Making Custom Keyboard Layouts to Transliterate East Asian Languages

Many readers will likely be aware of the Digital Orientalist’s Keyboard Layouts (launched in 2014 and improved upon in 2017) which year-on-year drive a high number of people to our site. These custom layouts aim to increase the ease and speed at which Arabic or its transliteration can be input into one’s computer thereby also improving one’s workflow. Inspired by these layouts and wanting to improve my own workflow when transliterating Chinese and Japanese in my work, I created my own keyboard layout for Mac in 2018 for the purpose of quickly inputting the special characters and accents that I usually use in my work. I have been using it ever since. Even though many of these accented characters can already be input with relative ease using a standard keyboard layout (for instance, by holding down the key for the letter on which one wants to insert an accent in the case of a Mac), I wanted to redesign my keyboard to be able to quickly access all the accented or special characters that I regularly use in my work.

An image of the Digital Orientalist‘s improved keyboard layout.

Initially, I desired to create a keyboard layout that would allow the user to input English, Chinese and Japanese (or their transliterated forms), however, I quickly learned that this would not be possible using my software of choice, Ukelele, since Japanese and Chinese input methods such as Kotoeri ことえり or the pinyin input method, which convert kana 仮名 or Hànyǔ pīnyīn 漢語拼音into kanji or hànzì 漢字, are not supported by the system. Indeed, after using the Ukelele Google Groups discussion forum, I was quickly informed that Japanese and Chinese input methods are more like their own pieces of software than keyboard layouts. Therefore, although my initial idea was unfortunately untenable, I realized that I would be able to save valuable time when writing by creating the English element of my idea – a keyboard layout which allowed for the quick input of transliterated Chinese and Japanese words. Rather than having to use the shortcut keys Command+Control+Space or physically select Emoji & Symbols from the Edit menu, and then search for the correct characters, such a keyboard would allow for the input of special characters from the keyboard itself.

Standard method for inputting some accented characters on a Mac.

The Layout

Since I primarily use the British QWERTY keyboard layout, I decided to use this as a base. I then programmed new keys which could be input by pressing the alt key (for lower case characters) or alt+shift (for upper case characters). Even though I primarily use the modified Hepburn system (Shūsei Hebon-shiki 修正ヘボン式) of romanization for Japanese and pīnyīn for Chinese, I decided that it was important for the keyboard layout to be able to input multiple transliteration styles. This would make the layout useful in a greater number of situations. For instance, I could use the same keyboard when composing text for editors and publications whose style guidelines do not match my own transliteration preferences. I first inserted keys for the vowels, aeiou, with macrons (āēīōū) as these are commonly used to render long Japanese vowels in modified Hepburn. For simplicity’s sake, I positioned these keys in the same places as their non-elongated forms. For example, to insert the character “ā” one presses alt+a. Following this I inserted the letter “o” with the circumflex accent (ô) to the right of the “ō” (alt+p). The circumflex accented “o” is the only specialized character used in the Nihon-shiki 日本式 and Kunrei-shiki 訓令式 styles of romanization. Through this simple addition it thereby became possible to use this layout to transliterate Japanese using any three of the primary transliteration systems. Indeed, other less popular systems such as Hyōjun-shiki can also be transliterated using this layout, as they do not contain any further additional characters.

The keyboard layout once the user presses the alt key.

As a historian of Japan, I gave the transliteration of Japanese preference in the design, however, I also wanted to be able to input transliterated Chinese terms as I often use Chinese alongside Japanese within my work. In pīnyīn, vowels can be made to represent the tones of Chinese by using accents. The first tone is represented by a macron. Due to the use of vowels with macrons in the modified Hepburn system, it was unnecessary to add additional keys for these in order to transliterate Chinese. The second tone is represented by an acute accent, which I inserted as a dead key in the position of alt+f that can be used to modify vowels. The third tone is represented by a caron, and was positioned as a dead key at alt+g. And the fourth tone represented by a grave accent was inserted as a dead key at alt+h. To insert a vowel with the acute or grave accent, or the caron, one first presses alt and the relevant key followed by the relevant vowel. For instance, to write “ǎ” one presses alt-g followed by the “a” key. It was also necessary for the sixth vowel “ü” and its tones (ǖǘǚǜ) to be placed on the keyboard. I positioned these as stand-alone keys placed in succession from a starting position at alt+m to alt+/. Finally, there was a need for diaereses to exist on the keyboard, so that the letter “ü” without any accents might be inputted. I did so by creating a dead key for diaereses at the position alt+d. These additions meant that the keyboard layout was now also capable of inputting pīnyīn, as well as the Yale romanization of Mandarin and Latinxua Sin Wenz (the latter does not, of course, require any special characters). In order to also make it compatible with the Wade-Giles system of Romanization (Wēi-Zhái Shì Pīnyīn 威翟式拼音), I then inserted a dead key in the position of alt+[ (next to “ô” at alt+p) in order to input vowels with a circumflex (âêîû).

I made some further additions based on other special characters that I regularly use. These additions make it possible to write some characters common in German or French including ß (alt+s), æ (alt+z), œ (alt+x), and ç (alt+ç). French accents can be added through aforementioned keys designed for the transliteration of Chinese, as can vowels with umlauts which exist in German. Finally, I added the Euro symbol (alt+2) and symbols for Yen (¥ at alt+3, and 円 at alt+4).


The main limitation with the layout is that I removed all of the other special character and accent keys that one might expect to have with the standard British English keyboard layout on Mac. In addition to this, the use of the alt key to input special characters has caused some problems on occasion – I’ve accidentally pressed cmd+o (the shortcut to open a file)rather than alt+o on several occasions. Despite these issues, the layout is now the primary keyboard that I use when writing in English, and over the past few years it has undoubtedly saved me a lot of time when typing.

Creating a Custom Keyboard Layout

Creating a custom keyboard layout with Ukelele is a very simple process that anyone with basic computer literacy can learn to do within a few hours. A basic tutorial can be found here or here. The existence of the aforementioned Google Group also means that there is always a friendly community on hand to help.

I’d never planned to launch the keyboard layout to the public, since I created it primarily for personal use with personal goals and workflow problems in mind. Nevertheless, I imagine that some people interested in making their own keyboard layouts may like to see or download it for reference. As such, I have made the keyboard layout available for download (for Mac only) here.

Download the layout and find it in your Downloads folder in Finder. Copy or cut the file, and locate your library (press cmd+shift+g in Finder and type: ~/Library), scroll down to Keyboard Layouts and paste the file into the folder. Next click on your languages and keyboards to the left of the battery symbol at the top bar of your screen and select Open Keyboard Preferences…(alternatively this can be accessed in System Preferences > Keyboard > Input Sources). Click on the + button in the bottom left, find Others and select Chinese and Japanese Romanized Keyboard. Finally log out and log back in or restart your computer. You can now select the keyboard for use from the drop-down menu next to the battery icon (which you clicked on earlier).

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