Short History of the Japanese Typewriter
When it comes to machinery the Japanese have historically been in the forefront of development in the industrial world, but they never came to terms with the old manual typewriter, even 250 years after the development of the first machines. The reason for this is because their language requires the use of more than ten thousand different characters and this would entail the development of a somewhat cumbersome and difficult to use mechanical keyboard.
The first Japanese typewriter was built in 1915 and could reproduce about three thousand characters which made it very limited in use. Typists were highly trained to manage with these symbols but their work was extremely slow.
Matsuda Japanese Typewriter. Source: Creative Commons.
Japanese writing is a mixture of three different writing systems which originate from different sources. The first, Kanji, is actually borrowed from Chinese ideograms, or word symbols and two different systems of kana which are phonograms, representing sounds, are mixed together with these. In effect it is similar to using three different alphabets depending on what you want to express.
Ootani Typewriter. Source: Creative Commons
A complete dictionary of kanji symbols can contain as many as ten thousand symbols but after the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Japanese government revised the language and created a more simplified vocabulary of around eighteen hundred kanji symbols for use in everyday written language.
The two different kana systems known as hiragana and katakana go back to the ninth century and each one has a hundred and twelve symbols.
Toshiba 11 Typewriter Source: Creative Commons
A Western typewriter can write anything in an entire language, including numbers and punctuation marks, by using just 50 keys. In comparison, in the days of the mechanical typewriter which was set up to type Japanese, the machine had a very limited range. It consisted of a single key and two thousand symbols held in a matrix. A typist had to move the matrix each time to get the correct kanji, or kana character opposite the key. A second set of two thousand symbols was also available for more complex subjects and the symbols had to be moved into a space and dropped down before they could be used. All in all a difficult and time consuming activity.
Toshiba 21 Typewriter Source: Creative Commons
This was a very slow and expensive procedure and it meant that until very recently when computer software was made available to do word processing in Japanese, most executives and secretaries had to write their correspondence by hand. The first Japanese word processor programmes came into use in 1978 and later developments of computer software meant that an ordinary fifty character keyboard could be utilized by a competent typist to produce almost seven thousand kanji characters.
Today’s word processor programs allow anyone who wishes to type Japanese characters without the need for intensive training and the facility is now commonly available in Japanese offices, schools and homes.