When you learn Japanese, you probably hear it all the time:
- “Immerse yourself!”
- “Talk to real Japanese people if you want to get better!”
- “Make sure you’re practicing all types of Japanese, not just reading or listening!”
The problem is that when it comes to actually communicating with Japanese people…well, unless you live in Japan, that might not come easily. So you think, “How about I join a Japanese group online!”
Great idea. But how do you communicate with your new friends? Are you supposed to write your hiragana and kanji on a piece of paper, then take a picture and send it?
Of course not. That’s where Japanese keyboards come in! Japanese keyboards are virtual tools that can be installed on any device: mobile, desktop, Android, or Apple. Of course, your choices will be different depending upon which device you’re using.
But with a little bit of practice, you can quickly become fluent in the use of a Japanese keyboard on whatever device you like best.
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How To Type In Japanese: The Types Of Keyboards
Keyboards come in a variety of types; when people think of Japanese keyboards, the thing that most often springs to mind first is actually buying a brand new physical keyboard to plug in. Good news! You don’t have to do that.
In fact, you probably shouldn’t do that, because it’s mostly pointless. Even in Japan, the majority of people use keyboards with regular English letters to type romaji, which is then converted into the Japanese writing systems. That means that you already have the kind of physical keyboard you need to write in Japanese online!
Thus, you’ll be using virtual keyboards. Sometimes, these are apps that you can install, and other times, they’re an extension of your operating system. This may sound convoluted, but I promise—it’s rather simple once you give it a try.
Best Romaji Keyboards And How to Use Them
Romaji keyboards are what they sound like. You type in romaji, or the “English spelling” of a Japanese word, and it converts to Japanese characters as you type. If you type the word “romaji,” for example, it’ll display “r” until you type “o,” then once “ro” exists (which is an actual Japanese character), it will convert automatically to ろ.
Typically, romaji keyboards are easy to use and accessible. But how do you choose between what it picks? What if you want to write in kanji but the word is only showing up in hiragana? Well, in most types of romaji keyboards, this is what the space bar is for.
Let’s take the word “inu,” which means “dog.” As you type inu into a romaji keyboard, it will look like this:
You can see that as you type, hiragana gradually replaces the English letters. A box appears underneath the word that attempts to guess what you might be trying to say. From here, you can select the kanji you mean, switch to katana, and a wide variety of other things.
You can do this by clicking on the correct item or pressing the space bar (which will begin to scroll through the options one by one, which you can then select with Enter).
You’ll also notice the dotted line underneath your text as you type. This is indicating which parts of the text are currently being evaluated and changed into Japanese. When you have finished making changes, you can hit Enter. And that locks in your choice and the dotted line will disappear.
One of the most commonly used romaji keyboards is Japanese Keyboard, made by Desh Keyboards. This keyboard allows you to type in English whenever you like; this way, it can replace the regular keyboard on your mobile device with no hassle. However, click the hiragana symbol, and suddenly you will be able to enter romaji that is converted to Japanese!
Some phones come with the option to adjust the languages you can input in your Settings menu. In this case, you may need to install an additional little packet from the developer (Samsung, Apple, etc.) that teaches the phone how to do this, but you can experiment with your specific device and see what preexisting Japanese options are available to you.
On a desktop, you will typically need to install an IME in order to type in Japanese. Once the IME is installed, using it is generally as simple as clicking on it and selecting “Japanese” instead of English.
Sometimes, you even have keyboard shortcuts (like Alt+~) to switch seamlessly to and from your Japanese IME without even missing a typing beat. Most IMEs work as romaji to Japanese keyboards so that you can use your regular computer keyboard.
Best Kana Keyboards And How to Use Them
More advanced students of Japanese generally use Kana keyboards because they can type directly in Japanese without romaji. A kana keyboard will be displayed in hiragana, just like many Japanese phones are.
Now, you may be thinking—there’s not nearly enough space on a keyboard to display EVERY hiragana! English only has 26 letters, but Japanese has 46 hiragana. And that’s not even counting katakana and kanji!
You are correct, of course; there is not enough space on a standard keyboard to show all hiragana. So what do you do? It can take a bit of adaptation, but most kana keyboards work by swiping. A kana keyboard looks like this:
So say that you want to write the word inu once again. There’s…no “i” on this keyboard! In order to use a kana keyboard, you need to be familiar with kana families; that’s, for example, how the “m” family is ma/mi/mu/me/mo. The “i” in inu is in the vowel family: a/i/u/e/o. So locate “a” on your kana keyboard, then hold down over it. This will give you a variety of options.
Just swipe in the direction of the kana you would like to choose, and there you have it!
Do the same for “nu,” which is in the “na” family.
Once you have typed in the correct hiragana, you’ll see that you can select the kanji from the bar if you’d like.
Tada! It takes a bit of getting used to. But a kana keyboard is a valuable means of improving your Japanese reading speed, and you’ll be swiping away before you know it. Google has a lovely phone app called Gboard that you can try.
If you really want to use a kana keyboard on a desktop, which is not super common, you can always opt for a virtual keyboard. Some desktop manufacturers allow you to change the language of your virtual keyboard (which is a visual keyboard displayed on your desktop that you can click on and type with) so that the keys have kana instead of English letters.
Installing A Japanese Keyboard On Your Computer Or Mobile Device
This is very simple for desktop; most times, you will have an option to add a computer language in your settings menu.
On Windows, this will be located in Settings > Time and Language > Region and Language > Add a Language, for example. This will prompt the computer to install an IME (which is short for “input method editor,” indicating that it is a program that can change how you input things into the computer) for Japanese.
On mobile, these options generally come as apps you can download and install unless your manufacturer has built in a language keyboard option. Then, you can just go to your mobile device’s settings and start from there!
How To Type In Japanese: Practice Makes Perfect
Learning any new language can feel overwhelming. But Japanese in particular often leaves people scratching their heads because of its writing system. Thankfully, with a little practice, you can not only improve your reading speed and kana recognition skills but also keep up conversations with friends around the world.
In fact, online groups for language practice are one of the most valuable tools around for immersing yourself in written Japanese when you don’t have a big Japanese population where you live.
Try sites like Lang8, where Japanese speakers who are trying to learn English (or another language you know!) will correct your Japanese. And you can correct their writing too. By making native speaker friends, you will begin to absorb authentic Japanese and, as a result, use it in a more natural way.
Japanese keyboards are one of the many tools that can open up this new avenue of learning. But remember—keep your Japanese language learning balanced, and don’t overwhelm yourself. Learning a language is a slow and steady race, not a sprint to the finish.