Reading Others’ Handwriting: The Ultimate Weakness

Everyone expects areas of ability to vary in strength depending upon your focus and the training you put in. If you don’t care about something, you let it become frail. You accept your weaknesses, and study based on the reasons you are learning Japanese and what you want to use it for. You always have the opportunity to strengthen your weaknesses later once the need or desire arises.

But there is one weakness which is universal. If you study Japanese in the 21st century you will have it.

Every Japanese Learners Ultimate Weakness 6


Handwriting? Who needs that?

You don’t need to have good handwriting, whether in your native language or Japanese. It’s a skill that you decide the value of. For me it was always at the bottom of any ranking. However, everyone has probably put some time into handwriting in their early stages. If you are taking Japanese in some kind of class format, you also practice it.

But I’m talking about a skill that you may have put nearly 0 experience points into for months or years.

Reading native Japanese handwriting.

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If you are studying on Jalup, you did not grow up going to a school in Japan. School is where you get the most practice of reading things written by hand. You did not grow up reading others’ handwriting, whether that of your friends, teachers, family, or material you were studying. Native Japanese speakers have decades of reading handwriting experience. Handwriting reading experience may be on the decline due to cell phones in recent years, but it is still there.

What’s the problem? Japanese handwriting is Japanese after all.

Neat handwriting is not a problem. Neat handwriting resembles typed out characters. There are some slight differences, but it’s fairly close. For the most part, as long as you can read Japanese fluently, you can read neat Japanese handwriting fluently if you give it a little time to get used to.

But there is an evil lurking out there: sloppy handwriting.

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There are varying levels of sloppy handwriting.

1. A little sloppy
2. Sloppy
3. Very sloppy
4. What the hell is this?

The typical Japanese native person can understand 1 fine, 2 mostly, 3 to some extent, and 4 just just a little bit. You, however, may not be able to understand any of it. Your inability to comprehend handwriting is due to your lack of experience. Handwriting, just like in English, is different. Being fluent in Japanese will allow you to use your analytical mind to make out many hard-to-read characters. But the worse it gets, the more you need to have had previous experience with sloppy handwriting.

Then there is Japanese calligraphy, which I’m convinced the harder it is to read, the more beautiful it is considered. But that’s a whole other topic…

So What?

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When would you need to deal with sloppy handwriting. No big deal if you can’t read it, right?

It depends.

You have two big situations that you will need to be able to read handwriting.

  1. Working at a Japanese company: people often take notes by hand. They use whiteboards. Japanese companies still do old fashioned things (fax machine anybody?) Don’t forget that most people applying for jobs still have to hand write their resumes before sending them.
  2. Translation: If you want to become a translator you may be given handwritten translation assignments occasionally. Let me tell you straight up: I hate them. These assignments drop your pace down, and require you to go into ultra deep-thinking mode.  If you are an aspiring translator, you don’t want to have to turn down a job because it involves handwriting.

Think you are safe because neither of these situations applies to you?

If you plan on living in or even just visiting Japan, it will come up in all kinds of public places. For example, there are many handwritten signs inside and outside restaurants in Japan. In supermarkets. In convenience stores. While this type of handwriting is usually of the non-sloppy variety, it can slow you down a bit.

Can you overcome the weakness?

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Yes. Just like everything else, it involves practice. If you want to understand the news, you must listen to the news. The same applies here. Getting this practice isn’t easy to come by, but you have a few options:

● Write letters back and forth with Japanese people.
● Read online diaries (some people even write diaries where they hand write letters and then put the text below them).
● Check out Social media where people hand write (you see this often on Instagram)

Unfortunately, most of this handwriting is at worst a little sloppy. People that engage in the above write somewhat neatly. So you are going to have to go out of your way to dig and find some sloppy documents. I’ve gotten most of my (painful) experience from translating handwritten documents.

At first it a took a long time. Eventually I started to get the hang of it. I can handle “a little sloppy” and “sloppy” now. Very sloppy and what the hell are still out of reach. But then again, it can depend on individual handwriting style. Sometimes a unique handwriting style that is just a little sloppy can still pose a problem.

Your experience

Have any of you struggled with improving your handwriting-reading ability? How did you do it? Where did you find sources to practice that ability? Or maybe you’ve decided you’ll never need to read handwriting ever?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Reading Others’ Handwriting: The Ultimate Weakness — 22 Comments

  1. Oh Handwriting, brings back bad memories to me.. been only learning jp since 2yrs (self-study stuff) & since i only started learning to read jp VNs i never focused much on writing, only how being able to read. when i kind of got into to write with some random japanese ppl on forums online, somehow i found someone who wanted to be penpals so she wrote me a letter in jp..that was a pretty big shock, cause eventhough she was friendly enough to put furigana over all the kanjis, reading the handwriting was just waay too hard for me lol. eventhough she was a girl – and girls usually should write pretty clear and pretty right? – that wasnt the case for me at all.. well luckily i had a friend who helped me decipher what there stood. well anyway, it took me lot of time to write her back a letter in jp, pretty shitty handwriting and i tried my best & asked her to write a bit more clear for me cuz i had troubles. but she never wrote back though, probl cuz my handwriting was too shitty.. pretty disheartening.

    that online dictionary site seems pretty good for reading practise though, almost makes me want to go back to practising jp writing but writing kanjis…. not really fun haha.

  2. I have sloppy handwriting to begin with but my sloppiness in Japanese is much different than a Japanese person’s sloppiness. Like they give up on writing the Kanji and just draw a very vague picture. I can read sloppy kana ok but Kanji…

    • Yeah it takes some time to get used to writing your own natural Japanese sloppiness (though not really a goal that needs to be aimed for).

  3. The first and third writing pictures look alright to me, so I’m curious about the second. How do native Japanese speakers decipher sloppy handwriting? Even if it’s mostly unconscious, there must still be some kind of process involved.

    Is it possible to figure out a kanji or word based on stroke mark placement? It looks like you can see the stroke order and where each began and ended even if the middle points are disconnected. Then if you’re familiar with handwriting yourself, it may be easier to mentally fill in the blanks.

    I haven’t handwritten kanji in… jeez months or possibly a couple of years, but I do remember recognizing a definite logic in how they’re formed just from the motions of writing them. Even seeing some 20 stroke kanji for the first time, I’d know how to copy it in the correct order without looking at the steps. Maybe a similar logic works for reading it. I wonder if I’m making any sense at all..

    • I’m not really that experienced on it, and I’ve just learned to pick up somewhat sloppy handwriting from brute force having to decipher what it is. The difficulty is when strokes and kanji (especially high stroke count kanji) are completely changed for ease of writing.

      There may be some systematic way of doing, but I haven’t done the research on this.

      • I noticed with English that if you write really fast, characters kind of turn into their cursive form, though not as elegantly. I believe to a certain extent Kanji ends up being the same way.

        That said, there are some Kanji dictionaries out there that actually show the cursive form of characters, so I guess if you were interested in figuring out out what the system was, then I’d start there.

  4. Even in english i write so fast and sloppy that 99% of the time noone else can read my handwriting except me. I even go back to things I wrote ages ago and cant make out all the words sometimes. When I try and read sloppy japanese handwriting now I know how it feels when others try to read mine

  5. Ugh handwriting yes. Sometimes at the back of manga volumes the author might include omake, but usually I either skip these entirely or struggle through the first couple panels and quit because reading handwriting, especially kanji, is a pain. Both my English and Japanese handwriting are practically illegible (English probably more than Japanese), though, so I’m not in a place to complain haha.

    • Ahh the handwriting in manga. I completely forgot about that. I also used to skip that because it was too much of a headache to go through.

    • Gosh yes I have the same problem. I really Want to read the author notes but man I have no clue what they’re saying (other than profusely thanking the reader for getting the volume)

  6. I haven’t had to read anything handwritten for at least 8 years, so this article brought back a lot of memories. It’s particularly difficult because even native Japanese have a hard time with kanji and there will be mistakes there that we have to learn to decipher. Another thing that I never picked up was Japanese shorthand because who wants to write the whole kanji when you can get the general shape that other native speakers will understand. Unfortunately there aren’t any resources for us to learn these and we just have to keep asking until we pick it up.

      • I’m sure there is somewhere! I remember watching a video (documentary or NHK..) where students were learning how to write the strokes for shorthand writing and what each of those strokes mean. But I forgot where I saw that…

  7. I followed the link of the second picture. It’s funny to see that even the person who received it had also troubles deciphering it:
    「これから気候も落ち着きます  皆々様の益々のご健勝を祈ります
      蛇穴へ パターでさそう ○○○○(うっ・・読めない!) 」
    (That’s toward the end of the text in the picture).

    I wonder if learning/practicing calligraphy would help getting used to reading handwriting? On the one hand, you would be focusing on an extremely stylized version of it, but on the other hand, you would probably get a deeper understanding of the hand movements involved and thus a greater ease to decipher sloppy moves (maybe?).

    • I could see knowledge of calligraphy possibly helping, even with the differences between sloppy handwriting (especially shorthand) and calligraphy.

  8. I’ve found some webcomics that are completely handwritten. For a relatively easy one try ぼくらのじかん on comico. The artist’s handwriting is pretty easy to read and at least it gets your feet wet.

    • Nice! Thanks for including that series. It’s always good to get more fun handwriting reading practice down.

    • Your link is just a little sloppy (1), but easy to read.

      And ranking the 3 pics? That’s a bit difficult and very subjective, but maybe:

      1: Neatish
      2: somewhere between sloppy and very sloppy
      3: somehwere between a little sloppy and sloppy

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