Japan is a major global contributor to the entertainment industry and has an incredibly active diplomatic standing as a sovereign nation. The country receives millions of visitors every year for business deals, tourism, the Olympics, and most popularly, from English-speaking nations.
However, despite its global popularity, Japan sticks with its language. Because of this, it can be incredibly difficult to get around the country without a basic understanding of Japanese. So, to make things easier for visitors, Japan invented Romaji. Here’s a detailed guide to everything you need to know about Romaji.
What Is Romaji?
Romaji is the use of the Latin script to write the Japanese language. It’s called Romaji because the Latin script originates from Rome, and it’s the same script used to write the English language today. Romaji makes it easier for English-speaking beginners to read Japanese quickly.
Languages like Mandarin and Japanese are notorious for the number of symbols they use. And when you include Kanji, which is the system of writing Japanese characters using Chinese symbols, there are over 50,000 characters used in the Japanese language.
English only has a 26-alphabet script, so beginners to languages like Japanese can take a long time to be able to read and write the language properly. However, with Romaji, you can still learn how to speak Japanese fluently before you’re able to read and write it well.
The Latin script makes it easier for you to start reading, and it doesn’t sacrifice fluency or articulation because the Romaji sounds the same as the Japanese symbol.
The History of Romaji
Japan is known for having had a centuries-long isolationist policy from 1639 to the Meiji Period to protect its language and culture. During this period, Japan closed off nearly all trade with other countries. However, Japan did have an early history of trade with the Portuguese and the Dutch.
The earliest record of Japanese romanization of characters can be traced back to 1548. It was developed by a Japanese Catholic named Anjirō, who was the first known Japanese Christian-convert. Anjirō fled from Japan to Portugal to seek baptism and returned to Japan much later as a Jesuit missionary.
Anjirō’s romanization was based on Portuguese orthography and it would later come to be used by Jesuit Missionaries to teach their converts without learning to read Japanese orthography. Romaji made it easier for them to learn how to pronounce words in Japanese correctly.
Do Japanese People Use Romaji?
During the Meiji Restoration, a small coalition of Japanese scholars advocated for the complete replacement of the Japanese writing system with Romaji. The Nihon-Shiki romanization system was created around this time, and it started to grow in popularity. However, this popularity was short-lived.
Today, romanization is mostly used to make the Japanese language more accessible to foreigners for purposes of trade and commerce.
Romaji is widely employed in large metropolitan cities like Tokyo for signs at the airport or streets and in various other places to help tourists get by. Some Japanese schools teach elementary students Romaji to help them fit into the international environment.
It’s fair to say Japan met the world halfway when it comes to language, possibly to open up trade and increase exports.
However, even with Romaji, you still need to learn how to speak Japanese. And when it comes to professional communication with anyone from Japan, you need to learn how to read and write using Japanese characters. You can’t get around having to learn Japanese if you’re going to be visiting Japan, but Romaji can make things easier.
Different Systems of Romanization of Japanese Language
There are 3 different systems of Romanization you need to know about.
Hepburn is the most widely known system of romanization. It follows English phonology for pronunciation along with vowels from the Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, and Italian.
Hepburn romanization was standardized in the United Stated in 1994 but revised later on to include a macron for long vowels and an apostrophe to separate easily confusable phonemes.
Revised Hepburn is the most common system of romanization of Japanese used in many English-speaking countries today. It does the best job of reflecting the pronunciation.
The Kunrei-Shiki system of romanization was developed from the Nihon-Shiki system that focuses more on the pronunciation of Kana. For instance, the Kana づ is written as “zu” instead of “du” because that’s how it’s pronounced using English phonology.
The Nihon-Shiki romanization was invented for the Japanese to write their own language using Latin characters. It’s the romanization of Japanese for Japanese people. Nihon-Shiki follows the Japanese syllabary strictly and maintains a one-kana, two-letter form.
How To Convert Them? Is There a Romaji Translator?
RomajiDesu is a free online Japanese-to-English dictionary that also contains a tool to convert Romaji to Hiragana or Katakana. You can input entire paragraphs, and the tool will analyze the sentence structure for word types and parts of speech.
What Romaji System Should You Use?
If you’re an English speaker or using English to understand Japanese, it’s best to use revised Hepburn. The Kana is much easier to pronounce correctly because it follows the phonology of Romance languages.
The problem with Nihon-Shiki or Kunrei-Shiki is that the Romaji used doesn’t offer accurate pronunciation for beginners when you read them literally. They’re made for people who understand the nuances of the Japanese language better.
For instance, the word “Tea” or “お茶” is pronounced as “Oh-cha.” It’s spelled as “Ocha” using revised Hepburn but “Otya” using Kunrei-Shiki and Nihon-Shiki. The Hepburn pronunciations are easier to learn.
Advantages Of Learning Romaji
#1. Helps beginner students learn the pronunciations faster.
#2. Makes it faster for students to read, write, and begin communicating in Japanese.
#3. Easier to type.
Disadvantages Of Using Romaji
#1. It does not help with learning Kanji, which is crucial for understanding Japanese.
#2. Romaji has some flaws when it comes to pronunciation.
#3. Can become a habit that deters you from learning the full Kanji and Kana script.
Is It Bad to Use Romaji?
It’s not good or bad to use Romaji. It’s your goal that matters. If you’re visiting Japan for a week and just want to know enough to get around, Romaji is enough to cover you in that scenario. But if you have any long-term designs for living and working in Japan, it’s probably best to not make a habit of Romaji and keep practicing the Japanese script.
Why Do Japanese Use Romaji?
Japanese use Romaji because it makes typing easier, and it can also help them communicate with new Japanese speakers via the written form.
Where Can I Learn Romaji?
There are plenty of online resources and books available to help you get started. It’s recommended that you purchase the JLPT level 1 textbook to get acquainted with both Romaji and Hiragana.