What Beginners Need to Know about Stroke Order in Japanese Writing

What Beginners Need to Know About Stroke Order in Japanese Writing

A common term used in reference to Japanese writing is “stroke order”. Stroke order is the way that you write a character. This includes aspects such as: the direction of your lines, the type of stroke, the sequence, and how many lines. 

This article will go further into explaining stroke order, including why it’s important. Later it will explain some particulars of stroke order in Japanese, especially some common mistakes. Finally, it will give you some advice and resources for practicing stroke order.

Why is stroke order important in Japanese?

To give you a more practical idea of the importance of stroke order, let’s first see how it applies to a language you’re more familiar with. While stroke order is especially important in Japanese, it’s actually a key part of any written language including English. 

Look at these alphabet letters. One set is written with a typical stroke order, and the other is not.

Does the second set look a bit awkward? That’s because they were written from bottom to top instead of top to bottom. This is a mistake with the “direction” of the lines. 

While these letters are still identifiable, people who use them in their native language will be able to tell that something is “off”. If it’s too different, it may even become illegible. This is one reason that stroke order is important.

Kanji lookup

A time when stroke order really comes into play and is crucial is when you find an unfamiliar kanji and want to look it up. 

There are thousands of kanji commonly used in Japanese, so it wouldn’t be easy to look through a chart of them any time you come across a new one!

Historically, Japanese kanji dictionaries were actually organized by stroke order. You’d have to search from the starting radical, then figure out how many lines were used to draw a kanji. For example, if I wanted to find the kanji 油, I’d have to look for the radical⺡and reason out how many lines it has (8). Thus if you were unsure about the first radical or got the number wrong, you’d be out of luck.

Nowadays people typically search for kanji with apps. While kanji recognition software has improved and is overall more forgiving than the old method, you’re still going to want to be pretty familiar with stroke order. That’s because stroke order is a big part of how an app determines which kanji you’re writing.

For example, I’ll look up the kanji 学 with the correct stroke order:

Since I wrote it correctly, the kanji I’m looking for shows up as my top suggested result.

Actually, even before I finished the kanji, it gave me the correct one as a suggestion! This means I didn’t need to know the number of lines, like with the old method, but I still had to draw the stroke order approximately correctly.

Now I’ll look up that same kanji 学, but write it with the incorrect stroke order:

It recognized the 子 shape for a couple of suggestions, but other than that it was confused, even though I drew the right shape!

This is why, while stroke order applies to all three writing systems in Japanese, it’s especially important with kanji.


Another reason stroke order is important is “tradition”. While this reason isn’t as directly practical, it is important if you want to show proper respect to Japanese culture.

If you study Japanese with a Japanese teacher, especially while living in Japan, you’ll often find that they’re strict with stroke order. They’ll watch you while you’re writing and point out any errors, even if they seem small. This is due to the traditional Japanese mindset of following dictated rules exactly. 

Many people experience culture shock from this mindset. It may seem too inflexible. Admittedly I’ve struggled with it too, such as with being unable to make food adjustments at a restaurant or return even a neatly opened item. However, this is their culture. You don’t have to personally understand it, but it’s good to do your best to follow it.

Stroke order and tradition particularly overlap with the Japanese art of calligraphy. If you’re interested in calligraphy (or “shodou”), you’ll want to follow a character’s stroke order exactly. There is a more obvious visual flow when writing with a brush, and that would be disrupted if the stroke order was incorrect. According to this traditional art, following stroke order is essential to making the character “beautiful”. 

Within Japanese calligraphyーand even Japanese writing in generalーit’s also important to know the “kind of stroke” of a given line, as that will also change the appearance.

Three kinds of strokes

There are three different kinds of strokes that will dictate what the end of a line looks like. They are called: “tome”, “harai”, and “hane”.


“Tome” simply means “stop”. If the line comes to an abrupt end, that’s “tome”. In calligraphy, you’ll see a pool of ink at the end of a “tome” line.

image credit: https://shodo-kanji.com/a3-4-1basic_shodo.html


“Harai” means “sweep”. These lines gradually taper to a point.


Finally, “hane” means “jump”. The line will come to a point, and then “jump”, forming a hook. When writing with pen or pencil, these lines are probably the most obvious.

With calligraphy, the differences between the three types are incredibly clear. But even when writing with pen or pencil, you’ll especially want to be conscious of whether a line is a “hane”/”jump” line or not.

How to practice stroke order

Hopefully you’re convinced that stroke order is important when learning Japanese. So how do you practice?

While there are general rules to keep in mind with stroke order that we’ll touch on later, there’s really only one way to master it: write the characters again, and again, and again.

Flash cards may help you remember general shapes, but actually writing the characters has major benefits. These include muscle memory and heightened attention to detail. Just looking at similar characters, you may not recognize any difference at first. (For example, 日 vs. 白 vs. 自 vs. 百.) But when you draw, you learn what nuances to watch out for. 

Materials that teach students how to write characters understand the importance of writing drills. That’s why it’s so common for workbooks to have mostly blank pages just filled with squares for you to practice writing. 

There really is no shortcut here.

Although there’s no way to avoid repetitive practice, there are some ways to make your practice more effective.


It is perfectly acceptable to start off your practice by tracing! This will prevent you from making unwitting mistakes that become bad habits. It also develops your muscle memory.

Many workbooks will have you start off by tracing a character, and you can always take a separate paper and trace more if you’re still not comfortable. There are also apps that allow you to trace characters with your finger or a stylus. This article will point you in the right direction of some such apps. 

Graph paper

It’s also a good idea to start on graph paper. This is because it’s easier to get the right “balance” of a character when you have more reference lines. There are also several kanji that fit fairly neatly into a 2X2 grid.

image credit: https://kaku-navi.com/img/kanji/kanji15474_11.jpg

Identifying the Correct Stroke Order

You’re about ready to start writing now, but only looking at an image won’t tell you the right direction or sequence of the lines.

The overall flow when writing a character is starting from the top left corner and finishing at the bottom right corner. However, this doesn’t give you the nitty-gritty of writing individual characters.

You’re going to want to find resources that you can comfortably follow along. Resources will either demonstrate stroke order by breaking it down into pictures or showing a video clip. 

Here’s an example of stroke order shown in a workbook:

image credit: http://japanese-lesson.com/resources/pdf/characters/hiragana_writing_practice_sheets.pdf

Each stroke gets a separate picture, and the arrows show the direction of each line. As expected, the horizontal lines go from left to right, and the vertical line goes from up to down. Here’s how stroke order is depicted on takoboto, a recommended Japanese dictionary app:

image credit: https://takoboto.jp/

Again each stroke gets a separate picture, but there is no arrow. Instead the red dot shows where your pen or pencil starts, and then you’ll draw the orange line. Therefore the first line is a horizontal line from left to right, and the second line is a vertical line drawn up to down. 

If these diagrams are difficult for you to follow, don’t worry! You can find videos demonstrating any character you’d like to draw. 

While you can actually go to Youtube and search, this isn’t necessary. Some apps incorporate video clips in their system. One such resource is jisho.

On jisho, search for your kanji and click the result under “Kanji” (not “Words”).

image credit: jisho.org

You’ll see a stroke order diagram that resembles the one on takoboto, but you’ll also see an embedded file with a play button symbol. If you click that, you can watch the stroke order in real time. To repeat, just click again.

With these resources, you can rest assured knowing you’ll be able to find the correct stroke order, even for very difficult characters! If you follow the steps exactly, you’ll be set. Even so, it’s easy to make assumptions and thus mistakes.

Common mistakes to avoid when writing in Japanese

Sometimes the correct stroke order is different from your intuition. While as a general rule it’s just good to carefully follow guidelines when writing a new character, here are some common mistakes to pay extra attention to.

Computer font vs. handwriting

Sometimes a character looks quite different when typed versus when it’s handwritten. If you’ve learned hiragana, you may have had this question with the characters “ki” and “sa”.

When “ki” is typed, all the lines are connected. However, when “ki” is handwritten, there is a break in the curved line:

This is just a difference between the computer font and the handwritten font. We have a couple of examples of this in English too, such as with “g” in some fonts. I’ve never met someone who writes “g” like this, but it’s acceptable on a computer:

Kanji has many examples where the computer font differs from the handwritten fontーeven in subtle ways. Therefore when you’re learning a new kanji, you’ll want to use a trustworthy resource rather than just looking at it and trying to copy it.

Line length

Look at these two characters: 土 and 士. Do you notice a difference?

There actually is! For the first character, the top line is shorter. And for the second character, the bottom line is shorter. 

This may seem like a small detail, but it’s actually crucial, as the line length changes them into totally different characters. The first character means “soil” or “earth”, and the second character means ‘samurai” or gentleman”.

If this detail seems difficult, know that you’re in good company! When I was teaching Japanese children to write in English, many of them mixed up lowercase “n” and “h”. They didn’t naturally notice that difference in length.

One positive is that it’s okay to exaggerate length differences when you’re writing. Unfortunately this doesn’t change how the characters look on computers or how other people write them.

Slanted lines

While you typically draw from left to right, there are many exceptions when it comes to slanted lines. Since there are so many exceptions, it’s always good to double-check the stroke order of any character that has them.

Some particularly notorious examples of slanted lines are within katakana. Many people think the characters ン (n) and ソ (so) look similar. They actually have a different stroke order, which many Japanese people swear makes the line look different.

image credit: https://learning-japanese.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/n-so-ri-different.jpg

Drawing a Box

There are many boxy shapes within Japanese characters, and there’s a particular order to drawing them.

First you’ll draw the left side, from up to down. Then bring your pencil back to the top point of the line you just drew. Starting there, you’ll draw the top side, corner, and right side in one stroke. Lastly, close the box from left to right. This totals three lines. Here is a visual:

This probably feels different from how you’d usually write a box!

The rules with boxes don’t stop there, though. When there’s something within the box, you’ll first draw the left, top, and right sides, but not the bottom. Before the bottom line, you’ll fill in the box. Then the bottom line will be your last line, closing the box.

Here are a couple examples:

The road/path radical

One of the radicals that often gives people trouble is the road/path radical, which looks like this: ⻌. This is for many reasons including: it looks different on a computer, you write it last in the sequence, and it has an unintuitive number of strokes.

The 道 kanji is a good demonstration of the principles we discussed in this section, including this radical. Here is the stroke order:

On a computer, you don’t see that distinct “3” shape in the center. Also, although this radical starts on the left side, you actually write it last. This means you have to account for that space so your character doesn’t become too big. Lastly, while it looks like two separate lines, this radical is actually three lines. This could be important when looking up a kanji with this radical!

Many Japanese learners say kanji is the most difficult part of learning Japanese. This makes sense since there’s so many nuances to stroke order. If you draw in the wrong direction, use the wrong kind of stroke, or forget a line, it can change the shape and hinder your ability to communicate.

While the resources listed here are incredibly useful, it’s easy to overlook important aspects with stroke orderーespecially if you’re just starting out and don’t know by experience what to look out for. 

Learn stroke order with a Japanese tutor

This is where a tutor can be beneficial. Japanese tutors understand common mistakes and can steer you away from them, such as mixing characters up and forming bad habits when writing. They can also give you a realistic idea of how your stroke order will be perceived by Japanese people.

How Japanese Tutoring Leads to Fluency

If you’d like to find a Japanese tutor who will be a good fit for you, check out the experts on Wyzant.

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