Which is backwards? Japanese or English?

Why are some languages written from right to left and others from left to right?

Let’s start at the beginning – 3500 B.C. which is when most scientists accept that was when the first forms of writing using an alphabet rather than pictures were developed. The Egyptian and Indian hieroglyphics are older, but are different as the letters used aren’t used as an alphabet we might recognise today. Chinese by comparison emerged around 1200BC. The following image is an example of a few words from the earliest known cuneiform writing through to the latest. 3500BC through to 500BC.


As you can see, much like the origins of Chinese characters, known in Japanese as Kanji, people who began using cuneiform 5000 years ago wrote by drawing simple pictures and over the years began to take different, more uniform forms for better understanding between two people.

Which is backwards? English or Japanese?

The reason why I started talking about cuneiform is because, as it’s the earliest known form of writing… is it written from left to right, like English, or right to left like traditional Japanese? Early on in its development, cuneiform was written from left to right like English. It has been hypothesized that this is because right-handed scribes would smudge their work if they wrote from right to left. However, some forms of modern cuneiform, like Persian is written from right to left, backwards by comparison. Why, and when written languages started writing right to left is a mystery.

So I guess you can say that historically, English being written from left to right is the way the first writers wrote, so Japanese would be backwards.

Old Japanese Shodo
Old Japanese Shodo

Because they are based on characters rather than letters, Chinese and Japanese can be written horizontally or vertically. Traditionally, Chinese and Japanese was written in vertical columns with the text starting in the top right corner of the page, running down and then to the left. Today, Chinese and Japanese have mimicked the direction of English and is more commonly written in rows starting from the top left corner, written from left to right and down the page.

There is a theory that Chinese and Japanese developed being written from top to bottom, left to right so as to keep scribes and monks disciplined with their brushwork, forcing them to raise their arm in the correct motion so as to not smudge their work. Writing from left to right would supposedly make them lazy.

Category: HistoryInterestingResourcesWriting

Tags: englishhistoryjapanese


  1. this is very interesting I knew that the traditional way to write was right to left but the other information is very helping thank you Mr Duncan.

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Duncan Sensei

Article by: Duncan Sensei

Steven Duncan Sensei is the DuncanSensei from! having lived in japan for over 2 years he's gained a love for the country and it shows in his teaching and photographic work.