Perhaps you’ve just started learning Japanese and you’ve gotten the hang of writing some katakana and hiragana by hand. Maybe you’ve brought a few kanji into the mix as well. But then you’re sitting at your computer and you’re thinking “huh, I know how to write it on paper but how do Japanese type on the computer?” Well, I’m going to answer that question.
First, I’m going to start with a “dirty” secret of Japanese input; you can do it with the keyboard you already have. I’m not going to go into specifics about how to turn on Japanese input and instead link to instructions for Windows and OS X. If those don’t help, some Google searches may get you the rest of the way. Give it a try and then come back and keep reading. =)
Okay, so I presume you’re all set now? Switch into Japanese input mode and type the words you want in romaji. You’ll notice that kana appear with an underline. Now press the spacebar. You’re presented with options on how to convert the kana you typed into the words you (hopefully) intended. In particular, if you type a word like 時間 (じかん) and hit space, you can convert it into the proper kanji characters. Pretty neat, huh? This is known as romaji input and it is actually the most common way to input Japanese on a computer, supported by virtually all full-size keyboards. Electronic dictionaries often use romaji input exclusively. Small versions of characters like あ, い, and つ can usually be produced by typing ‘xa’, ‘xi’ and ‘xtsu’ respectively.
Now, pictured here is the Japanese version of the official Apple wireless keyboard. This is the keyboard on my desk, actually. At a glance, you’ll notice many differences from the standard US keyboard layout. Some of the control keys (Control, Tab, Backspace/Delete, Enter/Return) are smaller and in different positions than on the US keyboard. Some of the punctuation has shuffled to different keys (for example, the double-quote is on the 2 key). Also, some keys have up to four characters marked on them. But there’s also an important similarity: the English letters are in the layout that you know and love — well, unless you’re into Dvorak. So, as long as you can deal with the punctuation being in slightly different places, you can use one of these exactly like a US keyboard (and I often do).
But if that’s the case, why would anybody use one of these confusing monstrosities?
That leads into the other type of text input that Japanese use: direct input, also known as kana input. The keyboard provides a couple of keys that allow you to switch input modes. This is considerably more convenient than switching modes in the Japanese input menu in OS X or Windows, even if you have already set up keyboard shortcuts for switching modes. At the press of a key, you can switch from かな to 英数 (Alphanumeric). When you’re in kana mode and you hit a key, you get the character displayed at the bottom. So hit the Z key while in かな mode and you get つ. If you hold shift and press a key, you get the character displayed on the right. This is commonly used for getting the small version of characters like あ, い, and つ. In 英数 mode, you get the character at the left when you press the key and the one at the top when you hold shift and press that key. Once you’ve gotten the hang of that (and it takes a while!), it’s apparently considerably faster than romaji input. In the same way as romaji input, you press space to convert the kana into kanji.
What about katakana, you ask? If you look at the keyboard carefully, there’s no katakana on it. Some Japanese keyboards provide a button specifically for katakana but in my case I’ve set up my caps key to produce katakana when turned on in かな mode. Also, many common katakana words can be typed in hiragana and then converted by pressing the spacebar. So really, you only need to explicitly switch into katakana input to type things that the software won’t convert for you.
You may be able to touch-type English but you probably can’t touch-type kana. The good news is that there are sites out there that give lessons in how to type Japanese using kana input. The one I’ve been using is here. But, as you might expect, such lessons are given in Japanese. You might be able to get by just looking at some pictures and trying the exercises but if you need a bit more hand-holding, you might want to try kana input when you can read enough Japanese to learn about it. (If you know of a kana input tutorial in English, please let us know!)
So, those are the basics of how to type Japanese into a computer. If you’re interested in having a Japanese layout keyboard, JBox/JList sells them or if you want an official Apple one like I have, you can actually get it from the US Apple Store. Just go to the product page for the keyboard and then select the Japanese version of it from the drop-down menu.