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Bigger in Japan

Shift Happens book updates
Bigger in Japan
By Shift Happens book updates • Issue #5 • View online

My post-first-draft celebration trip took me to Japan. It was a journey of unprecedented intensity, from the urban density of Tokyo to an emotional gut punch of Hiroshima. There wasn’t an hour – and often minute – when I didn’t notice some unusual design detail.
This was vacation, and I didn’t expect how much of the trip would end up revolving around keyboards anyway. Turns out, Japan still has electronics stores – whole neighbourhoods of electronics stores – as if Amazon never happened. To a little boy who grew up without anything resembling even a RadioShack, visiting them was fulfilling a dream I long but gave up on.
In those stores, there were aisles and aisles of keyboards: cheap smartphone add-ons, stylized keyboards for gamers, and expensive mechanical keyboards for aficionados.
There were many tiny keyboards, attached to (popular) pocket dictionaries and (even more popular) label makers. There were accessories, too. Some expected, like a fancy leather wrist rest – and some less so, like the cute extra keys with tiny calendars on them!
There were also many small unexpected differences: Logitech products branded… Logicool – since another company, Logitec, already existed in the tech space…
…and giant Enter keys, bigger in Japan than anywhere else:
How do you write in Japanese?
Japanese writing system is among the most fascinating in the world. There’s kanji: thousands of letters borrowed from China many centuries ago. But there’s also kana: a set of fifty-something letters that are much closer to what you might recognize as alphabet. Except it’s not an alphabet, but a syllabary. And it exists in two mirror copies: hiragana and katakana. Both, along with kanji, not only interlock in fascinating ways, but also make room for Roman letters.
And so, an important city in Japan’s south west could be referred to as ひろしま (hiragana), ヒロシマ (katakana), 広島市 (kanji), or – romanized – as Hiroshima.
Building technologies to deal with all this is a challenge. A typewriter that could output thousands of kanji arrived much later than western typewriters and looked nothing like them: it was a big tray filled with thousands of metal characters, and just one key – but one you could move around and press to swing the desired letter to meet the paper:
But there were also katakana typewriters; much simpler, but with rather limited applications:
Fast forward a hundred years and the electronics took over. Today, a Japanese keyboard is as much software as it is hardware; I can simply write “hiroshima” with a Roman alphabet, and the autocomplete/autocorrect help me transmute it to all the other forms:
But I could also write in kana, use my finger to draw the kanji characters on the trackpad, or try other input methods; there are so many of them, in fact, that for a long time Japanese Apple keyboards added a special pen on the Control key, to remind you how to switch from one kind of typing to another:
It wasn’t Microsoft Word’s puny autocorrect; it was right here, in Japan, where keyboards learned how to finish a word for you, predict what you type next, and turn one thing you typed into another. It’s all the same technologies that you use on your iPhone, in English and all of the simpler writing systems – including emoji.
But before software ate the world, in the decades between the typewriters and modern computers, there were other ideas, like this system of turning pages and choosing options with a pen:
Or a keyboard where special shifts resided under the spacebar, to be pressed with your thumbs:
Or giant keyboards with a dozen shifts and hundreds keys:
Or a fascinating set of ergonomic keyboards called TRON:
None of these exist any more. What took over is the thing you’ll recognize from your own desk; a keyboard that starts with QWERTY.
What am I typing this issue on?
Apple keyboards are usually boring. It’s fun to watch them slowly change their feathers, but (with tiny exceptions) they’re meant to do their job and stay out of the way. So imagine my delight when the keyboard I fell in love most during my trip was a boring white Apple keyboard.
I saw it first in a store, by an old iMac used to play music. I looked at it and moved on. But I kept thinking about it. Eventually, I came back to the store a week later, asking if I could purchase that very keyboard… which happened to be the only keyboard in the store not for sale.
I didn’t speak Japanese; the clerk didn’t speak English. After some consternation he understood my request and called his boss, who denied it. But I pressed on. “Is there another store in the area that could have these for sale?”, I asked – not via kanji, hiragana, or katakana, but through a wildly inconsistent and exuberant set of gestures.
The clerk pulled up Google Maps and eventually pointed me to a nearby store. Walking there, I thought maybe I was “streeted,” got rid of. But after arriving at a tiny store on the fourth floor of a small mall – a store I would’ve never found by myself – I saw dozens of copies of my dream keyboard:
I bought one, and then… went all the way back to the first store, just to say “thank you” to the clerk. 
The keyboard eventually travelled with me to America, onto my desk, and under my fingers. What’s so special about it? It has kana and Roman letters sharing room on each key. It has multiple accents drawn in a fun way – with a box showing their exact position. It has a non-shifted zero, which comes with a lot of history.
The Control key has the pen icon I mentioned above, and there are extra keys around the shorter spacebar to switch between writing modes. (Spaces are not that important in Japanese.) There’s nothing to the left of 1, making it delightfully wide… and to many a programmer’s delight, Control is right next to A, and Caps Lock demoted to the lower left corner:
I’m not only writing on it now; I also took it to work for a few weeks to write usual English prose and code.
It was torture, my muscle memory suddenly turned my nemesis. I made many typos. I enABLED CAPS LOCK BY ACCIDENT all the time. I lost my ability to take screenshots. I had to copy and paste the backslash, which simply… doesn’t exist here.
But it also became a great “what if” exercise. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to hold Shift to get @ or :. That felt amazing. The smaller spacebar didn’t bother me at all. Pressing the impressive Return… it was just so much fun. And the many-legended keys ceased to overwhelm, and started feeling empowering. Just like I wanted to take the best parts of Japan home with me, some of these ideas will find their way to other keyboards I have.
But this keyboard is also yet another testament to QWERTY as Moloch. Other input methods, some quite ingenuous, came and went; what Japan ended up with was roughly the same keyboard as any other in the world.
And so, from a distance, my new keyboard looks like a regular boring Apple slab of white keys. But it pays off if you look at it closely. It reveals stories, surprises, and little design details… which is exactly what Japan did when I was there. And in that way, I’m glad to have this keyboard that will always remind me of Japan itself – and not just through the kana and kanji printed on its keys.
December’s keyboard mystery
The first American typewriter didn’t have keys for zero and one. It was a simple matter of economy; fewer keys meant simpler construction, and there were other letters that looked exactly like the missing digits anyway.
But that wasn’t the case in other places. And that’s how we ended with a mysterious keyboard we looked at in December – in Cyrillic, there is nothing looking quite like 1… but there is a letter, З, approximating a digit 3 – so Russians decided to skip that one instead:
Some typewriters went even as far as removing the key for 2… since Z felt close enough:
It took decades, but zero made it onto typewriter keyboards. One followed some time later – just in time for computers, whose nature had no room for things looking “similar enough.” And so I smile today seeing a giant 1 key on my Japanese keyboard – after decades in exile, that key finally appeared… and in at least one country, compensated with a generous size. Seems only fair enough.
(Congrats to Anton Kovalyov for being the first person who answered correctly!)
What’s going on with the book + Secret documents I’m sharing just with you
I (re)started talks with editors and publishers, but the next immediate step is what I haven’t done yet: I need to read the entire book myself. To be honest, I dread it.
I also wrote down my thoughts right after finishing the first draft. They come in two pieces:
Perhaps you’ll find them interesting.
This was newsletter №5 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Visit the secret store
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