Japanese Keyboards: Genius and Creativity with Expression

Not everyone uses the English alphabet when it comes to using keyboards to type. Other languages such as those from Russia, China, Middle Eastern Countries, and Japan have alphabets of their own. This needs to be considered whenever a keyboard is manufactured, as consumers want to be able to type what they must say with ease.

If you look down at the keyboard you’re currently using, it’s probably got the Roman/Latin alphabet, QWERTY style. So how does this keyboard work to write languages from other countries – specifically the Japanese language?

An Explanation of the Layout of a Japanese Keyboard

The truth is, there is no catch – a Japanese keyboard, specifically the Japanese Industrial Standard (“JIS”) Keyboard mimics that of any Latin keyboard, with a few minor differences. It’s still rectangular, has a QWERTY layout, and all the Roman letters are in their right places. The difference lies in the fact they use those same buttons to indicate hiragana phonetics that are ascribed to the different keys. This is what goes on with most common keyboards. In general, when someone types up a sentence in Japanese, he or she does so use a “Japanese Input Method”.

There are 2 (but technically 3) Japanese Input methods. One of them is where you use the Roman letters to type up Japanese words. This is called “Romaji”. The other is typing up words using the given the modifier keys and hiragana labels, which are automatically transformed by the computer into kanji. Hiragana is the native alphabet of the Japanese that works phonetically; meaning each letter is pronounced a certain way, and those sounds are put together to form full words. With these two forms of writing, those who speak Japanese and English can switch easily.

The third and less popular version is to have the hardware that enables you to write the kanji itself (perhaps a touchscreen or tablet) which is then understood and computerized by the software, and matched into its prescribed kanji logo. Make sure that when you draw the kanji, you use the correct order and format of strokes.

Keyboard Formats

The placement of the hiragana symbols on the keyboard stay the same for most Japanese keyboards. Most operating systems that have touchscreen keyboards follow the same format as well. You don’t necessarily have to have a physical keyboard with hiragana inscriptions on it; you can simply download one online, and switch using hotkeys – usually “control” or “option”. A sample keyboard then appears on the screen as a guide for which key represents which hiragana symbol.

More advanced keyboards have the option of having different alphabets including katakana, it's half-width form, etcetera.

From Kana to Kanji

“Kana” is the term used to define the category that hiragana and katakana are in, which is syllabic writing. katakana is the alphabet used when writing borrowed words; words that aren’t native to the Japanese language. However, when typing on a keyboard, hiragana can still be used to mimic the same phonetic syllables, as hiragana and katakana share the same sounds, but not symbols.

You have the option to leave your entries in hiragana, but what usually happens is it’s converted into kanji with every press of the spacebar, as kanji doesn’t really need spaces between their logos. Depending on your keyboard or software, you may be given the option to reverse the transformation of kana to kanji by pressing the enter or return key.

The Thumb-Shift Keyboard Design

For those who need to write large amounts of text be it for school or work, there’s a keyboard with a design that helps you make use of most keys quickly. This means that every key has three allocated characters, and you can activate that said key by either pressing the left shift, right shift or not pressing shift at all. This way, all 90 characters are easily accessible on the keyboard.

The problem with this design is that it isn’t found in most computer hardware, and because it’s not as popular as the normal keyboard, then the software is harder to find and more expensive. This lack of hardware can be solved by downloading or purchasing software that enables the shift-key operations.

From Romaji to Kanji

While most of the Japanese folk prefer hiragana to properly express themselves, for those who are still used to the Roman alphabet, there is also software that transforms your romaji (which is hiragana written in roman letters) to kanji. That way, you don’t have to own a keyboard with any markings. You can simply write the Japanese word the way it sounds, and it changes it to the kanji symbol automatically for you.

This is all made possible because every hiragana symbol can be represented with English/roman letters. The downside of this, though, is that it takes longer to type the letter out for each word as it does its syllables, making typing in romaji a much lengthier process as it entails letter-by-letter detail.

How to Set Your Keyboard to Write Japanese Symbols

If you have Windows as the system operator of your computer, make sure MS-IME (Microsoft Input Method Editors) is installed. It usually does come pre-installed, but it’s best to check. Using this software, you will be allowed to type in katakana, hiragana, and ultimately kanji, no matter what format your keyboard is in.

The simplest way to tell if MS-IME is installed is to see if you have the sign “ENG” on the bottom right corner of your screen, by your timestamp (Windows 10). You can press the upper arrow key to see if it’s hiding there. You can also check by going to settings, pressing “time and language”, selecting “region and language”, and adding Japanese. Install the necessary language packs that should weigh around 50-60 MB. Once this is installed, select the “ENG” on that lower right corner of the screen, and switch it to Japanese, under Microsoft IME. Once this is finished, you will be in “Japanese Typing Mode A”, which enables you to make hiragana out of romaji words. This hiragana can consecutively be turned into kanji by pressing the bar.

The Japanese Keyboard on Mobile Phones

There are many ways to input Japanese text into a mobile phone, and this was most popular back when phones didn’t rely on QWERTY keyboards, and instead relied on the Numpad style. That Numpad style was fitted to the “Keitai” input, which was associating each number to a kana symbol. This was the most popular style of text input, as it was most convenient and easy to remember. The way it worked is that each kana sequence would have its own number, differentiating only on vowels. So, for the number 2, for example, they would have kana symbols for ka, “ke”, “ki”, “ko”, and “ku.”

The Keitai input back then was already able to turn the hiragana typed in into kanji by using a key dedicated to doing so; usually an arrow. A subset of the Keitai would be the Flick input. It is like that of old mobile phones, but the difference is instead of pressing the button multiple times to achieve the phonetic symbol you want, you simply hold down the consonant of the character. This opens a small menu where you can swipe to the specific vowel you want.

Words Aren’t Enough: Spruce Up Your Keyboard with Japanese Emojis

Did you know that emojis first emerged in Japan? The word “emoji” has nothing to do with “emotion” – it is a Japanese word, meaning pictograph. The “e” in Emoji is Japanese for a picture, while “moji” means character. Emojis developed because words weren’t enough for consumers to express themselves fully. Emerging as early as the 1990’s from Japanese mobile operators, they were initially inspired by Chinese characters, weather symbols, people’s expressions and day-to-day city life. Instead of just showing the words “fine” to depict weather, why not create a symbol to show what the weather is actually like?

These first emoji were limited to a grid that was 12x12 pixels large. This was featured in “imode”, by DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile phone operator. The definition of “emoji” then started growing to graphics that depicted emotion. Not all phones had the capacity to send and receive those 12x12 pixels, but because phones were able to understand basic keyboard key inputs, a large part of cell phone consumers opted to send emoticons instead. Emoticons are different from emoji; they are made by combining text/punctuation marks from the keyboard to make a face, such as “:-D”. An emoji is its own programmed symbol. Nowadays, however, many emoticons automatically revert to emojis because of the emoji’s implementation in the Unicode.

2010 is officially when Unicode (a set of universal encoding symbols found to set a standard for keyboards) finally incorporated sets of emoji into their interface. This means that cellular phones would all have a universal code of emoji that would be transmitted without extra pay by the user for multi-media messaging, and every phone ought to have this feature.

Emojis In Pop Culture

Ever since the Unicode update that made it easier for everyone to send and share emojis, it’s come from being a humble addition to Japanese keyboards to an eruption in influencing cultures worldwide. Dictionaries have even added emojis to their list of words, one of them was even named Word of the Year of 2015 (The “Face with Tears of Joy”).

Though it has an international foothold now, emoji still honors its roots by having several pictographs dedicated to Japanese culture. Now you know why there are so many Emoji in the Unicode format that are dedicated to the Japanese – from the Japanese Ogre, to the Japanese Dolls, Oden, Tokyo Tower, Carp Streamer, and Bento Box.

Kaomoji: Popular Japanese Faces You Can Form with Your Keyboard

So what is the difference between emoji and kaomoji? It’s been explained that emoji descended from dedicated 12x12 icons, and were adapted into the Unicode format. Emoticons are created using keys found on the keyboard itself, letters, and punctuation marks such as the dash, colon, semi-colon, and parenthesis are commonly used. The term “kaomoji” was made from combining the word “kao” which means face, with “moji”, which means character. So kaomoji is a Japanese twist on emoticons, strictly for the different expressions that concern a face.

While most emoticons require you to tilt your head to understand what it’s trying to depict, kaomoji does not require this. Even older than the emoji (the use of kaomoji goes as far back as 1986 by the Byte Information Exchange), the kaomoji is extremely dynamic and customizable to fit almost any expression.

Examples of Kaomoji and When to Use Them

You choose the kaomoji depending on what kind of expression you want to convey. There are also little niche expressions such as the kaomoji showing the *sweat* sign when they’re nervous, or when the kaomoji flips a table. Kaomoji has many styles; there’s the original Japanese style, then there’s a western style and a combination of both.

As for examples, kaomoji sometimes make asterisks eyes, underscores, mouths, so the product looks somewhat like “(*_*)”. This kaomoji exhibits the emotion of being stumped or in awe, or not knowing what to say. This is a very simple form of kaomoji – it can get much more complicated. To express happiness, you can have something as simple as “(* ^ ω ^)” to something as complicated as “☆*:.。.o(≧▽≦)o.。.:*☆”. An angry kaomoji would look something like this: “٩(ఠ益ఠ)۶”

There are dozens of sites online that help you pick from hundreds of both emoji and kaomoji to express yourself. They even offer generators that create random kaomoji for you. You can even go as far as downloading a kaomoji keyboard app for your cell phone, so you don’t have to switch programs to input a kaomoji.

The world has much to thank the Japanese for their contributions to telecommunication; particularly emoticon and emoji culture. Not only that, but the Japanese have also discovered such efficient ways to program their keyboard to write in Japanese easily, be it in katakana, hiragana, or kanji – and have made it available for everyone to understand and learn.