While I have been living abroad, I have some frequently asked questions as a Japanese. One of the most asked questions is “how are you typing Japanese characters on your smartphone?” While they are peeping in my smartphone, the way of our thumb working seems very tricky.
How on earth can you text this sentence for example?
私はトムです。(I am Tom.)
with this keyboard?
Here I will explain how it works. Note that this is NOT the explanation of installing the system on your smartphone, but the concept of typing system in Japanese language.
Japanese writing system
First for most, you need to know the Japanese writing system. Japanese language consists of “hiragana”, “katakana” and “kanji”.
- “Hiragana” and “katakana” are the sets of syllabaries: 50 sounds x 2.
あいうえお (hiragana) = a, i, u, e, o
カキクケコ (katakana) = ka, ki, ku, ke, ko
“Hiragana” are used for grammatical elements and “katakana” are for mostly foreign words.
- On the other hand, there are over 50,000 characters in “kanji”, but Japanese can read 4000 out of them on average. And each of kanji itself has a different sound and meaning.
私(kanji) = wa + ta + shi
But what you should know to understand the typing is that kanji is also broken down to 50 sounds. In other words, all the forms of Japanese characters can be pronounced in 50 sounds.
Japanese keyboard on smartphone: hiragana input
Now you can translate all the Japanese characters into 50 sounds, it means you can express all of them in hiragana system.
私はトムです。（hiragana + katakana + kanji)
Wa ta shi ha to mu de su. (50 sounds)
Actually a Japanese keyboard on smartphone works based on hiragana.
Each of the buttons has 5 sounds when it is long-pressed except the bottom left and right corner.
Then flicking towards the sound you want will decide the letter.
In the similar manners, you can text 50 sounds by long-pressing and flicking.
Convert to katakana or kanji from hiragana
Now you understand how to text hiragana, then we are almost there.
Once you text the sounds in hiragana, then the convert function provides the candidate among hiragana, katakana and kanji. So you will just choose the right convert from the list (but you must know which candidate is the right in the first place).
When you text わたし, you will choose the first candidate in the list: 私.
Other candidates, like 和田氏 (one of family name), don’t match the meaning you want text.
We saw how to text Japanese characters on your smartphone. Flicking is much more useful in Japanese than European languages because we have bunch of characters in hiragana, which makes it much faster to type. FYI, you can also type Japanese in QWERTY keyboard, but the concept is the same: to type the sounds in 50 sounds and to convert it from the candidate list.