It’s commonly said that Japanese uses “three alphabets” ー none of which resemble the one we use in English! Instead of “a b c”, there are symbols like “ね マ 字”. In order to properly learn and use Japanese, you’ll need to write with those symbols.
Since Japanese writing looks completely different from that of English, you might assume it would be difficult to input Japanese characters on your device. This is not the case! In fact, this guide will enable you to quickly start typing in Japanese.
The first and most basic “alphabet” is called “hiragana”. Hiragana characters look like this:
How to install a Japanese keyboard
To start typing in Japanese, first you’ll need to install a Japanese keyboard on your device. This is not a physical keyboard, but rather enables your current device to type Japanese characters.
On iPhone you’ll navigate from Settings -> General -> Language -> Keyboard.
Once you’ve found the Keyboard option, you’ll click “Add new keyboard”. Next look for “Japanese”. If there’s more than one option for Japanese, choose “romaji”. This set-up tends to be more intuitive for English speakers rather than “kana”.
“Add” Japanese, and you’ve done it! You now have a Japanese keyboard on your phone.
When you next use your keyboard, it will still be set for English, so you’ll need to switch to the Japanese keyboard. Press the language icon and select “日本語ローマ字”. The language icon looks like this:
When you see Japanese characters on your keyboard (such as 空白), you’ll know you’re on the right setting.
On Android phones
There is more variation with Android, but navigating from Settings -> General -> Language -> Keyboard (or similar-sounding options) should get you to the right place. Unfortunately for some phones ー especially older models ー you may have to look up the correct navigation for your specific model or even download the Gboard app first before you can follow these steps.
Once you’ve found the Keyboard option, you’ll click “Add new keyboard” or “Manage input languages” (or a similar-sounding option). Find “Japanese”. If there’s more than one option for Japanese, choose “romaji” or “qwerty” (not “kana”, “12 keys”, or “grid”). “Qwerty” was the default on my phone.
“Add” Japanese, and you’ve done it! You now have a Japanese keyboard on your phone.
Your default keyboard will still be for English, so you’ll need to switch to the Japanese keyboard when you’re ready to type. With my phone, I hold and swipe on the spacebar.
When you see Japanese characters (such as 日本語) written on your keyboard, you’ll know you’re on the right setting.
On Mac, you’ll navigate from System preferences -> Keyboard -> Input sources. Find the plus sign in the lower left and click it to add a language. In the list of languages, look for “Japanese”. You’ll be given the option between “Japanese – Kana” or “Japanese – Romaji”. This article will demonstrate how to use “Japanese – Romaji”, so select that and “Add”.
While you can still tweak the settings, with just that you now have a Japanese keyboard on your computer!
When you want to type in Japanese, you’ll have to switch from the default English. On your menu bar at the top of the screen, there should now be a flag icon. Click that, then select “Hiragana”.
With that, you’re ready to type in Japanese!
PCs have slightly different navigation depending, but should generally follow this flow: Settings -> Time & language -> Language & region -> Add a language. The important thing is the last page is “Add a language”, which is where you can add Japanese to your computer. (If your navigation looks very different, you may have to look up the steps for your particular system or even download a Japanese keyboard app.)
Once you’ve found “Japanese”, install it on your computer. With that, your computer now has a Japanese keyboard!
While your computer now has the ability to type in Japanese, the default will still likely be English. You’ll need to switch in order to type in Japanese. In the bottom-right corner there should now be a language icon; on the English setting it looks like “ENG”. Click that, then select “Japanese”.
Even using the Japanese setting, you may still output English characters. In that case, you have to set the output to hiragana. To do so, click the letter “A” which will show up on the bottom-right. If you right-click, you’ll be given several options:
Select “Hiragana”, and the “A” will be replaced with the hiragana “あ”. (Left-clicking the A should also switch it to あ, and thus to the hiragana setting.) When you see that hiragana あ, then you’ll know your settings are ready for you to type in Japanese!
How to type with romaji/qwerty
Both computers and smartphones allow you to type in Japanese using “romaji”, and the rules will be the same for either device. “Romaji” are “Roman characters” ー these are the characters used in English and many other languages.
This is why a romaji set-up maps neatly onto the qwerty keyboard you already have! Thus you don’t need a different physical keyboard for your computer. With smartphones, the Japanese keyboard might be practically indistinguishable. Because of its familiarity, English speakers usually prefer this set-up. (Newer devices also often put the romaji set-up as the default.)
As long as your keyboard is set to output hiragana, your romaji input will automatically convert to hiragana. For example, if you type “ka” while using the Japanese keyboard, that “ka” will automatically convert to か.
With romaji, the required inputs are largely intuitive with the sounds of the characters. Here is a chart of the basic hiragana with the associated romaji:
- し, ち, つ, and ふ can be typed multiple ways
- For し, “shi” better fits the pronunciation. However “si” can also be typed and result in し since it’s part of the “S set” of hiragana
- Likewise, ち sounds like “chi”, but it’s part of the “T set”. Thus typing “ti” will also result in ち
- つ sounds like “tsu” but is part of the “T set” and can be typed with “tu”
- ふ sounds like “fu” but is part of the “H set” and can be typed with “hu”
- For ん, it’s important to type “n” twice (nn), especially if the next character is a vowel. Otherwise the romaji will be converted into one of the “N set” of hiragana. (な に ぬ ね の)
Hiragana with dakuten/”tenten”
When using romaji, dakuten (otherwise colloquially referred to as “tenten”) will automatically be added if you’ve typed the correct input. Like with the basic hiragana, the required inputs are largely intuitive with the sounds of the characters.
- じ has multiple ways to type it. “Ji” better fits the pronunciation, but since it’s part of the “Z set”, “zi” will also result in じ
- ぢ sounds like “ji”, but typing “ji” will result in じ. This is because じ is the more common of the two. Since ぢ is part of the “D set”, you’ll use “di”
- づ sounds more like “dzu”, but the correct input is “du” because it’s part of the “D set”
Typing small characters: contractions and “the small tsu”
Small characters are necessary when writing words with contractions or sokuon ー often referred to as “the small tsu”. This includes words such as しょうゆ (soy sauce) and がっこう (school).
The most consistent way to type small characters is to type a lowercase “x” or “l” before you type the character you desire to make smaller. For example, if you want to type a small ゃ, you can type “xya”. (This method will especially be useful when you want to write words in katakana, as katakana more commonly uses small letters such as ァ and ィ.)
You can also type the combination of letters that will automatically convert to your desired contraction. This applies to both regular contractions and dakuten contractions:
For the small tsu (っ), you can type “xtsu” or “xtu”, but you can also type it within the context of a word. To do so, instead of typing tsu, you’ll type the romaji letter following its location twice.
For example, take the word がっこう. The character following っ is こ, which would be written with the romaji “ko”. If you type “kko”, you’ll get this output: っこ. Thus to type the whole word, input “gakkou.”
Taking the rules from this section, we can now write the word ちょっと (a bit), which includes both a contraction and a small tsu. The most intuitive romaji that will give you the right output are “chotto.”
If you use Google translate or certain textbooks, you’ll sometimes see vowels with bars over them, such as ō and ī. These are not just regular vowels, so watch out for them! These are elongated vowels, and are crucial for accurate Japanese spelling and pronunciation.
Ō is the most common of these. An ō can mean two things; the correct romaji will either be “ou” or “oo”. For example, to correctly type “Tōkyō” in Japanese, you’ll use the romaji “toukyou” (-> とうきょう). “Ōsaka” on the other hand is “oosaka” (-> おおさか).
While “ou” is more common, you can’t take that for granted. I recommend using a different app than Google translate which will actually show the breakdown of characters. Here’s the result for “Tokyo” on takoboto.jp:
Here’s the result for “Osaka” on jisho.org:
For words with an elongated e (ē), it could be “ei” or “ee”. Any other elongated vowel will be the same vowel twice (so ī -> “ii” and ū -> “uu”).
While we’re not covering katakana in this article, for now I’ll just mention that the rules for writing elongated vowels in katakana are different.
Common follow-up questions
Different romaji for the same hiragana
You might have noticed while looking at the charts that some hiragana have multiple possible inputs to get the same result. For example, typing either “shi” or “si” will both result in し. For such characters, the combination that is more intuitive with the sound was listed first.
When typing it’s fine to consistently use whichever combination is more comfortable for you. However, it is still helpful to be aware of the other combinations. This is because Japanese people themselves may use either combination. Neither is more intuitive for them.
Romaji is certainly used less by Japanese people than their official writing system, but it still occasionally comes up. For example, if you know that しょ sounds like “sho” but can also be written with “syo”, you’d save yourself some trouble trying to read this:
Although they’ve written “syouyu”, the pronunciation is “shouyu” (meaning “soy sauce”). I have personal experience with a similar situation ー an elementary school student wrote “Syo” on their nametag, but their name was pronounced “Sho”.
If you see romaji written on menus or signs, keep in mind which hiragana that romaji would convert to, and that will give you the correct pronunciation.
Punctuation marks and spacing
Students who are typing in Japanese for the first time often ask me: why are things like periods and spaces so different?
The short answer is, Japanese formatting is just different. Periods look like circles ( 。),commas face the other way ( 、), and the spaces are much larger. Quotation marks are also different; rather than ( ” ) which would look like dakuten/tenten, Japanese uses these marks: (「」).
There are many more things to learn about typing in Japanese, and it takes exposure and practice to write in a “natural way”, but now is the perfect time to dive in and try things out!
If you still feel unsure or want someone to check your Japanese writing and give you feedback, working with a tutor is a great idea. I and many other great Japanese tutors on Wyzant would love to get you better acquainted with Japanese writing, and ultimately enable you to interact with real-world written Japanese!