When first starting out in Japanese, the best thing one can do is to learn Kana as soon as possible. Despite missing some key features of pronunciation such as pitch accent, kana serve as a very accurate guide to Japanese pronunciation.

However, not everyone has the same goal when learning Japanese. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who want to truly master all aspects of the language, spoken and written. On the other end are people who simply want to learn a few useful phrases that might help during say, a holiday trip to Japan. Most language learnings fall somewhere between these two extremes.

So it is understandable that some people might not have sufficient motivation to learn the kana syllabaries, let alone kanji. For these people, Rōmaji or Romanized Japanese will be the medium through which they will interact with the language.

Rōmaji, although leaps and bounds above romanizations of other languages (like Pinyin for Mandarin Chinese), is not without its pitfalls. Unlike Kana, there are multiple systems of Rōmaji with inconsistent spelling rules, each designed to serve a distinct purpose. In order to avoid falling into one of the many Rōmaji pits, I will summarize here the main different types of Rōmaji that exist and how to interpret them.

Nihon-Shiki

The first Rōmaji system is known as Nihon-Shiki, which was originally developed in the late 19th century. Nihon-shiki is a 100% purely phonemic romanization system. All phonemes are transcribed in their original form, regardless of any changes that one would actually hear spoken out loud. In the previous post on Hiragana, I discussed how the characters し、ち、つ、and ふ are exceptions that are pronounced differently than the other kana in their columns. When spoken, they sound like  <shi>, <chi>, <tsu> and <fu> respectively, instead of <si>, <ti>, <tu> and <hu>.

Linguistically, however, these are just considered to be variants of the “parent” sound that only appear in specific scenarios. These sound changes are known as allophones. So from this point of view, the sound <f> is just how <h> is pronounced in front of the vowel <u> and there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Thus, there is no need to distinguish them in writing and they both are rendered as h. 

Furthermore, no attention is paid to sound changes that occur as a result of grammar. For historical reasons, the kana は (ha)、へ (he)、and を (wo) are pronounced as <wa>, <e> and <o>  when used grammatically instead of as part of a word. Nihon-shiki nevertheless renders them as ha, he, and wo at all times.

Lastly, all long vowels are marked with a circumflex ( ̑) and double consonants simply write out the consonant after つ twice. The kana ん is romanized simply as n, unless it is followed by a vowel or a , in which case it is written as n’ with an apostrophe.

As a result, Nihon-shiki is the only style of romanization that maintains a strict 1-1 mapping with kana. This makes it the most consistent romanization.

Let’s look at a few examples:

ふじさん – Huzisan   (Mt. Fuji)

こんにちは – Konnitiha (Konnichiwa – Daytime Greeting)

がんばる – Ganbaru (To persevere) 

おおきい – Ôkî (Big)

まっちゃ – Mattya (Matcha Tea)

Hepburn Romanization aka Hebon-Shiki

The Hepburn System is the romanization that most Westerners are familiar within. Lying at the complete opposite side of the spectrum from Nihon-shiki, the Hepburn system takes into account all allophonic changes that occur in the language. Thus, everything is written as close to how it is pronounced as possible, in a way that is intuitive for speakers of English. So し、ち、つ、and ふ are written as shi, chi, tsu and fu. Additionally, は (ha)、へ (he)、and を (wo) do get written as wa and when used as grammatical particles and as ha he and wo elsewhere.

Furthermore, the circumflex used in Nihon-shiki for long vowels gets replaced by macrons (¯). Double consonants are slightly irregular. For the most part, the consonant just gets written twice, so っか becomes kka. However, the sounds shi, chi and tsu get doubled as sshi, tchi and ttsu. 

Lastly, ん is treated identically as in Nihon-shiki, except in some older versions of Hepburn where it is rendered as the letter before before the sounds <m>, <p> or <b> .

As a result, Hepburn romanization is the most irregular romanization system. There are many other irregularities that I have not mentioned here as it would take up too much space. You simply have to get familiar with them.

Let’s look at some examples:

ふじさん – Fujisan   (Mt. Fuji) 

こんにちは – Konnichiwa (Konnichiwa – Daytime Greeting) 

がんばる – Gambaru  or  Ganbaru (To persevere) 

おおきい – Ōkī (Big)

まっちゃ – Matcha (Matcha Tea)

Kunrei-Shiki

The last major romanization scheme is known as Kunrei-shiki. Although Hepburn romanization is most popular in the West, Kunrei-shiki is the romanization preferred by the Japanese government and is the prescribed romanization scheme taught to Japanese children in school.

Kunrei-shiki is a compromise between Nihon-shiki and Hepburn romanization. It is largely phonemic, but notes a few important sound changes. For example, the kana し、ち、つ、and ふ are all transcribed phonetically, as they are in Nihon-shiki into si, ti, tu and hu. On the other hand, Kunrei-shiki follows the example of Hepburn romanization when it comes to the kana  は (ha)、へ (he)、and を (wo). These are written as wae and when used as particles. Additionally, long vowels, double consonants and ん are handled in the exact same way as in Nihon-shiki.

There are also a few ways in which all three romanization schemes differ from eachother. For example, ぢ and づ are written as di and du in Nihon-shikiji and zu in Hepburn, and as zi and zu in Kunrei-shiki. 

Let’s look at a few examples:

ふじさん – Huzisan   (Mt. Fuji) 

こんにちは – Konnitiwa (Konnnichiwa – Daytime Greeting) 

がんばる – Ganbaru   (To persevere) 

おおきい – Ôkî (Big)

まっちゃ – Mattya (Matcha Tea)

Conclusion

As you can see, Rōmaji can be quite complicated and inconsistent, and this is not even taking into account other nonstandard romanizations that you might find, especially on the internet. This is why I strongly recommend learning kana as soon as possible. However, if you’re stubborn or pressed for time or don’t want to learn kana for any other reason, I would have to recommend Hepburn romanization as the least bad of the 3 options. Although it is the most irregular, it offers a much more intuitive guide to pronunciation for native English speakers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s