The Hilariously Impractical Japanese Typewriter

Growing up in a computerized world, I’ve never really thought too much about the problems faced by people using typewriters.

It’s pretty damn hard to make a Japanese typewriter (known in Japanese as a 和文タイプライター). Instead of the simple 26 letters in the English alphabet, Japanese has 48 hiragana, 48 katakana, and thousands and thousands of the Chinese-derived kanji characters.

Unsurprisingly, it’s really hard to come up with a typewriter that can incorporate 1,000+ characters, but people still tried their damndest to make it work.

In 1929, a man named Kyota Sugimoto invented the first Japanese typewriter and, in the decades that followed, many more people tried their hand at making a better Japanese typewriter.

old-japanese-typewriter

They came in various shapes and sizes, but the underlying pricinple was more or less the same. You used a giant plate full of the 1,000+ characters included on the typewriter and gradually steered the plate to the character you wanted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

japanese-typewriter-legend

But it gets even more complicated. Some typewriters had interchangeable characters, some wrote vertically, others wrote horizontally. Apparently, certain characters, because of their complexity and the surface area, required more force than others. All in all, not very user friendly.

newer-japanese-typewriter

These typewriters might have given writing a certain formality and uniformity, but they were also basically slower than handwriting and really, really complicated.

Fortunately nowadays, Japanese people don’t have to deal with these cumbersome, complicated machines; computerized word processing has more or less solved the problem much more simply and elegantly than Japanese typewriters.

Still, there’s some mystique in these intricate devices. Even if they don’t make life especially convenient, they’re a fascinating relic of a time when Japanese was trying to bridge the gap into the modern world.


Read more: Gatunka – Japanese Typewriters

  • missingno15

    Wow thanks for this article Hashi! I’ve actually also been wondering how they were able to distribute the newspaper and stuff back then

  • Donk

    There has to be SOMEONE out there who got insanely fast with one of these.

  • mel21

    shouldn’t it be Japan was instead of Japanese was in the last line?
    Even if they don’t make life especially convenient, they’re a
    fascinating relic of a time when Japanese was trying to bridge the gap
    into the modern world.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    I think there was an attempt to do this with REAL Chinese characters to type out Chinese (which has way more characters than Japanese), but I think they kind of abandoned the idea as too fiendishly complicated.

  • DAVIDPD

    So essentially a block printer…?

  • Yuusha

    He’s talking about the language trying to bridge the gap to modernity, not the people.

  • Jon

    Sounds like a job for Unemployed Inventor Man!

    . . .*scribble scribble scribble*. . .

    Aha! I’ve got it! Simply have the blocks composed of radicals of different sizes, then place them in the correct spot. Basically, each character is like a lunchbox. You’ve got spots for the all the little things. Just replace the food with radicals. It’s still several hundred pieces, but it beats dealing with several thousand plus it’s easier to organize (simply organize the radicals horizontally by strokes, then vertically by size). Or instead of several sizes, make the pieces out of a flexible rubber and stretch to size or something like that.

  • Aaron Lewis

    I recently read about one Chinese typewriter in my East Asian orthography class, and realized how it is was the precursor to the modern IME you type CJK on your computer with today. You picked a pair of radicals, using the inventor’s dictionary lookup method and then character candidates would appear in a “magic viewer”. Here’s the book. Seek out this book and check that chapter out. http://bit.ly/162TahQ Pages available on Google Books is limited.

  • JUPAJUPA

    Of course, never underestimate Asian!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    They could type at an amazing 4 characters a minute.

  • Sean

    Except radicals take different, distinct forms when they occur in different positions. Additionally, size of the individual radicals is dependent on how many other radicals there already are in the character. The amount of variation pieces necessary to accommodate these exceptions would bring the total easily over 1000, and along with the work required to determine which variation is necessary for the kanji at hand, this would make the device more complicated than the normal type writers.

    Props for creative thinking though!

  • Oro

    After that they tried to make their own word processor, computers with attached printers:
    http://museum.ipsj.or.jp/en/computer/word/index.html

  • besterthenyou

    You’re a real person outside of TextFugu!

  • besterthenyou

    Ouch. You’d have to make sure that you don’t get too much ink, or it will spread and you won’t be able to see all the lines!

  • KinokoHime

    Why didn’t they just make a collection of well-organized tiny stamps and leave off the machine? Seems like it’d be about the same speed.

  • missingno15

    Yes I am…..

  • crowbark

    In the second video, it also beeps incessantly at the operator while
    he’s painstakingly trying to set the paper up. Why? Just as an
    additional sanity test? Dear God.

    On the other hand, I would love to have possession of a tray full of those tiny type blocks. Language Legos!

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.morris.186 Steven Morris

    This is really interesting. I’d heard of these as a kid but have never taken the time to read about them.

    Come to think about it, inputting Japanese on a computer is also unique. Like how you can type in “onpu” to get musical notes, or get various shapes by typing in “maru”, “sankaku”, “shikaku”, “hoshi”, etc. Swapping characters on one of those type writers seems somewhat similar to the process of choosing which kanji you want after you’ve typed in your hiragana on a computer. I’ve always wondered about how typing speed is measured in Japan because of this.

  • Jen Kong

    Parody promo for product “Patapata” from Google Japanes Input.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzUDAaYMNsA

    「2009 年の公開から多くのユーザーにご利用いただいている Google 日本語入力に「パタパタバージョン」が登場しました。フラップ式ディスプレイを採用す­ることにより、指一本で、難しい予備知識なども必要なく、直感的でスムーズな日本語入­力が可能になりました。」

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    This was probably the best April Fools’ joke ever :D