How to type Japanese?

4 minute read

Do you have to learn a new keyboard layout? Do you need to buy a new keyboard? Do you have to draw all the characters using a mouse or on your phone? The answer to all of these questions is no. Even though typing in Japanese is more complicated than typing in English, it is not as difficult as it might seem.

A little bit about the characters

We have a couple of in-depth articles on Japanese writing system:

  1. Why Japanese has three alphabets?
  2. How to learn kanji?
  3. How to learn hiragana and katakana?

Ideally, you should be somewhat familiar with Japanese, but here is a little reminder. Hiragana and katakana are two syllabaries of the Japanese language and they both consist of 71 characters. They represent the pronunciation of words just like characters of the English alphabet.

Kanji is a system of characters which consists of tens of thousands of symbols but we only need to know 2136 jōyō kanji. Kanji came to Japan from China, that is why some of the characters can be pronounced in more than one way. For example, Japanese word 日曜日 can be translated as "sunday" and is pronounced as "nichiyoubi". If we look at these characters one by one, the first 日 would be pronounced as "nichi", 曜 as "you' and the second 日 as "bi". As you can see, same characters can be pronounced differently even within one word.

How to type?

Any word or sentence in Japanese can be written down using hiragana and katakana. The word 日曜日 can be written down in many different ways:

  1. nichiyoubi - Latin alphabet
  2. nichiyōbi - a different way to write using rōmaji characters. As you can see, the "o" and "u" characters are now combined into "ō".
  3. にちようび - hiragana
  4. ニチヨウビ - katakana

Even though the above examples look differently, they are still pronounced the same. In order to start typing in Japanese we do not have to learn a new keyboard layout or buy a new keyboard. You can just set up Japanese keyboard layout in the settings of your computer and type a word in Latin characters and the computer will automatically change it to hiragana.

That means, if we type "ni", the computer will automatically change it to "に". If we continue typing "にchi", it will be changed to "にち". Just like that:

We can also type the word one kanji character at a time. In the example below we typed the first kanji 日 (nichi / にち), then typed hiragana character for the second symbol 曜 (you / よう) and now are looking for the right kanji character.

Typing of 日曜日

We have chosen the right symbol and typed the rōmaji character for the third kanji (rōmaji was automatically changed to hiragana) and now are looking for the last character in the list of options.

Typing of 日曜日

In order for the dialogue box to appear just like on the images above, you would have to press "space" followed by a "tab" while typing. This works on Windows. The process is similar on macOS or GNU/Linux, but some of the keys used for changing characters to hiragana and kanji can be different.

That is it! As you can see, typing is not as difficult as it seems. In fact, you just use the English alphabet and then choose the right words from a list. The majority of Japanese type this way and not too many people use special keyboards for hiragana or katakana.

On the phone

When typing on the computer Japanese usually use rōmaji, on the other hand, when typing on their phones they use kana. Just like this:

mobile 1

Let's try and type 分かりません (wakarimasen, わかりません in hiragana). We press the familiar hiragana characters わ(wa) and か(ka) and they appear on the screen.

mobile 2

As you can see, there is no character for the next symbol り. To make it appear we will have to find a row of that kana. In this case, it is located in the row of characters beginning with "R" and the first kana in this row is ら(ra). Press the kana ら and you will see all the characters from this row.

mobile 3

Finish typing the word わかりません

mobile 4

Finishing touch! To change a word from hiragana to kanji+hiragana, we will need to choose it from the list above the keyboard.

mobile 5

mobile 6

If you find this method too complicated, you can always switch to Japanese-rōmaji keyboard and type the same way you would on the computer.

Typing practice

With Kanjiway you learn typing from the get-go, beginning on the first or second day of learning. Instead of trying to remember just the pronunciation of some words or kanji characters separately, you type all the words you learn. This way you remember the translations of words as well as their pronunciation, without wasting time on redundant revisions.


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