Rōmaji – Japanese Romanization

Brief Overview Of The Rōmaji Content Below

How Rōmaji Arrived And Evolved In Japan

Almost 500 years ago the Portuguese traders in Europe set sail and sent large wooden ships heading towards Japan.

The sailors were inspired by Marco Polo’s previous travel adventures and chronicles of the Far East of this globe, including his visits to the well developed empire of China.

Encouraged by the mythological story of the long Great Wall of China, the Portuguese aimed to reach the neighbour island of Japan – back then known as Cipango by the travel stories of Marco Polo.

No westerners had visited Japan before. This was the first time that the civilizations between Europe and Japan would have contact with each other. The legendary Samurai warriors in Japan had no idea about what was soon to happen.

During a hot summer day in Japan at the end of August year 1543 the Portuguese finally arrived to Nagasaki in West side of Japan – here on this island Kyushu where I live.

Portugal made it to their monopoly to trade with Japan and sell Japanese merchandise to the rest of the world.

Since the Portuguese visitors could not read the complicated Japanese Kanji characters, they decided to learn how to pronounce Japanese syllables by writing Japanese with the Latin Roman alphabet from Europe.

The first romanization system for the Japanese language became finished year 1548 by a Japanese man called Yajiro who was a converted Catholic.

As it was during that colonization age and time – the Catholic church organization did what they could to expand Christianity around the world, including all the way to Japan which back then was run by Samurai warriors (not that keen on people being converted).

To be able to spread the word of Jesus Christ in Japan, the Jesuit priests printed Catholic books in Japanese using the newly invented romanization system of Japanese language.

Because of that – we have the Rōmaji system that you as a student or practitioner of Japanese will use in your efforts to learn how to speak, read, listen and write Japanese.

Different Types Of Japanese Romanization

Romanization means to use roman letters when writing the syllable sounds in Japanese. The correct name for it is Rōmaji in Japanese.

Sometimes people write it in a not so strict style and forget that line (ō) above the “o”-character. In that case it says Romaji.

Common mispellings about rōmaji are romanji and rōmanji. Those are not correct ways of writing it. Don’t spell it that way because there is nothing called like that in Japanese.

When it comes to typing some kind of user input into computers and word processors, especially in devices that do not display Japanese characters as default – there the typical chosen way of input is typing roman characters according to the Rōmaji solution.

For you to make full sense of what I’m going to explain here below, it helps if you have a somewhat clear experience of Hiragana and Katakana – but if not then don’t despair.

See it as good to know information about the romanization systems of Japanese.

Hepburn – Popular Hebon-shiki Rōmaji in Japanese

Among people in English speaking countries the most common way of Japanese romanization is the Hepburn system. In Japanese the Hepburn system is called Hebon-shiki Rōmaji and it’s spelled as ヘボン式ローマ字 in Japanese.

Hepburn way of romanization uses well known English vowels from the roman alphabet.

Modified Hepburn became a standard in United States with the name American National Standard System for the Romanization Of Japanese. A change occured in the year 1994 when that standardization position was removed.

Revised Hepburn – Use Of Macron And Aphostrophe

There is also a variant of Hepburn called Revised Hepburn. Typical features of Revised Hepburn are the use of macrons to clearly show where there are long vowels in the Japanese language.

Another characteristic of Revised Hepburn is the use of an apostrophe in showing where to separate pronunciation of words to avoid misinterpreting phonemes.

An example of an easily misinterpret phoneme situation where an apostrophe is needed to understand the correct pronunciation is when the Japanese syllabic n (spelled as in Japanese) comes after a vowel or semivowel.

The Japanese name じゅんいちろう is romanized with separate characters as ju + n + i + chi + ro + u, but it is spelled as Jun’ichirō according to the Revised Hepburn using the apostrophe.

This way or writing romanized words using an apostrophe is often seen in English to Japanese dictionaries here in Japan.

Using an apostrophe is popular among people who study Japanese because it helps foreigners to pronounce Japanese words correct.

Nihon-shiki – Strict Form & Lossless Kana Mapping

Another modern romanization system of the Japanese language is the Nihon-shiki romanization, known as the Nihon-shiki Rōmaji in Japanese.

The strength of romanizing Japanese according to the Nihon-shiki system is the perfect projection between the Hiragana and Katakana characters and European Latin alphabet.

An additional feature with Nihon-shiki is that it keeps the correct phonological sounds and goes along accurately with the Japanese syllabary order.

Because of its popularity the Nihon-shiki romanization of Japanese language has earned its standardization title number ISO 3602 with the additional note that it follows a strict form of transcribing.

While using computer related devices you encounter something like “ISO 3602 Strict”. Now you know that it actually means the Nihon-shiki type of Japanese romanization.

JSL – The Not So Well Known Phonology System

As you may know the traditional Hepburn system uses macrons to represent long vowels in Japanese language, but the JSL romanization system has another approach to it.

JSL uses double vowels next to each other.

Instead of writing Tokyo as Tōkyō (the Hepburn way) then JSL writes it as Tookyoo.

While Hiragana writing uses the Japanese character, the JSL romanization solution suggests the usage of a “n”-character with a macron on top of it.

Like this: (JSL way of writing the Japanese Hiragana character ん).

One more JSL variation is the using an ordinary western g-character with a macron.

Such special JSL character is used only when an English verlar nasal “ng” sound is heard in Japanese speaking (as in the English word ring).

Tonal pitch indication is yet another feature in JSL romanization of Japanese. These are the three pitch indications used in JSL:

  • First high-pitch mora (in a word) is displayed with an acute accent (´).
  • Last high-pitch mora (in a word) is displayed with a grave accent (`).
  • Only high-pitch mora (in a word) is displayed with a circumflex (ˆ).

Kunrei-shiki Rōmaji – Japan Style Of Romanization

Kunrei-shiki is the type of romanization style that school girls and school boys in Japan are taught during their 4th year at school.

This type of educational romanization of Japanese is called cabinet decree style Rōmaji.

One of the benefits of Kunrei-shiki is that it brings together modern way of pronunciation of Japanese language and the kana syllabaries of Hiragana and Katakana.

It takes consideration to voicing signs such as the dakuten. That’s a diacritic sign showing that you should voice the pronunciation of a consonant that belongs to a syllable.

Sometimes you can hear Japanese say ten-ten. It’s their way of saying two dots after each other (like “dot dot”). Dakuten is a diacritical mark consisting of two short line dots.

Those two dots are placed above an for example existing Hiragana character such as ta. What happens is that the sound changes from ta (た) to da (だ). The t becomes a d.

In the Japanese language when you combine two existing words written in Hiragana, then their compound newly formed word in Hiragana can change – by the use of a diacritical mark such as the previously described dakuten.

For example a tsu character (written as in Hiragana) gets a voicing sign on top of it.

The problem is that if you read the voiced version of the tsu character, now written as the symbol (notice those two additional small lines on the top right side of the original tsu character), then its pronunciation actually becomes the same as another existing Hiragana character called su (written as in Japanese), but with its two dakuten lines on top of it (now written as in Japanese). Complicated, huh?

If you romanize the character then it sounds like zu in both the old Hepburn system as well as in the Japanese school version of Kunrei-shiki.

The difference in Hiragana is ignored by Hepburn and Kunrei-shiki Rōmaji, making the sound represented in the exact same way by describing it with zu as romanzation.

That way of doing it is called kanazukai here in Japan.

Here comes a difference. The strict form of Nihon-shiki romanization on the other hand is not as forgiving.

Nihon-shiki romanization uses the Japanese way of kanadukai to keep the difference between the two identically pronunced Japanese Hiragana characters and .

Another example of the same situation are the Hiragana characters and .

Here is a pronunication guide of those characters using different romanization systems:

  • Kunrei-shiki romanization: じ = zi, ぢ = zi
  • Hepburn romanization: じ = ji, ぢ = ji
  • Nihon-shiki romanization: じ = zi, ぢ = di

As you can see Kunrei-shiki keeps the romanization as zi – no matter what.

Hepburn solves it in a similar way, but it uses the ji as the romanization instead.

Finally the strict Nihon-shiki system fires off both zi and di as romanization solutions to differ those two Hiragana characters which have the same prounciation.

At least with the Nihon-shiki romanization the reader can know which Hiragana character was used, by being able to backtrack the originally used Japanese Hiragana character.

Thereby it earns its so called strict name (ISO 3206 Strict) and you understand its origin.