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A Japanese word-processing primer for beginners

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Even a 入門者 (nyūmonsha, entry-level learner) of Japanese can use a personal computer to his or her advantage, as a supplementary learning tool. Most of today’s Windows and Apple PCs running English (or other) operating systems can easily be set up to enable 日本語入力 (Nihongo nyūryoku, Japanese input), without requiring extra outlays.

Once Japanese input is enabled, you can access it while running most applications (word processing, browser, mail, spreadsheet, etc.) by toggling the PC from the default language (English or another language). Native Japanese PCs with dedicated keyboards feature a toggle key marked 半角・全角 (hankaku, zenkaku) to switch input between 1-byte (hexadecimal) and 2-byte (Japanese character set).

In Apple computers with English keyboards this is performed by pressing the space bar and “Command” key simultaneously. You can visually confirm that the computer is switched to the Japanese input mode when the status line at the top of the screen replaces the U.S. (or British) flag (signifying English) with the hiragana あ (a).

At the cursor position, Roman letters turn into Japanese hiragana as you strike each vowel following a consonant. For example, when you type a “k” you’ll see “k” displayed. But as soon as you follow the k with one of five vowels (a, i, u, e or o), the display automatically changes to か (ka), き (ki), く (ku), け (ke) or こ (ko). Likewise for the other hiragana (or katakana). Typing “jya” will display じゃ, typing “chu” will produce ちゅ, and so on.

At this stage, the displayed text is still phonetic hiragana without kanji, which, depending on the context, is usually needed to convey the meanings. Some Japanese software generates the kanji automatically as the phrase or sentence is input, but in some cases you may need to convert it manually by pressing a key marked 変換 (henkan, conversion), or by pressing the space bar.

Let’s say, for example, you want to comment on today’s weather. You would first type the following, but be careful, there are no spaces: kyouhayoitenkidesu. When you get to the end you’ll see those letters now converted to hiragana that read きょうはよいてんきです. Then you press the henkan key or space bar and the display changes to 今日は良い天気です (kyō wa yoi tenki desu, today the weather is good).

Note that 今日 (kyō, today) requires a “u” following the “o” since its vowel is extended. There are a few other basic rules you will need to know. The particle pronounced “wa” is indicated by the hiragana は (ha). Likewise for “e,” the particle used to indicate direction of movement, which must be typed へ (he). The particle pronounced “o” and written を, which indicates the preceding word is a direct object of the verb, is input as “wo.” Three other particles — が (ga), に (ni) and で (de) — are input the same way they are pronounced. The final “n,” ん can be independently input by typing “nn.”

The kanji conversion software uses artificial intelligence that selects kanji based on context, but it’s not 100 percent accurate. When the conversion doesn’t work as expected you may have to input characters manually. When a phonetic with multiple readings is input, a menu pops up on the screen and if the first recommended selection is not the one you want, you might have to scroll down to search for another choice. Press 改行 (kaigyo, return) to finalize the choice.

Kanji selection can be particularly frustrating for 同訓異字 (dōkun iji, different characters used for the same sounds). The “big three” of these are said to be the multiple characters pronounced hakaru (to measure, plan or count), kawaru (to change, convert or substitute) and osameru (to supply, restore or govern). Another would be toru, a word with as many variations in Japanese as “to take” has in English (take a photo, steal something, take a recording, etc., all of which use different kanji).

In addition to standard punctuation such as periods, commas and dashes, the Japanese character set includes certain 特殊文字 (tokushu moji, special characters or symbols) that are in regular use. These include the nakaguro (・) a raised period used for bulleted lists or to set words apart, which is input by typing なかぐろ (nakaguro) followed by the conversion command. To get the symbol 〒, for postal code, you type ゆうびん (yūbin). First the kanji 郵便 (yūbin, mail) will pop up, but if you perform conversion a second time, you’ll get the symbol.

A good way to practice would be to transcribe the contents from a comic book or text for children in which kanji are accompanied by furigana, a superscript added to indicate the kanji’s correct pronunciation in that particular usage.

While computing in an unfamiliar language may seem awkward at first, after some 試行錯誤 (shikō sakugo, trial and error), you’ll be surprised how quickly you can get the hang of typing Japanese.

  • Firas Kraïem

    Also, for the quotation marks「」, on Mac type かっこ and convert. On Linux and friends (using iBus+Anthy), [ ] will do. (I do not use Windows.)

  • Paul Smith

    “In Apple computers with English keyboards this is performed by pressing the space bar and “Command” key simultaneously”

    This has not been true for some years, unless you have a really old Apple. On current models of Apple computers, pressing the space bar and “Command” key simultaneously invokes the Spotlight function.

    To switch between English and Japanese input, use the drop-down menu near the right end of the menu bar. An American flag is displayed to indicate U.S. English input, a hiragana あ for hiragana input, and a katakana ア for katakana input.

    • Professor Chill

      True, this is no longer the default. However, it can be changed back via System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts. Spotlight kinda sucks so I use Japanese input much more than Spotlight – the first thing I do when setting up a machine is changing it back.

      • Paul Smith

        Thanks for the tip. I actually find Spotlight quite useful, but I don’t use it enough to need a keyboard shortcut for it. Using that keyboard shortcut for switching between English and Japanese input is of much more benefit.

  • Antoine Weber

    ive got a very recent Mac computer, and Command + Space actually works, and enables to switch between languages input.

    • Satan Baalzvoov

      The first paragraph contained the words “other operating systems” in reference to other languages. How many times does the writer have to be inclusive in one short article? Looks to me like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder.

    • Paul Smith

      Judging from Professor Chill’s comment above, that means that you changed the keyboard settings or that somebody changed them for you.

  • John Boyd

    As a refresher, this article was very helpful. Thank you.