Japanese scripts: Romaji

Japanese language has one of the most complex writing systems in the world; not only does it use thousands of Chinese characters, but it’s also the only language where four different scripts can appear together in the same sentence. In this series, I’m going to explain the difference between these scripts, why and how they should be used, and the best way and order in which to learn them.

Darth Vader lives in Tokyo. (romaji)

Rōmaji (ローマ字), commonly known as latin alphabet outside of Japan, is never used by native Japanese speakers to write full sentences, yet it’s widely used all over Japanese media. The Latin script has a modern, in vibe to it which is why many new Japanese companies prefer it to kanji for use in logotypes and advertisement, fashionable magazines use it in headlines, and Japanese TV shows overflow with silly English exclamations. In addition to that, newspapers don’t mind using English abbreviations, youth uses it for interjections in online conversations, and most street signs in major Japanese cities display transliterated names and instructions under their Japanese counterparts. Many teachers and textbooks use romaji to teach beginners Japanese, and many even think that romaji should completely replace traditional scripts. However, frequent readers of this blog know that I am highly against the use of romaji outside of scientific publications and advertisement, and this seems to be the right moment to explain my position.

While it comes to teaching Japanese, I am of the opinion that hiragana AND katakana should both be thought as soon as possible, ideally in the first week or two of the learning process. While it may be tempting to stay with romaji for as long as possible, learning kana is in fact crucial and helps one to avoid many difficulties in the future, including, but not limited to bad pronounciation, incorrect understanding of verb conjugation & particles, and insufficient knowledge of kanji in the more advanced stages of the learning process which leads to lack of accessible reading material and subsequently a major progress slowdown.

Chofu Station

To answer the second group of people, romaji can never replace kanji and kana in day-to-day use of the Japanese language. While many point out the more or less successful transition of countries such as Vietnam (formerly using Chữ Nôm and classical Chinese) or Philippines (Tagalog used to be written in Baybayin), the situation is completely different in case of Japan. While this may seem strange to a beginner learner of Japanese, any native speaker will agree that for several reasons, Japanese is hardly readable and undestandable while written in pure kana or romaji.

Firstly, Japanese has a very low number of syllables and contains a record number of homophones. While this creates opportunities for puns so popular among Japanese, and allows artists to create great creative works (reminiscent of the Chinese poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den consisting of 92 characters, all with the sound shi), it also has its negatives; a sentence written in hiragana may have several ambiguous meanings even when read in context.

Secondly, even in western languages, good readers recognize entire word shapes, not the individual syllables or even letters which would be slow and inefficient. Words written in kanji are usually shorter and have better distinguishable shapes which promotes this type of learning. Also, while Chinese characters are used, one can quickly spot different words and particles which is impossible when using a romaji. In western languages, the problem is solved by adding spaces between words, but this solution is far from perfect as it makes the text less compact and creates many new typographical problems (e.g., rivers of white).

haha ha ha de hashi wo hashi no hashi ni haru ni haru.
My mother with her teeth chopsticks on the edge of the bridge in spring will stick.
This spring, my mother, with her teeth, will stick chopsticks on the edge of the bridge.

Of course, this example is extreme, but some parts of it, like はははは, appear quite regularly and, while understandable, are hardly readable when written in hiragana or romaji. On the other hand, when one writes the same sentence with kanji, it may still sound funny, but it is not ambiguous or difficult to read.

Thirdly, there is no single standard Japanese transliteration guideline and each of the many systems has it’s own advantages and weaknesses. Creating a single ruleset would be very difficult, if not impossible, as the needs of different groups of users are completely different.

Last, but not least, deprecation of kanji could potentially reinforce class divides as the richer part of the population would afford to study kanji outside of official educational institutions and thus differentiate themselves even further from the lower classes.

Optimus Maximus Keyboard - Japanese Hiragana

However, despite all the negatives, romaji has one more very important function. Unless you have a Japanese keyboard and use the kana input method you’ll have to use a Japanese IME which will transcribe romaji into kana & kanji on the fly.

Do you support the use of romaji? What romanization system do you prefer? Please let me know in the comments, and you’d like to learn real Japanese, head straight to my free hiragana & katakana course!

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+Philip Seyfi is a Russian independent strategy consultant and entrepreneur, author of NihongoUp, and co-founder & CEO of EduLift.

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  • caughtredhanded

    Firstly, great post!Secondly, I also am of the impression that romaji is simply not the way forward where Japanese is concerned, unless of course used in the ways in which you have described. My first point is: please let's not Westernise yet another aspect of another society's culture. Language learning would become extremely boring if all languages were written in Latin script, that I feel is undeniable.On a more important point however, although learning kanji can seem like a daunting task in the beginning, it can never be replaced by romaji, or a hiragana/katakana equivalent. Reading Japanese would become a complete nightmare, for exactly the reasons that you describe above. Once you understand kanji however, a simple glance at them makes an entire sentence sing, as each and every one packs in so much meaning you cannot fail to whistle through Japanese sentences.I am even of the (personal) belief that using romaji in signage, especially on the subway, though helpful and inclusive for non-Japanese speakers as it may be, should also be removed. When people enter Britain we do not compensate for people's understanding by producing signs in French, Spanish, Urdu or Chinese, but to name a few, in fact we simply presume that people can understand our language. Why other countries do us the courtesy of dumbing down their language is beyond me; the least people can do is learn a little hiragana.

  • LS

    1. Korean has a similar syllable structure and homophone issue, but they write almost entirely phonetically.2. I read by word shape in English. Roman letters don't impede me. Having spaces and dealing with kerning would not be the end of the world.3. Just using the kana would be totally standard.4. Isn't it elitist to require years of education just to reach minimal reading ability? What about the divide between native Japanese and immigrant workers, which Japan will need to accept in greater number to avoid demographic crisis?

  • http://divita.eu/ seifip

    1. While it may be true that Korean has similar homophone issues, I've heard that they still couldn't completely transition to hangul, and that actually, there is was recently even an increase in the use of hanja and a renewed interest in chinese characters overall.2. Latin letters are much better suited to shape reading than kana. I'll discuss this in more detail in my next article in the series.3. IMHO we can't be sure that the transition could be made quick and painless. The aforementioned Korea is a great example of how it's close to impossible. And they have hangul, a script that's amazing by and in itself, not some simple kana that may look cool to some but certainly has more disadvantages than advantages and can't be even compared to hangul.4. You can say the same about western education. It's not like you don't have to learn a far superior amount of words to read anything more advanced than red tops. I know many high-school educated people who don't understand half of what's said in the more complicated periodicals, probably more so, as unlike Japanese newspapers limited to the standard kanji western newspapers love to use obscure and very specialized vocabulary.

  • LS

    Valid points … on (1), it's at least worth pointing out that the DPRK uses entirely hangul (not that they should necessarily be emulated. And on (2) I would be interested in hard evidence one way or the other (but I doubt there is any). I don't know hangul so I can't compare it with kana.As for (4), though, I think that although Western newspapers might use words beyond the average person's reading level, alphabets have huge advantages. They can be sounded out and remembered even if you don't know the word. You can ask someone or very easily use a dictionary. You aren't stuck with a symbol you probably can't remember, can't pronounce, and can't look up without ridiculous effort. It's as though you must already know every word you might encounter, whereas in English you can learn as you go from context.I think there's no doubt that if the Japanese had been exposed to an alphabet rather than Chinese script early in their orthographic development they would have ended up with something quite a bit more sensible.

    • Ephel

      I don’t find looking up kanji on a dictionary that difficult… expecially now that you can have electronic dictionaries on your mobile phone and find the kanji just by selectiong 1-3 radicals.

      And Japanese IS easier using kanji.

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