So you want to take the plunge and finally begin your Japanese learning journey. But… what is romaji? Do you really have to learn hiragana, katakana, and kanji? Don’t we see Japanese transliterated into English already with words like sayonara, sushi and karate? Surely you can cut your language-learning time in half if you just learn how to read Japanese using the English alphabet, right?
It’s true that there is a system of romanization in the Japanese language called Romaji (ローマ字). However, you might want to learn some more about its history and practical uses before deciding to nix kana and kanji out of your language curriculum altogether. While there are plenty of practical applications for Romaji both for Japanese native speakers and language learners, there are also drawbacks to limiting yourself to this one writing system.
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The History of Romaji
Japan is known for having 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. 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 shed its isolationist policies and worked towards becoming a global player in the Meiji Period.
Do Japanese people use Romaji?
In Japan, Romaji is not used to learn the pronunciation of Japanese.
However, native Japanese use Romaji in many daily scenarios, for example:
- Japanese students learn Romaji in elementary school in order 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. (One of the advantages of having so many different writing systems in one language is the diverse functionality of each one. Romaji can be used to draw the eye to the word and emphasize it, adding nuance of surprise, sophistication, or stylishness. )
- The other inevitable reality of existing in the internet age is that website URLs are always written with the English alphabet.
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.
The Three Types of Romaji
The Romaji used during the 16th century looked fairly different from what we know today. In the modern era, Romaji developed into three different systems:
- the widely known Hepburn System (ヘボン式)
- the Nippon-shiki System (日本式)
- 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!
The 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. Long vowels can be exemplified either by using the kana spelling or macrons (e.g. たいよう for “sun” can become taiyou or taiyо̄). To differentiate between かんい (“simple”) and かに (“crab”), the hepburn system employs an apostrophe or hyphen in between: kan’i or kan-i and kani.
Meanwhile, in the Nippon-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).
Which Japanese Romanization System Should You Know?
Since Hepburn is the most widely used, this is the one you should focus your studies on, but it’s a good idea to briefly familiarize yourself with the other two systems so you don’t mistake them for incorrect Romanji if you encounter them.
Tricky Ones: Kana Without Standardized Forms of Romaji
As you read about with Hepburn, Nippon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki, some kana do not have universally standardized forms of romanization. Furthermore, you may encounter a text or resource that uses a blend of Romaji systems. Special attention should be paid to these tricky kana in your studies.
We’ve already seen づ written as zu and du and しゃ written as sha or sya. Perhaps you’ve seen the English loanword ファミリー before? How might you romanize this word? Most commonly you’ll see famirii, which most closely represents its actual pronunciation, but you may also see fuamirii, which more closely indicates which kana are used to form the word. There are more than a few of these tricky exceptions without standard spellings in Romaji, making consistency a difficult thing to achieve.
How to Convert Between Romaji and Hiragana?
As you begin to learn Hiragana, you can convert them to Romaji and vice versa using online conversion tools. However, online conversion tools do not always stick to one system (e.g. Hepburn or Nippon-shiki) and sometimes get thrown for a loop if you type something like kan’i in the Romaji field.
The best way to master a consistent style of Romaji is through exposure and a good dictionary. Tangorin.com and japandict.com are two great resources that will show you the Romaji for your search term.
Is Romaji Useful in Learning Japanese?
Now that you’re familiar with the history of Romaji and its different systems, it’s time to get to the most pressing question — should I learn Romaji? Is it useful for my language learning journey or will it be a crutch that hinders my progress?
What is good about 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). Children tend to prefer the latter, and it’s much quicker for beginners trying to type out a sentence on their smartphone to produce words in kana or kanji. We recommend it!
Outside of language learning, there are other practical applications where Romaji comes in handy.
For example, if you wanted to send a package to a friend in Japan, it would be much quicker for you to write out their address in Romaji than to spend an hour trying to neatly copy down the kanji!
Furthermore, if you do not have a Japanese keyboard available on a device you’re using, you can look up search terms in Japanese using Romaji on Google Maps and the like. This could really come in handy when trying to navigate to your destinations on a visit to Japan!
What is bad about Romaji?
Here’s the rub: Romaji will help you mostly understand the pronunciation, but there are times when it can be misleading.
Romaji could lead to wrong pronunciation
Remember how づ can be written out as zu or du? 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. But if you see the word つづける (to continue) written as tudukeru or tsuzukeru in Romaji, chances are your pronunciation is going to be off when you read it aloud.
Romaji could lead to bad pronunciation habits
Then there are Japanese words we often come across in English such as Tokyo, Kyoto, 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.
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 andoruu sumisu desu. Daigaku ninensei desu. Nihongo wo mi ni tsuku you ni 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: は.
Now see how much smoother it looks when written in a blend of kanji and kana:
(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 wetting your feet in the Japanese language learning 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.
How to Use Romaji for Learning Japanese?
First of all, Romaji should be treated as a “writing system,” not a way to learn pronunciation.
You should definitely not rely on Romaji to read or speak Japanese. You’re certainly allowed to type out individual search terms in Romaji using your dictionary app or while browsing Google. You might feel more comfortable writing out the Romaji next to your new vocab words written in Kana.
However, as soon as you feel like you have a good foundation in Kana, drop the Romaji. The longer you rely on Romaji to help you remember the pronunciation and read texts, the slower your reading comprehension and developmental progress will become.
Finally, the last reason to get out of your comfort zone and learn hiragana and katakana is 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, excitement, and pride once you’ve made it passed the barrier of a new writing system. The sphere of possibility in your language learning journey suddenly broadens immensely.
We at Lingodeer encourage you to take this step and are honored to share this journey with you!
Final Verdict: Should I use Romaji When Learning Japanese?
Ultimately, it’s better not to rely on Romaji so much. The best way to learn Japanese pronunciation is to start with Kana. You’d be surprised how quickly you can learn both hiragana and katakana with the use of websites and apps such as Lingodeer!
Spend an afternoon or two with flashcards, a spaced-repetition system quiz, or writing out each kana on paper to get used to the flow of the syllables. We guarantee you will have mastered most of the syllabaries and surprise yourself with how much you’ve naturally come to recognize.