One of the many mysteries I didn’t understand before I came to Japan was how Japanese keyboards worked when there are so many characters. After all, there are 2000 Chinese characters to know before you’re considered literate. How could you fit all those keys on a keyboard? Since Japan isn’t famous for dragging around suitcase-sized laptops (quite the opposite), yes, there’s another way.
You’ll notice that the keyboard above (the ultra-stylish Apple wireless keyboard, comes with bonus soy latte) is normal QWERTY, though with Japanese characters too. Here’s the trick: the Japanese characters largely just make it look cool. You could use the Japanese character keyboard mapping, but most people seem to use it like a normal QWERTY keyboard, inputting Japanese characters using their Roman letter equivalents.
There’s a slight twist to this, though. Basic Japanese characters can have one (“a”), two (“ka”) or three (“chi”) Roman characters in them. For example, you want to type “kaeru”, which is the potential form verb “can buy”. On your keyboard, you’d type “k-a e r-u”, and end with three characters from five keystrokes:
However, in Japanese, many words have identical pronunciations. The Chinese characters (kanji) you use distinguish which meaning you intend. If you hit the space bar at this point, your PC will replace your characters with the most common match:
In this case though, that’s not what we want. This is also “k-a e r-u”, but means “to return”.
By hitting the space bar again, we can look through some more matches:
Unhelpfully for a learner, the definitions to the right are also in Japanese. Looking through the list, we want number 8. Arrowing down to that and hitting enter to select, we lock in “can buy”:
Congratulations, you now have a word! Now repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
Really, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t take long before even a rank amateur can grasp the rhythm of the input system. The trick, then, is knowing which kanji is the correct one. For this, life is made a lot easier using inline translation tools like Rikaichan (possibly one of the most useful pieces of free software ever).
The interesting side effect to all of this is that many Japanese people are reportedly forgetting how to write less-common kanji. Now that everyone can just input characters into their PC or mobile phone and then select the right character from a list, reading, rather than writing, becomes the far more useful daily skill. That sounds quite credible: I can say as a learner that being able to recognise a complex shape is one thing, but being able to reproduce the 13+ pen strokes that make it up is a completely different skill.
In fact, writing Japanese kanji is a skill that you might be able to safely neglect, saving a lot of study time. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself and fervently praying is true.