JP Shodo


How to read (just about) everything in Japan using a smartphone


Japanese has four writing systems used simultaneously: the Roman alphabet that the Japanese call rōmaji, the hiragana, the katakana, and the kanji. While the first three are phonetic and can be looked up in a dictionary alphabetically, kanji can't be found so easily. This means that, unlike the way a foreigner abroad in Europe might be able to do, it's almost impossible to look up most written words in Japan with just a dictionary.

With just a paper dictionary, at least.

Smartphones save us, because they can allow us to draw the kanji as we see them, so we can look them up right away!

As I have an iPhone, and no experience with other smartphones, this guide will concentrate on how to write in Japanese with any generation iPhone (specifically using iOS 6), and therefore any iPad or iPod touch (with cellular data plan) as well. However, other smartphones should have the same ability.

On your iPhone, go to the Settings app. Then tap on "General." Scroll down to the "International" option and tap it. From there, tap on "Keyboards." Press "Add New Keyboard..."

First, activate the Japanese (Kana) keyboard (not the "Romaji" one). This will allow you to type in hiragana and katakana on your phone. The Japanese keyboard takes some getting used to; the hiragana are laid out as if on a number pad, with syllables a, ka, sa, ta, na, ha, ma, ya, ra, wa in place of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0. When you press on, say, the "ka" syllable, a cross of hiragana will pop up allowing you to choose from the five different "k-" syllables, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. Once you know the hiragana well, this keyboard will be easy to learn. Also, as you type with the Japanese keyboard activated, you will be prompted with possible kanji matches (if you choose to select them).

Once you have activated the Japanese (Kana) keyboard, activate the "Chinese - Traditional (Handwriting)" keyboard. Both "traditional" and "handwriting" are very important options here. When Communism took over mainland China, the new bureaucracy set out to simplify many Chinese characters to improve literacy among the masses of very poor people who lived in China at the time. In Taiwan, however, and in Japan they still use the traditional Chinese characters.

Now let's test out the Chinese handwriting keyboard! Go to a dictionary (I recommend Google's free "Tranlsate" app on the App Store) and prepare to type. When the regular English keyboard is activated, tap the globe symbol next to the space bar, and you can select the Japanese or Chinese keyboards you just activated. Once you activate the Chinese handwriting keyboard, you will be able to draw any character you see with your finger. Once you begin drawing, four closest matches will appear on the right of the drawing area. If none of those are correct, tap the button just below the delete button to cycle through more options. Once you have found a match, tap on it to select it. (The bright blue button will mean what it always does on an iPhone, either "enter" or "go.")

In this way, you can alternate between writing kanji and Japanese kana, and translate anything you see in Japan!

One caveat is that Japan uses some Chinese characters that are no longer standard in China, and the Japanese even invented a few of their own. These kanji won't appear as options since you are using the Chinese handwriting keyboard. Nevertheless, this problem only happens in 1% of cases (in my experience), and won't hinder you in being able to read almost everything else.

The only other problem with this involves stroke order. If you started studying kanji already, you'll know that stroke order is very important with the kanji. This is because, in kanji "cursive" the pen doesn't lift from the paper very much, and the connecting lines become almost as important as the true strokes (this is equally true in Chinese). If your stroke order is way off, and the character you write isn't very clear, you may have trouble finding the right match. But keep at it, and study your kanji with Heisig's guide, and soon you'll be a master caligrapher (at least on your iPhone)!

Good luck, and enjoy becoming literate in Japan!



© 2012-2017 Luke Amadeus Ranieri