Japanese Romaji can be confusing. What is otya? Why do some people write it as rōmaji and not romaji and put a strange line above the vowel?
Have you ever wondered about the correct answer to these questions and want to know why we write Japanese the way we do when romanizing it? Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Japanese Romaji where we will guide you through the answers to these questions and more!
Welcome to the ultimate guide to romaji. Here you will find everything you need to know about romaji including what romaji is, the history behind romaji, the various romaji writing systems and the advantages of disadvantages of writing the Japanese language in this way.
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What is romaji?
Romaji is the name for the method of writing Japanese in Latin script. You may have come across this if you have just started out learning Japanese or if you have an interest in learning foreign languages. Living in a western world, it is not common to come across this term and so this article will help you understand some of the background and context behind romaji and its writing system.
Romaji is also known by many people as “romanization” and there is actually no difference between the terms romaji and romanization, romaji is simply the japanese version of the term.
In Japanese the characters for Romaji are, “ローマ字” (rōmaji) literally meaning "Roman letters." This is indeed very similar to the term, “漢字” (kanji) literally meaning “Chinese letters.”
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 and the 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. Japanese has no clear genealogical relationship with the Chinese language but it does use many Chinese characters and also borrows much vocabulary from Chinese. The other two scripts used in Japanese, Hiragana and Katakana, are both syllabic (or moraic) scripts that can be pronounced as they are written.
Here are charts of each of the scripts to gain a flavour of the Japanese language if you have not come across these scripts previously:
Do Japanese people use romaji in daily life?
Many people who do not speak native level Japanese and have not been raised in Japan may wonder, do Japanese people even use romaji? The answer to that question is yes!
The system of Romaji is used throughout Japan for various specific reasons. If you visit Japan you will first of all notice that the majority of Japanese train stations use romaji to translate the station name into English. Street signs in Japan often do the same things. This is not necessarily to help Japanese people, as they can read the station names in Kanji or kana, but they will be seeing romaji on a daily basis and will be able to read it. Many Japanese people learn to use romaji in elementary school so that they can write their own names in English. This makes it easier to know how to introduce themselves when they meet foreigners.
When visiting Japan you will also likely see romaji on billboard signs or advertisements. When Japanese is written, it has the varied options of kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji. This means that graphic designers can get really creative when it comes to which script they use and how they use it. Sometimes you may even see a mixture of hiragana and romaji.
Romaji is also the most popular way of inputting Japanese into computers and mobile phones. When typing Japanese on a laptop, most people simply type using an English keyboard and use the romaji spellings of Japanese words. The same goes for most mobile phones, however, some people may choose to type in a kana script which will then convert the words to kanji. Of course, the internet is also very western-centric. Html’s will be in romaji as well as passwords and most usernames. This means that Japanese people can type in english characters without much trouble. This differs from other languages, such as Korean, where a korean keyboard is based around the korean characters. This actually means that as a foreign language learner, Japanese is relatively easy to type using your current Western laptop.
Here is useful video on how to type in romaji and turn this into Japanese:
Why is romaji used?
Romaji is mainly used to target non-Japanese speakers who cannot read the kanji or kana scripts to allow them to access the language. Romaji may also be used in Japanese beginner textbooks and some Japanese language dictionaries for this same reason. Romaji is also often used in scholarship on and about Japan in order to make the academic texts intelligible for those outside the field of study.
Romaji is actually very useful as a student of Japanese. Say, for instance, you wanted to learn a song in Japanese but cannot read or write the language. You can use almost any youtube video written in romaji and still be able to make similar sounds to Japanese with the latin alphabet.
Here is a video example: The first line is written in romaji, the middle line is in Japanese and the third line is the English translation.
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History of romaji
It is considered fairly rare to write in romaji in Japan other than the aforementioned methods (computer, mobile, translating name to English). It is much more common for a Japanese person to go about their day using a mixture of Kanji, hiragana and katakana.
The education of romaji in Japanese elementary schools started after World War 2 with the first Japanese romanization system being based on Portuguese orthography. Portugal and Japan have a long history of relations with the first three Europeans who arrived in Japan being Portuguese traders in 1533. This started a long relationship of trade of goods, religion and ideas between the two countries and in order to bring about this exchange the Portuguese needed to forge a system to understand and decode the Japanese language.
In 1548 a Japanese Catholic named Anjiro developed this Japanese romanization system based on Portuguese orthography. Jesuit priests used this system so that they could preach their Japanese converts about Christianity without having to read and understand difficult Japanese. A series of texts were printed using this system, the most famous being the “Nippo jisho,” a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary dated to 1603. This text has been hailed as a useful source for studying early modern Japanese pronunciation and early attempts at romanizing the Japanese language.
Out of the three systems of romaji that this article will go on to introduce, Hepburn, Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki, the early Portuguese system was the closest to the current Nihon-shiki in its treatment of vowels.
The following table provides a taste of how these Japanese phrases were romanized in order for the portuguese jesuits to understand them:
|日本の言葉||The language of Japan||Nifon no cotoba|
|平家物語||Tale of Heike||Feiqe no monogatari|
The Portuguese Jesuits also went on to print various secular books in this romanized system, including the classic “Tale of Heike” which was romanized as “Feiqe no monogatari.”
From the late 1590s, Japan started the process of ridding Christianity from its shores and romaji largely fell out of use. It was used sporadically in foreigin texts until the mid 1800s when Japan ended its Sakoku (closed nation) policy and opened for trade and relations with various western nations.
Once this era of trade with foreign nations commenced from the mid-19th century onward, several new romaji systems were developed to ease this increased communication with foreigners. The Hepburn system is a product of this era, named after James Curtis Hepburn. James Curtis Hepburn used the system in the third edition of his Japanese-English dictionary which was published in 1887. This system is not the same as the current Hepburn system although it is what inspired it. The representation of some sounds have been altered for the present system, for instance, Kaidan (Ghost tales) written in modern Hepburn used to be written as Kwaidan in the older version of this system.
Another product of this era of increased relations and trade with foreign nations, in other words roughly the Meiji era (1868-1912), was that some scholars urged for using these systems of romanization to write the Japanese language instead of the kanji, katakana and hiragana scripts. These Meiji scholars argued that the Japanese writing system should be abolished entirely and replaced with the latin script. This is when the Nihon-shiki romanization system came about, as a replacement for kanji, hiragana and katakana. However, while several Japanese texts were published fully in the romaji script, the system did not gain enough popularity.
After World War 2, when Japan was occupied by the government of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), it became an official policy to romanize Japanese. Once again, this effort to romanize the Japanese language failed and instead a more moderate attempt to reform the Japanese script commenced.
Modern romaji systems
There are three main omanisation systems and this article will go into detail about each.
The three main systems are Hepburn. Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki with the hepburn system being the most popular and widely used.
Here is a table with some common Japanese words and how they look in the three different systems:
While Hepburn may be the most popular system, it doesn’t hurt to gain an understanding of how the other systems work. Furthermore, Hepburn is only the most popular system because it is the system used outside of Japan. Not all Japanese people know or understand the Hepburn system and so it makes sense to familiarise yourself with the other two systems used in Japan. You will also want to make sure you do not see words written in either the Nihon-shiki or Kunrei-shiki systems and mistake them as “incorrect.” The systems differ in particular ways so once you get your head around how these systems differ you will be able to identify each when you come across them.
Before we start, here is a useful video so you can gain a more tangible understanding and broad overview of the three systems:
Hepburn system ( ヘボン式)
The overall goal and purpose of the Hepburn system is 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. These early efforts inspired the later scholar James Curtis Hepburn who built upon these systems to create the Hepburn system. 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.
However, the Hepburn system is really easy to get your head around with time. The more you use it the more it will naturally make sense. I still often use this system to make notes in romaji when I am in a Japanese listening test and cannot write out the Kanji or kana fast enough. Some people argue that this system makes more sense for speakers of Italian, Spanish and Portguese and while this is likely the case, the system is not too challenging for a native speaker of English either.
The best tip for understanding Hepburn romaji is to watch romanized Japanese song lyric videos on youtube. This is great if you are just starting out with Japanese and cannot yet read kanji, hiragana or katakana. Simply listen along to the song and HEAR how the words should be pronounced. After a few listens you will get the jist of how the ‘i’s,’ ‘e’s, and ‘a’s’ are pronounced.
Traditional and Modified Hepburn
As mentioned previously the current Hepburn system has not always been the system in use. The original system was slightly different and if you have come across old Japanese studies scholarship texts you will likely have come across it. The most defining difference between the old and new systems is the use of the consonant m instead of n. For instance, the word senpai 先輩 would be romanized as sempai 先輩.
Again, I cannot stress enough that 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, but Japanese people will not necessarily use and be able to understand this system so it is good to get yourself familiar with the next two systems!
The Nihon-Shiki system is mainly used in Japan when Japanese people need to write in the latin alphabet. The way that Japanese people will want to romanize their own scripts and the way that foreigners will want to romanize the Japanese scripts will be different so this naturally makes sense when you think about it! It is mainly used online and on mobiles when Japanese people need to make usernames, type in URLS for sites and write their names in the latin alphabet.
The name of this system literally translates to “Japanese type.” This system comes with ease to native speakers of Japanese and makes natural sense if you know and speak the Japanese language unlike the Hepburn system. 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.
As mentioned earlier, this was part of the effort of many Japanese Meiji scholars to replace the Japanese scripts kanji, hiragana and katakana with a romanized script. Aikitsu Tanakadate believed that by writing Japanese using the “Nihon-shiki” romanization system, Japan would be able to compete with its rival western nations. Therefore, the system was designed to make sense to native-Japanese speakers and foreign speakers of the language were not considered as the target audience. This is why the system can differ largely from the Hepburn system.
Kunrei-Shiki literally means "instructions style.” Kunrei-shiki is largely the same as Nihon-shiki other than a few spelling differences. Therefore, this system is also aimed at native Japanese speakers. The system was developed to update the Nihon-shiki system after World War 2 and was adopted in 1937 when the Japanese Government was debating over whether to use the Nihon-shiki or Hepburn systems.
Kunrei merges syllable pairs:
- di/zi ぢ/じ
- du/zu づ/ず
- dya/zya ぢゃ/じゃ
- dyu/zyu ぢゅ/じゅ
- dyo/zyo ぢょ/じょ
- wi/i ゐ/い
- we/e ゑ/え
- kwa/ka くゎ/か
- gwa/ga ぐゎ/が
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 actually the system that most of the Japanese youth today use to romanize Japanese. It is the most modern, romanization system aimed at native Japanese speakers.
Here is a simply table showing the key differences between Kunrei-Shiki and the Hepburn system:
|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|
Looking at the key differences between the two systems it becomes clear that the Hepburn systems utilises more sounds prevalent in Western languages. The Kunrei-system does not make as much sense to an English speaker but will make natural sense to a native-Japanese speaker.
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Advantages and disadvantages of using Romaji
Now that we have covered the history of romaji and the three main systems, Hepburn, Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki, let’s move on to the advantages and disadvantages of using romaji. There are positives and negatives for using this system in your language learning journey or daily life but I will mainly argue that romaji should only be used with caution when learning Japanese as it is very likely to hinder your progress with the language.
Advantages of learning romaji
There are various advantages to learning romaji and some have been touched on already. For instance, familiarising yourself with the three systems will give you a glimpse into how foreigners and native Japanese speakers perceive the Japanese language. It will also allow you to better understand how to pronounce the language. Let’s jump right into the positives!
Romaji helps beginner students
Firstly, Romaji is a beginners best friend. When you just start out learning a language it can feel horrible to keep hitting the brick wall of learning hiragana, katakana and kanji. Learning these scripts takes time and it is normal to feel keen and want to get started learning right away. For those keen beans, romaji is perfect.
I personally recommend checking out some Japanese podcasts. By using these, you can see the Japanese conversations transcribed in all forms, romaji, kana and kanji. If you write out these conversations in a notepad this will help you get a flavour for all the systems without having to drill them into your brain. This is exactly how I started out and I now speak fluent Japanese. Everyone struggles at first, and some people really do not want to sit down and drill the kana systems. My advice is to focus on listening to the Japanese language and using romaji to help understand how it should sound. If you write out a tiny bit of both romaji and kana daily doing this, you will start to pick up Japanese in a very natural way and your Japanese accent should sound natural too.
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It is no lie that for a native-speaker of English or any European-based language, romaji will likely be quicker to write that kana or kanji. If you need to transcribe Japanese fast, such as taking notes in class or writing down ideas before they disappear, romaji can be great.
I have found this to be a very useful approach when stuck in Japanese listening exams with limited time to jot down information. I often write down notes in romaji and turn these into neat kana or kanji later before submitting my answers. This will not only make your Japanese look cleaner and neater but will also likely help you get all your answers correct as you could jot things down faster!
Typing and writing Japanese
If you cannot yet write in Japanese and search things online, romaji is the way to go. While some of the search results will change, romaji will be a better shot than googling the English translation of what you are looking for. Especially on youtube, you can get far with just the romanized version of a Japanese title. This tip is also useful for those visiting or travelling around Japan. You can simply use romaji to look up place names on google maps to help you get around the country. This can come in really handy when you are lost and quickly want to look up a station name before the train carries on to the next station!
There are actually two ways of inputting Japanese with a keyboard: kana input (かな入力) and Romaji input (ローマ字入力). The former is the slightly more challenging way of inputting Japanese for beginners and foreigners in general and involves typing Japanese with the kana scripts. The romaji input simply means typing Japanese as if you were typing romaji and your keyboard will automatically transform your words into the correct kanji or kana characters.
In terms of writing Japanese, romaji is also often the way to go. If you need to send a letter or parcel to an address in Japan, you will likely not have much luck with just kana and kanji. This is because the postmen in your home country will likely not be able to read the Japanese characters. Instead, romaji is vaguely intelligible to speakers of English and with the help of some googling, will help your parcel get to where it is meant to be. There really is not reason to neatly copy out the kanji or kana onto a letter or parcel but if you want to be extra safe writing out the address in both the Japanese scripts and romaji will make sure your parcel or letter gets there safely!
Disadvantages of learning romaji
As with everything there are always positives and negatives. Unfortunately in the case of romaji, the negatives to writing in the script full-time often outweigh the positives, mainly because this would massively hinder your progression in terms of learning the Japanese language.
Many Japanese textbooks and websites will give you contradictory advice about using romaji when learning Japanese. As a beginner, it is important to know what implications your choices will have, so look at the positives and negatives carefully and decide what is best for your situation.
Importance of Kanji
Let’s be honest, Kanji is difficult. They are hard to learn and a Japanese menu full of kanji and kana is not easy to understand. While romaji will be good to help you initially get used to the Japanese language and start you on your learning journey, if you use the system forever you will never be able to read a fully Japanese menu at a restaurant or do basic tasks in Japan that do not use romaji.
It is better to use the time that you would use relying on romaji to focus on acquiring the kana scripts. The longer you rely on romaji the longer it will take you to make progress in understanding the kana and kanji characters.
When you are reading and learning new grammar in Japanese, romaji may actually slow you down. This is because romaji cannot express kanji characters and so you will miss out on learning new characters and their meanings. Many Japanese textbooks also stop using romaji by Upper beginner level and so these will become largely inaccessible to you.
Importance of Japanese pronunciation
Unfortunately, romaji also has the potential to lead to incorrect Japanese pronunciation if used incorrectly. I suggested earlier to always listen to romaji at first when trying to understand and learn how to use it and this is exactly why I said so. Romaji does not exactly reflect how the Japanese language is pronounced and so if you always attempt to read Japanese using romaji you will likely end up with a horrible “foreigner” accent. Some key examples of the difference between romaji and the read world Japanese pronunciation include;
- づ can be written as du. There is no du sound in Japanese.
- ず and づ can both be written as zu despite sounding different in Japanese. If you read a text after learning kana, it’s easier to recognize づ and pronounce it properly.
Importance of the Japanese language
Finally, the Japanese language is what it is. Romaji is a writing system and is not the Japanese language itself. If you care enough to learn the Japanese language, please care to learn the native scripts.
Learning the Japanese language is a rewarding endeavour and people will be highly impressed at your ability to read kana and kanji. Not only will people be impressed, but you will also be amazed at your own progress as previously unintelligible scripts become familiar to you. Being able to understand the Japanese scripts will help you if you want to live in or visit Japan in the future and will help you make Japanese friends and understand Japanese pop culture. In other words, learning and appreciating the Japanese language in the same way that Japanese people do is best.
Ultimately, romaji is an impressive way of converting a language written in a non-latin script into the latin alphabet. The three systems, Hepburn, Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki each have their positives and negatives and deep history surrounding them. As a foreign learner of Japanese, the Hepburn system will likely be your best friend at the start of your learning journey. However, when looking at the positives and negatives of romaji, it is best not to rely on the system for too long if you wish to progress on your Japanese learning journey!