Nelson's log

Why does CJK software have such ugly English text?

There’s a distinct style of typesetting in Japanese software, particularly videogames, where the English text looks terrible. Like they use the same two fonts (one serif, one sans) from 1982 and they’re typeset wrong. Even in new software, like the brand new Monster Hunter World game. Chinese and Korean software often has the same problem. Why does CJK software do such a bad job with English text?

I found some sources online and they describe several kinds of problems:

  1. Font availability. Your Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean) computer won’t have many fonts that support both your language and Roman characters. So you use the ones that are there. They look fine in your language so you don’t care much if they look awful in Roman. MS Mincho or SimSun for example. It’s a bit like how so much stuff is done in Arial or Microsoft’s Times New Roman. They aren’t great, but they are present.
  2. Typesetting ascenders and descenders. The way Roman characters have a middle weight and then go above that (say the letter d) or below that (p) is a distinctive aspect of American font design. CJK characters don’t do that, they have a totally different shape. Descenders in particular often get squeezed in Japanese fonts for Roman characters.
  3. Mismatched aesthetics. Roman fonts have Serif and Sans-Serif fonts. Japanese has Mincho and Gothic. But while Mincho fonts often make the Roman characters have serifs, there’s no real commonality in design there at all.
  4. Halfwidth Roman characters. Old computers used fixed width character displays. Typography pretty much always looks awful this way. But on top of it in a CJK writing system most characters use a full width cell but it’s two wide for Roman letters, so you squeeze in two half-width characters instead.

None of these issues prevent a Japanese or Chinese or Korean company from producing excellent English typesetting. But if you’re used to seeing badly typeset Roman characters all the time in your daily computer work, it won’t stand out at you so badly when someone is finally localizing your product to America or Europe and they start translating the menus in the fastest, cheapest way. At least that’s my theory.

Some further reading: