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Switching from a Japanese keyboard?

Since 2003, I've used Japanese keyboards exclusively.

I moved from Texas to Kyushu in autumn that year. I didn't have a usable computer of my own at that time, so I had to plunge right into using my company's office computers, complete with Japanese keyboards and Japanese as the system language (the company didn't distribute computers on an individual basis, so changing the system language wasn't an option).

On top of this, the OS was Windows... the Hasbro one (googling it, I am reminded this version of Windows was called "Windows XP"). As a Mac user since 1985, and only occasionally dabbling in Windows, XP added to the foreign feel of it all.

I didn't speak or read a word of Japanese at the time.

I could clumsily get things done, but I was slow and relied on undo heavily.

"Undo" looked like this: 取り消す.

Thank god for keyboard shortcuts.

A few months in to my new life in Japan, I ordered a 17" PowerBook G4 from Apple Japan. I paid for the laptop at the post office via a bank transfer and ink-to-paper forms. I used my inkan, my official stamp, to sign the deal. My yen was going to Apple in Tokyo, a city I had yet to set foot in.

Several weeks later, my brand-new PowerBook arrived, loaded with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther.

I loved this computer. It felt like a huge leap forward from any computer I had ever used in every way.

When configuring the PowerBook on Apple's website, I had gone through the standard customization screen, the same way we do today:

  • More RAM? (No thanks, I'll install my own.) [RIP manual install]
  • Faster hard drive? (Sure, I want Ableton Live to scream.)
  • Japanese or U.S. keyboard? (Hmm...)

See, at this point, it was already becoming clear to me that I might stay past my initial 10-month contract (I was right; in all, I've spent a total of 10 years in Japan since then).

I was learning some Japanese (and enjoying the challenge), and I needed to type certain characters regularly in Japanese that were only easily accessible with the Japanese keyboard layout.

So I went with the Japanese keyboard.

Fifteen years, 4 personal Macs, and several company Macs later, I am starting to reevaluate my keyboard layout of choice.


Because programming and accessory availability.

In programming, having accessible punctuation and symbol keys is important for speed. I'm not sure if it's possible to objectively say whether either U.S. or Japanese layouts are faster than the other. I haven't been able to find any writing on the subject.

To be sure, both layouts offer easy access to a different set of characters. For example, on a U.S keyboard, you can get to a backslash (\) with a single keystroke. On the Apple Japanese layout, the backslash is available with option + ¥. Confoundingly, the backslash isn't even shown on the keycap, so you just have to know it's there. Mac users don't need this key; programmers do.

On the other hand, with the Japanese keyboard layout, the @ and underscore (_) symbols are a single keystroke, no modifier keys. Nice.

If there's anything that I envy about U.S. layout, it's that the apostrophe (') is a single keystroke. It explains to me why so many JavaScript programmers go with single quotes: double quotes require reaching for the shift key.

For me, it's the same either way. On a Japanese keyboard, shift is required for both kinds of quotes: shift + 7 for single quotes, shift + 2 for double quotes. So if you ever get a message from me asking, "Why don7t you use double quotes?", you will understand why.

Regardless of which is faster to program with, the Japanese layout makes me hard to pair program with for American programmers: the parentheses are one key away from where you'd expect, single and double brackets are positioned vertically, the return key is a tubby Tetris "˥", and the delete key is a much smaller target than you are used to, leading you to type ¥ repeatedly instead of erasing all of the mistakes this keyboard is causing you.

As a bonus, the control key and caps lock positions are switched, and the space bar is shorter horizontally, making room for two keys that the U.S. layout doesn't even have.

The extra keys on either side of the space bar are for switching back and forth between language input types.

Right where your right thumb probably hits the space bar on your computer is the kana key, which on most setups will switch you into Japanese language input. Not only does this alter the output of the keys you are hitting, it fires up the kana to kanji conversion system, which can be bewildering to get out of if you aren't used to it and don't know what it's doing.

It's the extra eisu key to the left of the space bar that will get you back to "standard" alphanumeric input, but by then, you will have passed the steering wheel back over to me, and the screen will be littered with random Japanese characters.

Beyond the differences in layout, getting accessory keyboards in the Japanese layout can be hit or miss. Apple's own iPad Smart Keyboard is currently only available for purchase in the U.S. with the U.S. layout. I am typing on one now, and due to the different layout, I spend a lot of time hitting delete and hunting for keys.

After writing all of this, I've convinced myself not to switch my keyboard layout of choice for now.

With 15 straight years on the Japanese layout, I'm getting close to matching the amount of history I ever had on a U.S. layout. Only counting the years after I learned to touch type in high school, I have significantly more experience on the Japanese layout.

Luckily, the Japanese layout is a standard option on all Macs in the U.S. It's as easy as selecting an item in a dropdown when you order. Same for the Apple Magic Keyboard.

So while I'm not switching to the U.S. layout, the Japanese layout is always there if you're feeling adventurous.

Switching from a Japanese keyboard?
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