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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Romaji

By Melissa | Updated by Hei Kin Wong | March 3rd, 2022

Japanese romaji can be confusing. What is otya (お茶ちゃ)? Why do some people write it as rōmaji and not romaji and put a strange line above the vowel?

Have you ever wondered what the correct answer is to these questions? Besides, why do we Romanize the Japanese language the way we do? We'll walk you through the answers to these questions and more in our Ultimate Guide to Japanese romaji!

Welcome to the ultimate guide to romaji! Here you will find everything you need to know about romaji! This includes what romaji is and the history behind romaji. On the way, we'll also tell you about the various romaji writing systems. Finally, we'll give you the advantages or disadvantages of writing the Japanese language in this way.

This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.

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    What is “Romaji” anyway?

    The method of writing Japanese in Latin script is known as Romaji. You may have come across this if you have just started out learning Japanese. You may also come across romaji if you had an interest in learning foreign languages. Living in a western world, it is not common to come across this term. As such, this article will help you understand some of the backgrounds behind romaji and its writing system. 

    Many people refer to romaji as "romanization," however there is no distinction between the two concepts; 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.”

    Rōmaji 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. The Japanese language has no apparent ancestors in the Chinese language. It does, however, utilize a lot of Chinese characters and draws a lot of words from Chinese. Hiragana and Katakana are also syllabic (or moraic) scripts that can be spoken as they are written.

    Here are our Guides to Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji respectively if you have not come across these scripts previously:

    Guide to Hiragana and Katakana

    Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips

    Do Japanese people use rōmaji in daily life?

    Many who do not Japanese and have not been raised in Japan may wonder, do Japanese people even use romaji? The answer to that question is yes! 

    For a variety of reasons, Romaji is utilized throughout Japan. You'll notice that the majority of Japan's train stations use romaji to translate the station name into English. In Japan, street signs often do the same. This isn't necessarily to aid Japanese citizens, as they can read Kanji or Kana station names. However, they will be exposed to romaji on a daily basis and will be able to read it. Many Japanese students study romaji in elementary school in order to be able to write their own names in English. This makes it easy for children to know how to introduce themselves to strangers.

    city in japan with kanji signs

    When visiting Japan you will also likely see romaji on billboard signs or advertisements. There are varied options to use kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji in the Japanese language. This means that designers can get 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 the most widely used method of entering Japanese characters onto computers and mobile phones. Most people type Japanese on their laptops using an English keyboard and the romaji spellings of Japanese words. Most mobile phones work the same way. However, some individuals prefer to text in kana script, which converts the words to kanji.

    Internet and romaji

    Of course, the internet is heavily influenced by Western culture. HTML, passwords, and most usernames will all be in romaji. This means that the Japanese will have no trouble typing in English characters. This is in contrast to other languages, such as Korean, where a Korean keyboard is built on Korean characters. As a foreign language learner, this means that typing Japanese on your present Western laptop is relatively simple.

    Here's a useful video on how to type in romaji and turn it into Japanese:

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    Why is romaji used?

    Romaji is primarily used to provide access to the language to non-Japanese speakers who cannot read kanji or kana scripts. For the same reason, Romaji is utilized in Japanese beginner textbooks and several Japanese language dictionaries. Additionally, romaji is also used in scholarship in and about Japan in order to make the academic texts intelligible for those outside the field of study.

    Romaji is extremely 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 an example:

    The first line is written in romaji, the middle line is in Japanese and the third line is the English translation. 

    Romaji can greatly improve your understanding of Japanese and its scripts. However, Romaji can only help you understand a portion of the Japanese language complexity. But worry not! There are many more resources on Japan Switch that provide excellent insight into a variety of learning strategies to help you along your learning path.

    Also, if you need help finding a Japanese native speaker to practice Japanese with, check out our online Japanese lessons at Japan Switch!

    Learn more about the Japanese language by reading these articles! 

    Ultimate Guide to Japanese Idioms

    Top 40 Japanese Slang to Know

    Ultimate Guide to Japanese Conversation

    History of Japanese romaji

    It is considered fairly rare to write in romaji in Japan other than the aforementioned methods (computer, mobile, translating name to English). A Japanese person is significantly more likely to go about their day using a combination of Kanji, hiragana, and katakana. 

    For those who’re interested in how romaji came tobe in Japan, here’s a brief overview. 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 since 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.

    Early development of romaji

    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 to 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.

    The following table provides a taste of how these Japanese phrases were romanized in order for the Portuguese Jesuits to understand them:

    Japanese

    English

    Early Portuguese romaji system

    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.”

    How trade Influenced romaji

    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.

    Japanese kanji chart

    Romaji in the 20th Century

    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, Japan was occupied by the government of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Therefore, it became an official policy to romanize the Japanese. Once again, this effort to romanize the Japanese language failed, and instead a more moderate attempt to reform the Japanese script commenced.

    If you want to learn more about Japanese History and Culture check out our other articles such as A Comprehensive Guide To Japanese Culture and Ultimate Guide To Japanese Customs.

    What does the modern romaji system look like?

    This article will go over each of the three basic romanization methods in depth.

    Hepburn is one of the three primary systems. The most popular and commonly used systems are Kunrei-Shiki and Nihon-Shiki, with the Hepburn method being the most popular and frequently utilized.

    Here's a table showing how some popular Japanese terms appear in each of the three systems:

    Japanese

    Hepburn

    Nihon-shiki 

    Kunrei-shiki

    English

    お茶

    ocha

    otya

    otya

    Tea

    ローマ字

    rōmaji

    rômazi

    rômazi

    Romanisation

    富士山

    Fujisan

    Huzisan

    Huzisan

    Mount Fuji

     

    While Hepburn is the most popular method, it is beneficial to learn about the other systems as well. Furthermore, Hepburn is the most popular system simply because it is the most widely used system outside of Japan. Because not everyone in Japan is familiar with or understands the Hepburn system, it's a good idea to brush up on the other two. You'll also want to ensure that you don't confuse words printed in the Nihon-Shiki or Kunrei-Shiki systems for "incorrect." The systems differ in certain ways, so if you understand how they differ, you'll be able to recognize them 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:

      

     

     

     

     

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    Hepburn system (ヘボン式)

    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. These early efforts inspired the later scholar James Curtis Hepburn to build 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 Portuguese 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!

    Romaji on the street

    Nihon-Shiki (日本式)

    The 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. 

    Aikitsu Tanakadate thought that by employing the "Nihon-Shiki" romanization technique to write Japanese, Japan would be able to compete with its rival western nations. As a result, the system was created with native Japanese speakers in mind, and non-native Japanese speakers were not considered the target audience. This is why the system can differ significantly from Hepburn's.

    Kunrei-Shiki (訓令式)

    Kunrei-Shiki means "instructions style" in Japanese. With the exception of 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.

    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

    and 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 the romanization system used by the majority of today's Japanese youth. It's the most up-to-date romanization method for native Japanese speakers.

    The significant differences between Kunrei-Shiki and the Hepburn system are summarized in the following table:

    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

    When comparing the key distinctions between the two systems, it becomes evident that the Hepburn system makes more use of sounds that are common in Western languages. The Kunrei-system may be confusing to an English speaker, but it will make perfect sense to a native Japanese speaker.

    Advantages and disadvantages of using romaji

    Now that we've covered the history of romaji and the three main systems, Hepburn, Nihon-shiki, and Kunrei-shiki, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of using it. There are advantages and disadvantages to using this approach in your language learning or daily life. However, we will argue that when learning Japanese, romaji should be used with caution because it is extremely likely to stifle your progress.

    Advantages of learning romaji

    Learning romaji has a number of advantages, some of which have already been mentioned. Familiarizing yourself with the three systems, for example, will provide you with insight into how foreigners and native Japanese speakers view the Japanese language. It will also help you learn how to pronounce the language correctly. Let's get right to the good stuff!

    Romaji helps beginner students

    Firstly, Romaji is a beginner's 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.

    We 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 flavor for all the systems without having to drill them into your brain. This is exactly how many in Japan Switch started their learning journey. Everyone struggles at first, and some people really do not want to sit down and drill the kana systems. Our 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.

    For those wanting to either learn Japanese in a group or in a private lesson, check out Japan switch’s courses here:

    3 Different Japanese Courses

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    Or for those of you who are more interested in self-studying Japanese we also have many helpful guides on our website:

    Ultimate Guide to Beginner Japanese

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    Romaji on takoyaki store

    Romaji is just faster

    It is no lie that for a native speaker of English or any European-based language, romaji will likely be quicker to write than 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. When you're stuck in a Japanese listening exam and don't have a lot of time to scribble down notes, this is a great strategy to employ. 

    For us, the best technique is to take notes in romaji and afterward convert them to clean kana or kanji before submitting. This will not only make your Japanese seem cleaner and neater, but it will also likely aid you in getting all of your answers accurate because you will be able to jot things down faster!

    Typing and writing romaji is easier

    If you can't write in Japanese yet but want to look things up on the internet, romaji is the way to go. While some search results may vary, romaji is a better option than searching for the English translation of what you're 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 traveling 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.

    Disadvantages of learning Romaji

    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 the Upper beginner level and so these will become largely inaccessible to you.

    You’re not learning 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. 

    Japanese food with romaji menu

    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.

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    Not learning the Japanese pronunciation

    Unfortunately, if romaji is used wrongly, it might lead to inaccurate Japanese pronunciation. We suggested earlier to always listen to romaji at first when trying to understand. This is because romaji does not exactly reflect how the Japanese language is pronounced. 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 reading 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. 

    Not learning the language the right way

    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 endeavor 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.

    Overreliance on romaji translator

    Many beginning Japanese students use romaji to hiragana / katakana translator as a tool to help with their language learning. There’s nothing wrong with using them at a beginner level. That being said,  if you wish to take your learning to the next level then it's definitely a good idea to ditch using it at some point. Foreigners that frequently utilize romaji translators to convert their romaji sentences to other Japanese scripts stop themselves from remembering hiragana and katakana (both of which are the fundamentals of the Japanese language). However, Using translators can still be useful in a pinch. So we’re leaving a translator here for your reference.

    Final Comments

    Finally, romaji is an impressive method of transforming a non-Latin script language into the Latin alphabet. The three systems, Hepburn, Nihon-Shiki, and Kunrei-Shiki, each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, as well as a long history. The Hepburn system will most likely be your best buddy as a foreign learner of Japanese at the outset of your journey. However, when weighing the benefits and drawbacks of romaji, it's better not to rely on it for too long if you want to develop in your Japanese studies!

    In this article, we’ve mostly focused on the writing and reading aspects of the Japanese language.. However, if you want to grasp the substance of the Japanese language, listening is just as vital, if not more so. See how you can enhance your listening skills by visiting our Guide to the Top 15 Japanese Listening Tips!

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