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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Japanese Typewriter

I don't know how to type… but I do possess a quick hand… or rather possess a quick three two fingers and a thumb on my right hand a quick index finger on the left hand.

I can generally do about 65 mistakes a minute - and that's with only 26 alphabets on a keyboard.

So… what the heck does a typewriter look like in Japan, when there are some 1,945 kanji characters one needs to know in order to graduate from Japanese high school, plus the additional couple of thousand that are used in Japan's language, not to mention the 46 hiragana and 46 katakana symbols in those two Japanese alphabets.

It would seem to be an impossible task to have a typewriter that wasn't the size of the proverbial elephant in the room.

Granted, with computers and word processing, the Japanese are able to combine various symbols to create a kanji on-screen, so things are no longer as cumbersome… though I used to watch my co-workers at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) office struggle to make more than five kanji a minute. I think that's why I saw them hand-write many documents.

This was between 1990-1993, and I was given my own Fuji (or was it Fujitsu) computer to goof around on during my one day a week visit to the OBOE offices in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken. I could switch from Japanese to an English keyboard easily, but since I was never going to write anything in Japanese, that computer was left with an English qwerty keyboard.

Anyhow… typewriters… a long-lost technology that only the most die-hard (IE stubborn asses who think it's cool) writers who create copy with an old Olivetti or some other clunker.

If you really want to be old school, go back to a quill, inkwell and a scrap of papyrus. No, huh? Riiiight.

It was back on November 7, 1916 that Japanese inventor Sugimoto Kyota (杉本 京太, surname first) applied for a U.S. patent for a Japanese-language typewriter.
Sugimoto Kyota

It was the first Japanese typewriter (see image at very top)—that was considered practical—to use 2,400 of the more common kanji characters… I believe that nowadays, high-schoolers must learn 2, 136 jōyō kanji (commonly used kanji) - so that's gone up…

In China, I think there's some 85,000 kanji, while Japan might actually have around 50,000 - most of which are probably archaic, and simply borrowed from the Chinese alphabet.

Sugimoto was born in Okayama-shi, Okayama-ken on September 20, 1882, moving to Osaka in 1899 where he learned at Training Institute for Communication Technology graduating in 1900 (or 1901).

Completing his studies, he worked within the letterpress field of typography, designing and assembling wooden type for letterpress printing.

In 1914 he moved to Tokyo to embark on his idea for a practical Japanese typewriter.

According to the 1915 Japanese patent #27877 (which also was extended to the U.S. patent office in 1917), the design of the typewriter was split equally amongst himself, Sugimoto  Jinnosuki and Ohtani Jibei.

Before this, Japanese typewriters were in existence, with the symbols arranged on a cylindrical surface, but only a few characters could ever be typed via this method.

Sugimoto chose his 2,400 kanji symbols based on his research showing the frequency of said characters contained within public documents.

To have his typewriter work, Sugimoto said it has a “type-nest partitioned into a large number of compartments to receive types, of inking and printing devices …”

Basically, the 2,400 kanji symbols were arranged by classification on a character carriage, and the chosen character was raised by a type bar that could be moved backwards, forewords, left or right. The symbol was typed against a cylindrical paper supporter.

Sugimoto says that: “characters are printed in vertical lines, commencing at the rightmost line from the top to the bottom, then the line next to the left from the top to the bottom, and so on.”

Immediately in May of 1917, design partner Ohtani started up the Nippon Typewriter Company, which is now part of Canon Inc.

Production of the typewriter took place in Mita, a district of Minato ward in Tokyo, selling at a fairly robust ¥180 (which in today's dollars is about US$1.80, but back then, it was a lot more… and I wish I could figure out a way to determine just how much more…)

The point is, Sugimoto's Japanese typewriter made life a heck of a lot easier for people - especially today's hipster Japanese authors who prefer to look pretentiously cool.

Today's authors only wish they could look this cool...
Sugimoto died on December 26, 1972.

Andrew Joseph

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