Word processing comes slowly to the land of high technology. Japan tries taming its language on a keyboard

Yoshioka Shinobu can't imagine life without his word processor. He owns two, and contemplates picking up a third. He swears they've doubled his output -- which includes a weekly radio commentary, a handful of magazine columns, and, at present, five books. He has no trouble finding nice things to say about his machines. ``They're wonderful,'' he exclaims.

Of course, Mr. Shinobu is the exception. Most people in this bastion of technological might have never touched any kind of typewriter keyboard, much less one with a computer attached. The reason: Written Japanese makes conventional typing impossible. It is only with the spread of computer terminals that Japan's population is being propelled into the age of keyboard literacy.

Japanese computer companies have recently developed practical word processors -- computers that store and manipulate text -- for their own language. But an unfamiliarity with the newfangled contraptions is proving to be one of the greatest obstructions to Japan's dawning era of data banks and information networks.

``Without the keyboard, there is no information age,'' observes Akira Maeda, a director of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The telephone monopoly, which was deregulated April 1, is spearheading an project to link the nation's computer and telecommunications networks. ``All of this is revolutionary for us,'' he says.

The seeds of revolution were sown about a decade ago when microprocessors made it possible to write Japanese on a computer. Shortly after that came the first commercial word processor. It was introduced in 1979 and sold for about $25,000. Since then, at least 20 other manufacturers in Japan have entered the market.

The resulting competition has led to some ferocious price-cutting. A portable machine can now be had for about $300.

Sales of the devices have been exploding. The Japanese purchased 210,000 word processors in 1984. But that figure has yet to translate into widespread public acceptance. The majority of word processors have been bought by businesses and government, not by individuals.

Children have reportedly taken to the machines with gusto. Yet many grownups, whose educations hails from pre-computer days, are finding it hard to adjust to the new machines.

Perhaps typical is the attitude of Seigi Igarashi, an executive with the computer manufacturer, NEC Corp. ``These word processors I will not learn,'' he says. ``But with my kids, that is a different story.''

In some cases, morale problems are surfacing as offices rush to automate.

Some question whether word processors will boost productivity, even after workers have been trained to use them. ``It's not so easy for a Japanese to use these things,'' said one government official recently as he glanced dolefully at an IBM word-processing system.

At the root of the difficulties lies the Japanese language itself. With over 5,000 commonly used Chinese characters embedded in two 48-symbol phonetic alphabets, the very structure of written Japanese has defied attempts to tame it on a conventional typewriter. So Japan has remained largely in an age of handwritten communication.

``The keyboard is not part of our culture,'' admits Kyuichiro Nakamura, manager of the Office Automation Systems division at NEC Corporation. ``We are being transformed from a handwritten society.''

Calligraphy is a high art here, and it is not uncommon for Japanese to judge each other by their handwriting. In fact, some critics charge that word processors will lead to bad penmanship.

Other traditionalists say the very idea of using a word processor is inimical to the heritage of the Japanese language. They say their use will foster a mechanical approach to what has always been a highly intuitive mode of communication.

Even the newest word processors are cumbersome enough to leave some wishing for the old days. To operate them, one types into the system using either the Japanese phonetic alphabet reserved for spelling foreign words, or the Roman alphabet. The computer is supposed to juggle that into the proper mix of Chinese and Japanese characters.

Unfortunately, the work doesn't end there. Japanese has plenty of words that sound alike but are written with different characters. The operator of a Japanese word processor is often confronted with a string of symbols, all matching the sound that has been typed in, but each having its own meaning.

Choosing the right symbol can be a tedious process. The lastest models remember frequently used choices to help narrow the options. Someday, models may have the capacity to analyze sentence structure and pick the most likely character.

Even the fastest typists can manage only about 60 Japanese words per minute, compared to the 100-word-per-minute rate of English-language typists.

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