Have you ever seen “Rōmaji” before? If you are in Japan, you can see “Rōmaji” everywhere, such as train stations and traffic. When you want to take the plunge and finally begin your Japanese learning journey, you may think what is “Rōmaji”? Do you really have to learn “Hiragana”, “Katakana”, and “Kanji”? Don’t we see Japanese transliterated into English already with words like sayonara and sushi? Surely you can cut your language-learning time in half if you just learn how to read Japanese using the English alphabet.
Now you can learn great tips about “Romaji” and the Japanese writing system!
What is “Romaji” anyway?
For a variety of reasons, “Rōmaji” is utilized throughout Japan. You’ll notice that most of Japan’s train stations use “Rōmaji” to translate the station name into English. In Japan, street signs often do the same. “Romaji”, or “ローマ字” (Rōmaji), is the romanization of the Japanese written language. “Romaji” is the method of writing Japanese words using the Roman alphabet.
Since the Japanese way of writing is a combination of “Kanji” and “Kana” scripts, “Romaji” is used for the purpose that Japanese text may be understood by non-Japanese speakers who cannot read “Kanji” or “Kana” scripts. This is commonly used in Japan for street directions, passports, dictionaries, or textbooks on how to learn the Japanese language.
Do Japanese people use “Romaji”?
Many people who learned Japanese may wonder, do Japanese people even use “Romaji”? The answer to that question is yes! Japanese citizens, as can read “Kanji” or “Kana” station names, However, they will be exposed to “Romaji” in daily life and will be able to read it. Many Japanese students study “Romaji” in elementary school to be able to write their own names in English. This makes it easy for children to know how to introduce themselves to strangers.
Japanese students learn “Romaji” in elementary school to spell their names with English letters, which makes it easier for them to fit into the international environment. You may also see “Romaji” interspersed throughout an article, advertisement, or graphic design.
Furthermore, most websites require the use of English letters in usernames and passwords, most programming languages are in English, and touch-typing on a QWERTY keyboard is arguably faster than using a kana keyboard. There’s just no getting around the prevalence of English in the 21st century and its hold on information technology.
“Romaji” and the Japanese language
In order to understand “Romaji”, it is best to first understand the Japanese language and how it is written. Japanese is a member of the Japonic language family. The Japanese language is written with the three scripts, “Kanji”, “Hiragana” and “Katakana” (漢字、ひらがな、かたかな). “Kanji” refers to the Chinese characters that were introduced into Japan throughout its history from its neighboring country China. “Hiragana” and “Katakana” are also syllabic scripts that can be spoken as they are written.
History of “Romaji”
Japan is known for having a centuries-long isolationist policy lasting from 1639 to the Meiji Period, in which the country closed its borders to nearly all foreign trade and cultural imports. However, in the century prior to this isolationist period, Japan conducted regular trade with European countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal. It was the Jesuit missionaries from Portugal that initially introduced Roman script to the Japanese in the mid-16th century.
Furthermore, in 1548, a Japanese Catholic named Yajiro developed the “Romaji” writing system, which was soon put into print by the Jesuit missionaries. “Romaji” grew less popular during the isolationist period, but made a comeback when Japan sheds its isolationist policies and worked towards becoming a global player in the Meiji Period.
All Japanese who have attended elementary school since World War II have been taught to read and write Romanized Japanese. Therefore, almost all Japanese can read and write Japanese using “Romaji”, although it is extremely rare in Japan to use this method to write Japanese and most Japanese are more comfortable reading “Kanji” and “Kana”.
Three Types of “Romaji”
Basically, “Romaji” is the transliteration of Japanese terms to the Roman text or other languages that use the Roman alphabet. There are different romanization systems of the Japanese language. The three main systems are “Hepburn”, “Nihon-shiki” and “Kunrei-shiki”.
① the widely known Hepburn System (ヘボン式)
② Nihon-shiki System (日本式)
③ Kunrei-shiki System (訓令式).
This table compares the three romanization systems. As you can see, the same Japanese word can be spelled in as many as three ways! “Hepburn” is one of the three primary systems. The “Hepburn” method is the most popular and frequently utilized. “Hepburn” System does a better job at reflecting the pronunciation in its transliteration of syllables in Japanese.
For example, 【た, ち, つ, て, and と】 are written as 【ta, chi, tsu, te, and to】. Syllable pairs such as 【しゃ and じゃ】 are written as 【sha and ja】.
Meanwhile, in the “Nihon-shiki” System and “Kunrei-shiki” System, you will see 【た, ち, つ, て, and と 】written as 【ta, ti, tu, te, and to】. The syllable pair 【しゃ】 is written 【sya】 and【じゃ】 is 【zya】. However, in “Kunrei-shiki”, 【ず】 and 【づ】 are Romanized the same way 【zu】, while they are differentiated in Nihon-shiki (【ず】 is 【zu】 and 【づ 】is 【du】).
|Kunrei-shiki (訓令式)||Hepburn system (ヘボン式)|
|ta ti tu te to||ta chi tsu te to|
|da di du de do||da ji zu de do|
|za zi zu ze zo||za ji zu ze zo|
|sya syu syo||sha shu sho|
The overall goal and purpose of the Hepburn system are to teach non-Japanese people how to read and pronounce Japanese. As mentioned earlier, the Portuguese Jesuits were the first Europeans to attempt to Romanize the Japanese language. For this reason, the Hepburn system has a pronunciation system similar to the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese languages. To be precise, the consonants of this system are the same as those in the English language, but vowels are like those in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Hepburn is the most popular system because it is popular OUTSIDE of Japan. It is the system used in Japanese textbooks for students learning Japanese and the system that was used historically by the Portuguese to transcribe the Japanese language. It is also the system used to Romanize titles of anime, manga, and Japanese games. Hepburn is the most popular system, but not everyone in Japan is familiar with or understands the Hepburn system, it’s a good idea to brush up on the other two.
“Nihon-Shiki” system is used by Japanese people when they need to write in the Latin alphabet. Because the way Japanese and foreigners Romanize their own scripts differs, two different romanization systems are used. When Japanese people need to create usernames, input URLs for websites, or write their names in the Latin alphabet, they mostly utilize it online and on their phones. The name of this system literally translates to “Japanese type.”
Unlike the Hepburn method, this approach comes naturally to native Japanese speakers and makes perfect sense if you know and speak the language. The system was invented by the physicist Aikitsu Tanakadate (田中館 愛橘) in 1885 and was intended to replace the Hepburn system of romanization.
“Kunrei-Shiki” means “Instruction’s style” in Japanese. Except for a few spelling variations, “Kunrei-Shiki” is nearly identical to Nihon-Shiki. As a result, this approach is geared for native Japanese speakers as well. After World War II, the system was established to modernize the “Nihon-Shiki” system, and it was adopted in 1937, while the Japanese government was debating whether to employ the “Nihon-Shiki” or Hepburn systems.
In other words, the system simply made “Nihon-shiki” more up-to-date as the Japanese language changed. “Kunrei-Shiki” also takes inspiration from the Hepburn system and it Romanizes the Japanese particles はをへ as wa, e, and o, the same way that the Hepburn system does. “Kunrei-Shiki” is the romanization system used by most of today’s Japanese youth. It’s the most up-to-date romanization method for native Japanese speakers.
The key difference between the three systems, it becomes evident that “Hepburn system” makes more use of sounds that are common in Western languages. “Kunrei and Nihon-system” may be confusing to an English speaker, but it will make perfect sense to a native Japanese speaker.
What is the good aspect of Romaji?
The best thing about “Romaji” is that a beginner can read a word or sentence and mostly understand the pronunciation. It may be discouraging to some who want to learn some vocabulary and phrases but haven’t gotten a handle on hiragana and katana yet if all resources are devoid of “Romaji”. Plus, if you haven’t gotten used to using a Japanese keyboard yet, typing out your search terms in “Romaji” is the most efficient way to find what you’re looking for! In fact, there are two styles of keyboard input you can choose from “Kana” input (かな入力) or “Romaji” input (ローマ字入力).
What is the bad aspect of “Romaji”?
Romaji will help you mostly understand the pronunciation, but there are times when it can be misleading.
1. Romaji could lead to wrong pronunciation
There is simply no “du” sound in Japanese. Furthermore, “ず” is pronounced “zu”, but “づ” sounds much more like “dzu” when pronounced. If you read a text after learning “Kana”, it’s easier to recognize “づ” and pronounce it properly.
2. Romaji could lead to bad pronunciation habits
There are Japanese words we often come across in English such as “Tokyo”, “Sayonara”, and “Arigato”. You may have already encountered some initial surprise learning that “Tokyo” (とうきょう) is pronounced with two long syllables “Toukyou” and not three brief syllables “To-ki-o”. “Sayonara” (さようなら) does not have that emphasis on the “na” syllable as is often heard in English, but rather a long, drawn-out “you” sound “Sa-you-nara”. This is another fault of Romaji. The system’s inconsistent styles frequently misguide folks into poor pronunciation habits.
3. Romaji can be hard to read
The other major issue is moving past individual words and reading whole sentences or paragraphs written out in Romaji.
Take a look at this self-introduction sample written entirely in Romaji:
Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa Will Sumisu desu. Daigaku ninensei desu. Nihongo no benkyou wo ganbatteimasu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
That’s a lot of letters and very hard to read! Compare it to the same sentences written entirely in “Kana”
Somehow, it’s a little easier to get through. That’s because kana represent syllables, or more specifically rhythmic units called “mora,” so the sounds “h” and “a” are combined to become one unit.
(Translation: Nice to meet you. My name is Andrew Smith. I’m a sophomore. I’m working hard at learning Japanese currently. Please take good care of me!)
Once you can start incorporating “Kanji” into your language learning, reading becomes that much smoother.
The point is that “Romaji” is a great first step for learning the Japanese language journey but try not to rely on it for too long. As you begin to memorize words and grammar points, “Romaji” will end up slowing you down and hindering your reading speed and comprehension. First, “Romaji” should be treated as a “Writing system,” not a way to learn pronunciation.
Using “Romaji” as a preparatory step to learn “Kana” and “Kanji” will help you learn Japanese, however when you feel like you have a good foundation in “Kana”, you can drop the “Romaji”. when you get out of your comfort zone and learn “Hiragana”, and “Katakana” are the sense of pride and accomplishment you will feel once you can read Japanese words in “Kana” and “Kanji”.
There is nothing quite like this bubbling feeling of empowerment, and excitement once you’ve mastered the Japanese writing system, and hope this will help your learning Japanese journey.
- “Romaji” is the method of writing Japanese words using the Roman alphabet. Since the Japanese way of writing is a combination of “Kanji” and “Kana” scripts, “Romaji” is used for understanding by non-Japanese speakers who cannot read “Kanji” or “Kana” scripts.
- In Japan, “Romaji” is used every daily situation, so Japanese students learn “Romaji” in elementary school.
- There are different romanization systems of the Japanese language. The three main systems are “Hepburn”, “Nihon-shiki” and “Kunrei-shiki”. And “Hepburn” is the most popular around the world, and widely used.
- Portuguese Jesuits were the first Europeans to attempt to Romanize the Japanese language, so the “Hepburn” system has a pronunciation system similar to the other languages.
- “Romaji” is a great first step in learning the Japanese language, but you should not deeply rely on “Romaji” to read or speak Japanese to develop learning “Kana” and “Kanji”.
Not only about this, but I have also written several articles about learning the Japanese language. Please find them here!