Apparently the first microcomputer capable of working with the Chinese language in Chinese characters was the Microprofessor II (or MPF-II-C), a Taiwanese Apple II clone from 1982.

Now I'm 99% sure that there were early microcomputers capable of working with the Japanese language in only katakana and/or hiragana.

Unlike Chinese, Japanese can be 100% represented using only roughly 50 characters. There are actually two sets, hiragana and katakana, so about 100 total, but as a bare minimum for communication you didn't need both. Any word that can be written in kanji can also be written in kana at the cost of added ambiguity. And an utter loss of elegance.

This also means that a Japanese micro could get by with a variable-sized subset of kanji if need be. Early encoding standards required around 2,000 characters but there were surely proprietary encodings before there were standard ones.

So I'm wondering if there were any microcomputers, or addons, that allowed working with Japanese including kanji before the MPF-II-C? Perhaps there was even an MPF-II-J that was first?

I'm pretty sure Japan was more technologically advanced than Taiwan in the late '70s/early '80s, but perhaps the possibility of getting by in kana alone made it less urgent to develop a kanji-capable system sooner?

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    What do you mean by "working"? Available as ROM charset? In principle, you can easily draw Kanji as graphics, on every computer with graphics, but limited resolution and limited memory don't make that practical for the 64K-class-machines. And there were Hiragana and Katakana charsets for the plain Apple II, as software. – dirkt Aug 14 at 13:40
  • Technically, the singular issue is the amount of storage required for the fonts. There's no way around at least a few hundred kilobytes in ROM or on disk/RAM. – RETRAC Aug 14 at 13:51
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    @dirkt: Well would need to work as text in files and programs, not just have pictures of text. – hippietrail Aug 14 at 13:56
  • @RETRAC: I don't know enough but machines with only text modes used to have things called character generators. I'm not sure if those were just ROMs in the usual sense or somewhat different. – hippietrail Aug 14 at 13:57
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    FWIW: The first system I ever laid my own eyeballs on where somebody could type Japanese text on a keyboard and see it rendered on the screen was a NeXTCube in a Canon USA office in San Jose, California. IIRC, the keyboard entry method was, the user typed in Katakanas, and as they typed, little pop-up dialogs would appear, offering Kanji replacements. – Solomon Slow Aug 14 at 14:01

You didn't mention the MPF-II's release: That was, apparently, 1982.

There were earlier Japanese Microcomputers than that, notably the NEC PC-8000 series (released in 1979) that used a Katakana/Kanji character set (that had to be removed/changed when preparing a release for the US market in 1981)

Even the Hitachi Basic Master (released 1978 and commonly considered the first "Japanese Microcomputer") used a Katakana character set.

If "desk size" falls into your microcomputer definition, the Toshiba TOSBAC might have been be the first with reasonable Kanji support.

A short comment on your question (too long to fit into a real comment): I think you are largely overestimating the complexity of the problem. Even entirely dumb telex machines could transmit and receive Kanji telegraphs right from the beginning - The operators simply used codebooks to transfer to and from a Japanese text into code combinations of the 32 possible characters in a telegraph (If you think about this, an English Dictionary that tells you how to build words from characters is not much different from such a codebook) . So, the only real problem is the method of input and output, rather than internal representation.

Character-based writing has a similar concept to Kanji - we classically call that words - And we had word processing software for roughly 30 years before computers were good enough to actually have a concept of words and offer input methods for them (with that I'm referring to real-time input checks whether something that's keyed in is actually an accepted word or not).

Input methods for Kanji were, in the beginning, rather a mechanical problem than a computational one - The first computers that allowed direct Kanji input worked with something closely resembling a codebook - A "book" of pages that were essentially keyboard overlays and depicted the glyphs, the computer detected what page you were in and could sort out the proper glyph from key and page (the TOSBAC mentioned above used such a method). Output: Well, as soon as the dot matrix printer was invented, that wasn't much of a problem anymore.

It is obvious that mechanical contraptions like the above are hard to put into a "Microcomputer" (whatever your definition of that would be), so the size of a TOSBAC is probably pretty close to the smallest that could be made before GUI input methods with contextual update and high-definition screens were available.

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  • D'oh! I had 1982 in my first draft and apparently lost it when rewriting )-: I was focusing on kanji because kana is less demanding, but bonus points for covering both! – hippietrail Aug 14 at 13:59
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    According to Wikipedia, there wasn't kanji support until the PC-8001mkIISR in 1985. Seems to have only had Latin and katakana in earlier versions. – hippietrail Aug 14 at 14:08

What was the first microcomputer capable of working with Japanese kanji?

What seams to be an easy question might not be one at all, as it depends definition:

Like your value of 'microcomputer'?

  • Does it had to be contemporary called micro in (*1), or
  • due the fact that it uses a microprocessor?
  • Is a dedicated text system a computer or not?
  • Would it be one if it can load other software?
  • Last but not least, is the number of units made/sold relevant?

In this case additionally the 'working with' may need clarification:

  • Any computer able of bitmap graphics can display Kanji, and this for sure has been used
  • Is it required to 'manipulate' them b default or can it be part of add on software?
  • What kind of input methods are acceptable?
    • A separate key for every Kanji?
    • A specific method of combining keys?
    • Is Kata input with automated (and checked) kanji translation sufficient?
    • Is a Latin based Kanji selection as well ok?

So unless there is a clear definition many answers are possible.

Beside the obvious answer of any computer with graphics and a Kana/Kanji-input-processor, I'd see a few nice candidates for first or important with microprocessors.

  • Sord M200 of 1977 - Z80 based with a huge keyboard to form Kanji
  • Toshiba JW-10 of 1979 - with a vocabulary of 80,000 Kanji, introducing Kana/Kanji input translation, going by word meaning
  • Sharp WD-3000 of 1979 - build in a desktop with a huge touch pad to enter Kanji
  • Oki Word-200 of (again) 1979 - Compact machine using an input method based on sound.
  • Sord M343 of 1983 - a dual CPU machine with 8086 and Z80; ca. 5000 Kanji
  • DR even introduced a CP/M-86 with Kanji support in 1984 for generic PC

Except for a few attempts Kanji support is a pure software issue as soon as there's bitmap output. It depends (mostly) on a sufficient performing input method using a limited keyboard layout (*2) to 'form' Kanji symbols. The usual way is to type a series of Kana and an interpreter looking for the closest Kanji (*3), offering them as a list and have the user select. It's a bit like programming in an IDE with auto completion.

Standards were set by Toshiba with TOSWORD and Sharp with (the later) Shoin. Their Kana/Kanji input methods eventually defined today's handling.

*1 - At it's time the Olivetti P603 as well as the P606 were called micro computers due their size.

*2 - Limited as in there isn't a key for every Kanji. In most cases (today) it's a Latin keyboard with common layout and Kana assigned as well. This is worked out as the most handy combination as it allows direct typing of Kana (as well as Latin) text and Kanji with help of an input-translator. In addition there have been keyboard that allow building Kanji from 'strokes' or 'parts'. This allows building symbols based on it's visuals, while Kana/Latin based input is usually structured via sound or meaning.

*3 - Basically there are three different ways to approach Kanji creation with a limited keyboard:

  • Visual based - Here a symbol is created from parts/strokes. This usually requires a rather large keyboard of more than 100 keys for parts generation alone.

  • Sound based - Here Kana are used according to their sounds to select a Kanji

  • Meaning based - Words are written in Kana up to a point were they form a word which then is replaced by it's Kanji.

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  • "Micro" by how we usually use it, not what was a "minicomputer" or larger at the time. Comparable to sth between PET and PC. Just displaying pictures of text is not enough. Needs to be able to process Japanese text in the ways English text was at the time. Unsuccessful systems count. Any method of input is allowed (perhaps even markup?) Needs consistent charset/encoding used across different programs. Save/load programs and files. – hippietrail Aug 14 at 15:55
  • @hippietrail Err, what means 'as we use it' that's not a definition. Processing text is simply data processing and can be done as well on any machine. Does 'Save/load programs' mean it has to have a programming language to be written in Kanji? – Raffzahn Aug 14 at 15:59
  • Programming languages don't have to require kanji. I would not consider a ZX 81 with a picture of a Tibetan word to be a computer that works with the Tibetan language. I'd say the keys are an internal representation of text as characters and as strings, a way to display that representation, and a way to enter that representation. TRS-80, PET, APPLE II could not work with Egyptian hieroglyphics in the native way they can work with English. I apologize if my attempts to express this in clear English are failing. Prose is not my strength. – hippietrail Aug 14 at 16:12
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    @hippietrail then do it in tech - in fact, it may help, as talking tech uses only clear definitions :)) Also, an Apple II can do quite well "Egyptian hieroglyphics in the native way they can work with English". Simply by using graphics output. And yes, such software did exist and was distributed and supported by Apple. And neither of the mentioned computers did do native language processing. They all needed software to do so. I might be wrong but it seems as if you''re mixing up concepts of hardware, charset, charset handling of some system components and other software. – Raffzahn Aug 14 at 16:21
  • "Sord M200 of 1977" citation please. – snips-n-snails Aug 14 at 19:02

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