Japanese Keyboard Layouts

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Here's a introduction to Japanese writing system, Japanese input methods, and Japanese keyboard layouts.

Japanese Writing System

First, you need to learn a bit about Japanese writing system before you can learn about how Japanese is typed on keyboard.

Japanese writing uses the following characters:

Of the kana, there are 2 types:

Hiragana is the primary. Katakana is used for place names, company names, imported words, emphasis, etc. They are in a sense like English lower case and uppercase letters.

ん (n)
Japanese kana: hiragana (left) and katakana (right)

History of Japanese Writing System

Japanese kana derivation 44270
Japanese kana derivation

Frequency of Character in Japanese

In formal writing, such as newspaper or books, about half are Chinese characters, and other half are hiragana.

Japanese Character frequency
Characterstotal number of characters%
Punctuation and symbols9913.09
Arabic numerals102.07
Latin letters520.46

Here's sample of Japanese writing, from Wikipedia Japanese article on keyboard:

キーボード(英: Keyboard)は、コンピュータへの入力機器の一つであり、手指でキーを押すことでコンピュータへ文字信号などを送信するもの。様々なソフトウェア上で文字入力を基本とした機器であるが、コンピュータ (OS) の操作全般にも用いられる。

日本語における 鍵盤はkey boardからの訳語であり両者は本来的に同一のものである。欧米においては鍵盤楽器のカラクリを応用した機械式タイプライターを経て、タイプライターのインタフェースを模した電子的入力機器へと連続的に発展していった歴史的経緯により一連の概念として理解されるが、タイプライターの普及が限定的に留まった日本の社会通念においては、楽器の鍵盤と入力機器のキーボードとは断絶しており個別に扱われることが多く、電子楽器のキーボードでわずかに関連性が示される程度である。

[2017-07-16 キーボード (コンピュータ)]

For example, of formal writing, see http://www.esrille.com/keyboard/ja-jp/layouts.ja-jp.html

In informal writing, such as twitter, more kana is used.

For example, of informal writing, see https://twitter.com/metalstump or https://twitter.com/esrille

For reading Japanese newspaper or books, you need to know 2k Chinese characters. See Jōyō kanji (常用漢字, literally “regular-use Chinese characters”)

In comparison, for Chinese people reading Chinese, 3500 are frequently used (e.g has college education, or needed to understand newspaper or books). See List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese

See also: How to Tell the Difference Between Chinese, Japanese, Korean?

How to Type Japanese

So, writing Japanese is hard. You have:

There are 2 popular ways to input hiragana:

To input Chinese character (kanji), press a key , then it'll convert previous kana character or phrase to Chinese. Because there are many homonyms, typically a selection will popup to let you pick the correct kanji.

To input katakana, either switch to a dedicated katakana mode, or, it's the same way you input Chinese character, the katakana shows as a choice among Chinese character choices.

To input English letters (romaji), switch to English mode that lets you enter the English letters as is.

Japanese input method menu 39864
Progression of typing Japanese. First type English letters, it becomes hiragana, then press a key, then choices of Chinese or katakana.

That's the basics.

Most people in Japan, use romaji method to input Japanese. That is, on a normal PC keyboard with QWERTY layout, type the English letters of the kana reading, and it becomes the hiragana character, and press a key to convert the previous word to Chinese or katakana.

This is a inefficient method, but requires no learning.

See also: Chinese Input Methods

Special Keys on Japanese Keyboards

Keyboards sold in Japan sometimes have special keys.

They are not necessary, as you can type Japanese with US keyboard, but the special keys may be convenient.

Here's the keys.

In Japanese and Chinese, each character is a square. But English is not a square, or, in monospace fonts, the width is not the same as the square of Japanese and Chinese. So, there's the idea of full-width font for English, where each character has the width as the square, so that the text has columns aligned as typical of Chinese and Japanese.

Full-width English is not necessarily preferred, since English in full-width doesn't look so good.

So, there's usually a key 半角/全角 or software toggle for user to chose between full-width or half-width. Half-with means using proportional font for English.

〔►see Unicode Full-Width Characters

happy hacking keyboard pro jp type s 447832
see the circle arrow key 🗘, that's 変換 (reads “henkan”, meaning “conversion”).
On the left with a slash is 無変換 (reads “muhenkan”, meaning “no conversion”.)
Also, see the kana key. 〔photo by 002 from image source
Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro JP Japanese

〔►see The Idiocy of Happy Hacking Keyboard

Japanese Layouts

There are many ways to arrange the English letters on keyboard. And there are many ways to arrange the hiragana on keyboard too. So, there are many different layouts.

Most of the following is base on http://www.esrille.com/keyboard/layouts.ja-jp.html

See also: Esrille New Keyboard Review


This is the standard, most popular layout used in Japan. It is basically the same as USA keyboard.

You use English letters to type kana, then convert that to Chinese if necessary.

Every kana requires 2 keystrokes (2 English letters).

This is the least efficient method and layout.

Apple keyboard Japan
Apple keyboard Japan. Note the 英数 (alphanumeric) key, and かな (kana) key.

〔►see Tiny Space Bar on Japanese Keyboards

jp keyboard layout jis qwerty
JIS QWERTY layout on the NISSE keyboard. 〔►see Esrille New Keyboard Review

Nicola Layout (Thumb Shift)

In Nicola Layout (aka Thumb Shift) layout:

  1. Each key corresponds to a kana character.
  2. the left shift key and right shift key are different modifiers. (and the shift key are moved to the center, with a specially designed keyboard.)
  3. Only 3 rows are used, each row has 5 keys per hand. So, left hand has 15 keys, right hand has 15 keys, total 30. Multiply by 2 shift keys, you have 90 possibilities, enough for all kana letters.
  4. The shift keys are usually at thumb position, with special keyboard.
Japan FKB8579 661 thumb shift keyboard 45474
Japan FKB8579-661 thumb shift keyboard 45474 image source

Note: the 2 distinct Shift key means, some character needs to be typed using the same hand, thumb holding the shift.

Nicola became quite popular in the 1980s, and still has great number of users.

Yasunori Kanda and others at Fujitsu developed Thumb Shift layout in the late 1970s.

〔►see Japan Thumb-Shift Keyboard

jp keyboard layout nicola type f 59675
Nicola type-f layout on the NISSE keyboard. 〔►see Esrille New Keyboard Review

M-type Layout

M-type input system:

  1. Use English letters to input Kana.
  2. The English alphabet are arranged to make it easier for Japanese kana. For example, left hand home row is {e u i a o}, and right hand home row is {k s t n h}. This latter is the order of kana.
NEC M shiki keyboard NEC PC98 1992
«M-system keyboard with compromised layout for NEC PC98 from 1992. It has Alps yellows and very heavy grey on top left key. —hasu 2013-02-22» image source
jp keyboard layout m type 82407
M-Type layout on the NISSE keyboard. 〔►see Esrille New Keyboard Review

M-type Layout was designed by Dr Masasuke Morita at NEC in 1983, and also a physical ergonomic keyboards for M-type layout. Dr. Morita had developed many common designs of today's ergonomic keyboards in 1980s.

NEC keyboard pk-kb015 2
Japan M-Type keyboard

JIS X6004 Layout

JIS X6004 was a Japanese industrial standard Kana layout established in 1986 to amend various issues in the current, old JIS standard Kana layout. While its technical design was superb for professional typists, JIS X6004 was abandoned as a JIS standard in 1999 due to its unpopularity in the market.

jp keyboard layout jis x6004 60014
jp keyboard layout jis x6004 60014

JIS X6004 employs the prefix shift method, in which the shift case can be selected by pressing and releasing a shift key alone before pressing the corresponding Kana character key. Unlike Nocola Layout, JIS X6004 uses a separate Dakuten ゛ key as in Stickney's Layout, and the left and right shift key select the same Kana character case.

JIS X6004 allows a shift key to be placed in the center of the keyboard where a space-bar is placed. Since white space characters appear far less frequently in Japanese than in English, the same typing method can be used both in Japanese and English with this JIS X6004 configuration.

We could see JIS X6004 as a Japanese Dvorak or Colemak layout, and the current JIS standard Kana layout as QWERTY. Today its superior technical design has been re-evaluated as it becomes easy to scan and analyze huge Japanese texts and n-grams using personal computers. Even though JIS X6004 is no longer a JIS standard, it is actually still in use and its variations are also being developed by the enthusiasts.

TRON Kana Layout (Dvorak)

TRON is input system, layout, and a special ergonomic keyboard.

TRON input system:

  1. Is kana input system. That is, keys correspond to hiragana directly.
  2. Uses Dvorak layout for English. 〔►see Dvorak Keyboard Layout
  3. kana arrangement is optimized for efficiency.
  4. Tron uses left shift and right shift to input different hiragana. The left/right shift are positioned for the thumbs.
  5. left/right shift is also used to input left/right brackets on the number row, and different punctuations on other keys.
TRON Keyboard Unit TK1 001 KeysUp-s1520x831
TRON Keyboard Unit TK1 001. image source 1900×1039
Japan keyboard layout tron d 09292
TRON layout on the NISSE keyboard. 〔►see Esrille New Keyboard Review

The TRON Kana layout was developed by Prof. Ken Sakamura in the TRON keyboard sub-projects of the TRON project in the mid 1980s. TRON Kana layout has similar characteristics to JIS X6004, but it allows Kana characters with a Dakuten ゛ to be typed in a single stroke as in Nocola Layout.

The TRON Kana layout is fairly optimized to be used with the ergonomic TRON keyboard. By using Q, Z, or / keys more frequently, which are usually avoided in the conventional keyboards as in Nicola layout, TRON Kana layout has a quite high efficiency regarding the number of required key touches to input Japanese texts.

Note the original TRON keyboard places two punctuation characters in each keys in the number row, using left and right shift cases differently. In NISSE, only one punctuation character is placed in each key like the conventional keyboards. This is intentional to make NISSE more friendly to the users with very small hands.

TRON keyboards
utron keyboard 02
μTRON Keyboard from Japan

Stickney Next Layout

jp keyboard layout stickney next 35200
Stickney Next layout on the NISSE keyboard. 〔►see Esrille New Keyboard Review

The Stickney Next layout is a new Kana layout that is designed for NISSE based on the Stickney's layout.

The origin of the current Japanese JIS standard Kana layout is the layout that was invented by Burnham Coos Stickney in 1923. The original Stickney layout emphasized the following points in its design, which are fairly reasonable even in today's perspective:

  1. Ease of learning; the most part the keys in the several groups follow the order of the katakana alphabet
  2. Most of the typing will be performed in the second and third banks
  3. Dakuten ゛, a Japanse diacritic sign, is typed by one hand and the root character by the other hand
  4. Unfortunately the current JIS Kana layout has lost many design intentions in the Stickney's original design from historical reasons, and it is not widely used in practice today.

The Stickney Next layout keeps the Stickney's original design intentions; it has moved nine Kana characters (ケセソヘホメヌロ) to better positions, and removed two Kana characters (small ㇷ and ㇹ) that are not used in the contemporary Japanese language. Electronically, the Stickney Next layout is compatible with the standard Japanese JIS layout.

Japan keyboards

  1. Japanese Keyboard Layouts
  2. Tiny Space Bar on Japanese Keyboards
  3. Esrille New Keyboard Review
  4. μTRON Keyboard
  5. Japan TRON keyboard
  6. Japan Thumb-Shift Keyboard
  7. Japan M-Type keyboard
  8. Japan Sukerutoron ST-2000 TRON Keyboard

Keyboard International Layouts

  1. International Keyboard Layouts
  2. Chinese Input Methods
  3. Japanese Keyboard Layouts
  4. Russian Keyboard Layout
  5. German Keyboard Layout
  6. French Keyboard Layout