large glyph collections and large font file issues as one problem, and examine that problem on the font creation side and the font use side.

First of all you have to create all those Kanji glyphs. One of the glaring deficiencies of current outline technology is that every single Kanji must be traced and tweaked extensively. A ‘Standard’ Japanese font has 9,354 glyphs, the Adobe Japan 1-4 character set has 15,444 glyphs, Adobe Japan 1-5 has 20,317 glyphs.

Take that total and multiply by each weight (light, demi-bold, bold, etc.) that has to be designed and tweaked. It can and does take years to create a high quality Japanese font family, and so it goes. You have an idea of how much work goes into font-making and why Japanese fonts are so expensive. Last but not least the font files themselves are large—anywhere from 3 to 8 MB each—because the basic outline model is not efficient for complex shapes like Kanji.

Font file size is one of the problems that TrueType GX née OpenType Font Variation format (OFVF) is supposed to fix, but none of the major Japanese font vendors has released anything in OFVF. It’s a lot more work to do OFVF with Japanese fonts and the payback on all that extra work just isn’t there.

Put another way, if your business choice is using limited resources, do you use those limited resources: (1) to create new font designs that delight customers using the same production methods, or (2) to update and re-release old fonts in a slightly more convenient web font format? It’s a no-brainer that font development resources don’t go into OpenType Variable fonts.

The stroke font solution: taking outline fonts to the next level
Any solution has to be two fold: better tools to create large collections of Kanji based CJK fonts more efficiently and economically, and better ways to use them on devices that capture that same efficiency and economy. Stroke fonts address both of these problems.

Stroke fonts have been around for a long time in various forms. The beauty and eternal appeal of the technology is that it is very efficient at creating a large number of glyphs from a small reusable library of parts. This makes them perfect for small, power and memory contained devices, like Apple Watch. In 1995 Fontworks International was busy developing stroke based Japanese fonts of their library that used their built customer font scaler and OFA. What’s that? Let me back up and explain.

Anybody who has studied Chinese or Japanese knows that although each Kanji is unique, certain parts, i.e. strokes, occur again and again, recombining to create new characters. You can get a good feel for this by looking at Chinese or Japanese calligraphy. The brush is the most natural way to write Kanji, and with a little study, you quickly comprehend the order of strokes.

A group of researchers at Stanford in the late 70s~early 80s created prototype ‘Chinese vector fonts‘ based on the Metafont79 system that attempted to use Kanji stroke parts for computer display complex fonts in the extremely restricted memory and storage environments of early computer systems. Don Hosek started a project to refine and enhance those concepts based on Metafont84 before abandoning it for lack of financial support.

One of the real groundbreaking but unnoticed features of QuickDraw GX was Open Font Architecture, OFA for short. It was a simple but powerful concept: plug-in digital font scaler architecture that let font developers create new font technologies that ‘just worked’ by adding plug-in scalers: a plug-in scaler for PostScript, a plug-in scaler for TrueType, a plug-in scaler for stroke fonts and so on. Asian font developers such as Fontworks and DynaLab used OFA to create GX stroke based fonts.

In a similar way to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and vector font concepts, Fontworks International and DynaLab broke down their Kanji outline fonts into parts that loosely correspond to brush stokes. The crucial difference of these GX stroke fonts was that instead of earlier primitive ‘vector fonts’, they took outline font technology to the next level: smart outline stroke font technology for Kanji based fonts.

These smart outline stroke parts were kept in a library that the stroke-font scaler used to draw the character, resulting in a much smaller and more efficient font. At the time the Fontworks technical director, said that stroke technology “allows us to do weight variations over the full range from Light through Ultra Bold without losing typographic details all in a 4 MB font.” An equivalent OpenType Kanji font family can weigh in around 18 MB although a single OFVF file would likely reduce the size somewhat.

Stroke technology shines is character creation. Once a base library of stroke parts has been created, a designer can create high quality Kanji quickly and easily make adjustment and modifications. Fontworks then applied what they called ‘recipes’ to create different weights from the basic stroke part library. A key feature of the stroke font approach is that it preserves the stroke width as the part is scaled, which is impossible to do with regular outlines. This means efficient high quality blending is possible over the entire rage of font weights, difficult to with OpenType Kanji variable fonts.

Smarter stroke fonts take outline fonts to the next level

Post GX stroke font development
Tomihisa Uchida was the lead font engineer for the Fontworks stroke font project that had two goals: QuickDraw GX stroke font versions of the Fontworks library to be bundled by Apple in Copland OS, a font productions tool suite called ‘2X2’ that used stroke technology for glyph creation and editing, but could export in multiple formats (Illustrator, etc.). After Apple hit the kill switch on Copland, Fontworks scrapped their GX stroke font project. The 2X2 production tool morphed into Gaiji Editor that shipped in 2000. Unfortunately Gaiji Master was killed in 2001 when Uchida san left Fontworks and joined Iwata KK to lead their font engineering team.

Since retiring from Iwata, Uchida san is working again on a stroke font based production tool. He showed it to me in 2019. The video I took shows some the features: the ability to switch between ‘full outline’ and ‘stroke outline’, intelligent point handles for efficient part editing and much more. Watching it in action is like seeing his entire Japanese font engineering career knowledge compressed into an application.

Demo of Tomihisa Uchida’s stroke outline font editing tool. The ability to edit and switch back and forth from full outline to stroke parts might look mundane to the untrained eye but can greatly accelerate Kanji glyph creation

Stroke fonts saw quite a bit of action in Japan in the pre-iPhone handset era. The explosion of 3G Internet capable Symbian OS Japanese handsets with Docomo iMode and compatible services, leap frogging display sizes and specs demanded high quality scalable Japanese fonts that fit tiny storage and memory requirements. With their tiny overhead using a library of font parts to create a large variety of fonts, stroke fonts were the perfect solution. There were many handset stroke fonts: Morisawa had KeiType, Ascender Corp (later bought by Monotype) had Compact Asian font technology and Taiwan font developer DynaComware had DigiType.

Stroke fonts: a perfect match for smart devices
As far as I know, none of these are still used in the smartphone era. However the advantages of stroke font technology grow exponentially as device sizes shrink. Apple Watch, health trackers, AR glasses. Tiny compact high quality Kanji fonts with a wide variety of weights are essential. There are other non-Roman writing systems that could benefit as well. In 2016 industry sources said Apple was actively searching for “the best stroke font technology.” Maybe Apple plans to do something with it, maybe not.

The problem with OpenType fonts is not the technology, it’s simply that the current OpenType standard is a desktop era solutioin that has not evolved: it has not evolved to address the western cultural priorities that inform the standard, it has not evolved for the smart device era with storage and memory constraints. Let’s assume Apple is doing something with stroke fonts. They can fix a few problems:

  • Stroke font scaler and format: a stroke based system font doesn’t have to fit within the restrictive OpenType format, but it can be developed in mind to be upwardly compatible, if and when OpenType evolves.
  • Solving CJK glyph set confusion: because stroke fonts reuse the same basic library parts, supporting the largest CJK glyph sets is not a problem. It also makes CJK all-in-one fonts practical and also solves the problem with current CJK fonts: one design doesn’t fit every culture sensibility, what looks good to Chinese users does not to Japanese users and so on. Glyph variation ‘recipies’ for different cultural regions correctly display the versions that look best.

In addition to this there is one last problem not immediate to stroke fonts but related to vertical layout. As Adobe’s Nat McCully pointed out, ‘real’ vertical layout is impossible to do across apps and on the web with the current OpenType baseline model:

  • No font metrics for virtual body/em-box glyph space placement: everything has to be accomplished with baseline metrics
  • No reliable space control
  • No reliable line breaks
kanji box 3
A virtual body Kanji with approximate baseline overlay red line.
character spacing@2x
Character spacing and tracking are different concepts in Japanese typography as well.
Kumihan character spacing is the amount of space measured between outer virtual box boundaries, the 10% red area
On the other hand tracking, ji-tsume in Japanese, is the amount of space measured between type face boundaries and virtual body boundaries, the blue area

Right now InDesign J is the only application that does real vertical layout because Adobe created proprietary Japanese font table metrics for virtual body layout. There needs to be open standard virtual body metrics included in font tables for robust real vertical layout that works across applications and on web pages because using CSS will never cut it. Along with the stroke fonts Apple could deploy new AAT tables incorporating virtual body metrics, again in mind to be upwardly compatible at a later time, just like TrueType GX variation font AAT was for OpenType variable fonts.

Not that any of this will happen, but I wanted to write about it one last time in the hope that by laying out the issues, the solutions can somehow live on. The end point is the start point.

Many thanks to Tomihisa Uchida and many other great folks from Fontworks, Iwata, Morisawa, Adobe and Apple who shared their time, thoughts and opinions over the years. It was a blast.

ありがとうございました!

Sha-Ken finally launches a website

The Sha-Ken web site uses Noto Sans JP…

Sha-Ken finally got a website, listing themselves as Sha-Ken Co., Ltd. Big deal so what, except that it’s not 1991 or even 2001. A font company doing business without a website until 2021 is tantamount to not doing business at all. That it has taken them some 30 years to acknowledge digital fonts on the web says all that you need to know about the tragic Sha-Ken saga. The site has samples of famous classic Sha-Ken fonts that are certainly the OpenType launch candidates due in 2024, a full archive is due to go online in May. There is also a dreamy catchphrase: ‘building the next future of fonts and type culture,’ but the site design uses Google Noto Sans JP fonts…not a Sha-Ken web font to be found. Actually Sha-Ken is building supermarkets while leaving digital font development of their venerable library to Morisawa. And as FeliCa Dude gleefully notes, the company hagiography does not mention the 1999 infamous tax scandal.

There is another 1999 scandal that few people outside of Apple and Sha-Ken of that time know about: Apple almost bought Sha-Ken, or at least the library. In 1998 and 1999 I was close to Ross Evans, the founder of Fontworks. I wrote about Fontworks’ QuickDraw GX based Japanese stroke font technology and font designs that were due to be bundled as the default Japanese system font in the ill-fated MacOS Copeland. That did not pan out obviously but Ross had many close contacts within the Apple typography engineering and publishing market groups and kindly plugged me into that world including Jeff Martin who was the VP overseeing DTP marketing and developer relation efforts.

One day in early February 1999 I woke up to find a email from Jeff’s secretary asking me to contact Jeff right away. I did and his email immediately bounced back from the Apple corporate email server ‘user does not exist’, so did the secretary email address. In the space of 5 hours Jeff Martin’s position in Apple, along with his email address had vanished into thin air.

I later pieced together the story from Ross and others in Apple, many of whom soon followed Jeff out the door: Jeff had arranged a deal between Apple and Sha-Ken but the deal along with Jeff’s career at Apple were ‘Steved’ at the last second, right about the time that Japanese tax officers found millions of Japanese yen hidden away in basement safes at Sha-Ken corporate headquarters (worth more than 200 million worth in USD at the time). I never found out what he wanted to ask me.

Apple of course signed a licensing deal with Screen for the Hiragino fonts that became the MacOS X Japanese font, and iOS Japanese font later on. Perhaps the Screen deal was another reason for the collapse of the Sha-Ken one. We’ll never know. Still it’s fun to think about what would have happened had the Apple Sha-Ken deal gone through as planned.

The Seybold Legacy

I was fortunate to write for the Seybold Report in the last few years of its original incarnation in Media PA. Jonathan Seybold was gone by then but the editors and staff still put out a great publication, with insight and depth that made it the most respected newsletter in the printing industry.

It’s hard for people not of that era to understand how important the Seybold publication was, the vanguard of computers and printing, and the genius of Jonathan Seybold creating connections between the two with his Seybold Seminars. It’s not an exaggeration to say that desktop publishing (DTP) and web browsers would not have happened the way they did without him and his father John Seybold. That’s why I was thrilled to find the Oral History of Jonathan Seybold courtesy of the Computer History Museum. There are lots of mentions of Seybold out there but very little history. It’s great that his contribution and history is on record now, required viewing if you have any interesting in computers and print and how they came together. A revolution that changed print forever.

A Japanese font design legacy restored: Morisawa and Sha-Ken agree to co-develop the Sha-Ken font library for OpenType

Today is great day for Japanese typography: Morisawa and Sha-Ken announced they will co-develop the Sha-Ken font library for OpenType (English press release here), due for release in 2024 in celebration of the Japanese typesetter they created 100 years ago. The founders of Morisawa (Nobuo Morisawa) and Sha-Ken (Mokichi Ishii) co-created the first modern Japanese typesetter in 1924 but quickly became 2 different family companies. By the late 1970’s Sha-Ken had grown to be the dominate force of the Japanese pre-press market with the largest and most sought after font library. In the 1980’s it started to unravel.

Sha-Ken never made the transition to digital pre-press and PostScript fonts, which Morisawa did with a very profitable licensing agreement with Adobe. When Sha-Ken announced OpenType fonts at the 2011 International eBook Expo, they were a has-been company run into the ground by sheer greed. They never delivered on that promise. As the former Sha-Ken lead font engineer told me, there was no font engineer talent left in the company to do the job of re-creating the proprietary digital format library into OpenType.

Now that Sha-Ken is finally free of the founder family, since 2018, they are cutting a deal with Morisawa who have the necessary talent and font engineering expertise to bring the Sha-Ken font library into the digital era. They even have Jiyukobo, creators of the Hiragino Japanese system fonts used in macOS and iOS, which Morisawa bought in 2019. An interesting side story: Apple negotiated with Sha-Ken to purchase their library shortly after Steve Jobs returned but it never came to be, Jeff Martin should be proud of today’s announcement.

It’s hard to emphasize how important this development is. Imagine the LinoType library, or everyday standards like Helvetica, New York, etc. were never licensed as digital fonts…until now. I doubt the first release will encompass OpenType Variable Fonts due to cost and time restraints. Morisawa has yet to release anything in that format so far.

The co-developer team will also have to prioritize and edit as the Sha-Ken library is huge and only a small subset ever made it onto proprietary Sha-Ken digital typesetters. There are huge glyph variation and feature holes to fill. Just getting a simplified basic Sha-Ken library in OpenType format will be a tremendous job.

The 2024 delivery date is important in more ways than the 100th anniversary of Japanese typesetting. With Sha-Ken selling off everything they can over the past 2 years, 2024 is when the last Sha-Ken digital typesetters go out of service. Sha-Ken will stop pretending to be a font developer, cut loose their last remaining 100 customers and live on as a real estate holding company. Morisawa is the only listed contact on the co-development announcement, they will eventually buy out the Sha-Ken library.

But that’s a story for another day. Today is a celebration. After nearly 100 years of separation, 2 halves of a whole are coming together again. In Requiem for Sha-Ken I wrote, “When the last person turns out the lights at Sha-Ken KK, I hope they open the vaults and set the Sha-Ken font library free. Only by taking flight and having a life of its own can it ever hope to live on in the hearts and imaginations of future Japanese designers.” Japanese designers finally have their font legacy back.


Sha-Ken finally has a web site and an archive of their font library
Sha-Ken’s last hurrah font announcement in 2011 never panned out
Sha-Ken’s 2011 OpenType font announcement listed Ishii Mincho and Ishii Gothic, these will likely be the first candidates for release in 2024 from Morisawa. A fuller list of classic Sha-Ken font samples here. Sha-Ken fonts were widely used by manga printers in the 70’s and 80’s and permeated the print culture of the era.
The old Sha-Ken Saitama factory site was demolished for a supermarket mall in 2020

Reference posts and background links:
Requiem for Sha-Ken
Inside Hiragino: the macOS Japanese system font story
Inside Hiragino: Hiragino Shock and Apple Publishing Glyph Set
CSS and The State of Japanese Vertical Layout
The Second Wave of Japanese Desktop Publishing
Apple’s Once and Future Japanese Variable System Font
History of Sha-Ken and Morisawa Photo Typesetter development (great article by a Japanese desginer written in German!)

Power and Responsibility and Cultural Respect

It took me a while to fully appreciate the issue that Twitter user Yoshimasa Niwa was describing. At first glance I and many others assumed that setting Japanese over English would solve his app library sorting issue.

Then I realized that wasn’t his point at all. The software app in the screenshot is the Yahoo Japan ‘Norikae Annai’ transit app, one of the most popular free stand alone transit apps in Japan. I use it all the time. It’s a Japanese app with a Japanese name but the basic iOS English sorting algorithm ignores this and assumes all Chinese characters used everywhere must follow modern mainland China’s Simplified Chinese rules for reading and sorting.

This is ridiculous as assuming that all Roman based character sets everywhere must follow modern Italian reading and sorting rules. I always find that westerners assume the Kanji culture flow was always one way from China which it is not, with different and unique readings, usages, and Japanese Kanji like shitsuke 躾 traveling the other way over the centuries. The same is true for other cultures that adapted the Chinese writing system for their languages.

It amounts to cultural destruction by neglect and ignorance by large western based technology companies who think things are ‘good enough’. Or are just bugs to fix in a later software update that usually never appears. Modern computer software has pretty much destroyed traditional kanji culture publishing this way, with many countries abandoning mainstream traditional vertical text layout for western style layout because ‘it’s easier’, i.e. western tech companies couldn’t be bothered getting Asian language typography right. All these years later web browsers still can’t do vertical text worth a damn.

A veteran Japanese font engineer whose entire career was devoted to preserving high end Japanese typography in the digital age recently told me, “I don’t think anybody cares anymore.” In the end it all too often comes down to this: I don’t care cultural death by I don’t care companies who have the money and power to care.

That’s bitter irony in our age that purports to champion cultural diversity.