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Rōmaji (ローマ字 "Roman characters"), sometimes misspelled as Rōmanji, is a Japanese term for the Latin alphabet. Rōmaji are often used in Japanese text for abbreviations, metric measurements, and to clarify the spelling of foreign names.

In English usage, rōmaji usually refers to the romanization of Japanese words that would usually be written in kanji or kana. Japanese may be written in rōmaji for many reasons: street signs for visiting foreigners; transcription of personal, company, or place names to be used in another language context; dictionaries and textbooks for learners of the language; or even simply for typographic emphasis.

There are a number of different romanization systems in use: the three main ones are Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki (ISO 3602), and Nihon-shiki (ISO 3602 Strict). Hepburn (long-vowel omitted) is the most widely used. Modified Hepburn, which uses a macron to indicate some long vowels and an apostrophe to note the separation of easily confused syllables (for example, the name じゅんいちろう is written with the syllables jun-ichi-ro and u, and is romanized as Jun'ichirō in Modified Hepburn) is widely used in Japan and among foreign students and academics.

Development of romaji

The earliest Japanese romanization system was based on the Portuguese language and its alphabet. It was developed around 1548 by a Japanese Catholic named Yajiro. Jesuit presses used the system in a series of printed Catholic books so that missionaries could preach and teach their converts without learning to read Japanese. In general, the early Portuguese system was similar to Nihon-shiki in its treatment of vowels. Some consonants were transliterated differently: for instance, the /k/ consonant was rendered as "c," and the /h/ consonant as "f," so Nihon no kotoba ("The language of Japan") was spelled "Nifon no cotoba."

Following the expulsion of Christians from Japan in the early 1600s, rōmaji fell out of use, and were only used sporadically in foreign texts until the mid-1800s, when Japan opened up again. The systems used today all developed in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the Meiji era, some Japanese scholars advocated abolishing the Japanese writing system entirely and using rōmaji in its stead. Several Japanese texts were published entirely in rōmaji during this period, but failed to catch on because of the large number of homonyms in Japanese, which are pronounced similarly but written in different characters. Later, in the early 20th century, some scholars devised syllabary systems with characters derived from Latin: these were even less popular because they were not based on any historical use of the Latin alphabet.

Modern systems
  • Hepburn generally follows English phonology and so gives the best indication to anglophones of how a word is pronounced in Japanese. It was standardized as American National Standard System for the Romanization of Japanese (Modified Hepburn), but this status was abolished on October 6, 1994. Hepburn is the most common romanization system in use today, especially in the English-speaking world. Japanese school children now learn Hepburn when they first begin to learn the English alphabet in junior high school.
  • Nihon-shiki is the oldest and least used of the three main systems. It follows Japanese phonology and the syllabary order very strictly and is hence one of the few systems of romanization that allows lossless mapping to and from kana. It has also been known as ISO 3602 Strict form.
  • Kunrei-shiki is a slightly modified version of Nihon-shiki, which eliminates several relics of the differences between the kana syllabary and modern pronunciation. For example, if the words kana かな and tsukai つかい are combined, in kana the result is written かなづかい with a dakuten (voicing sign) ゛ atop to indicate that the tsu つ is now voiced. Kunrei-shiki (and Hepburn) ignore the underlying kana and represent the sounds as they are pronounced (kanazukai), but Nihon-shiki retains the difference and romanizes the word as kanadukai. Kunrei-shiki has been standardized by the Japanese Government and ISO (ISO 3602). Kunrei-shiki used to be taught to all Japanese elementary school students.
Systems to assist language learning
It is possible to have elaborated romanizations to enable beginners to pronounce Japanese words correctly. One important set of additional characters is the pair which mark off an elevated tone of a syllable. And diacritical marks to distinguish the five different sounds of the Japanese character hatsuon are also possible, besides replacing it with "m" before a "b","p", or "m". Merriam-Webster has recently published a beginner's dictionary with the diacritical mark of the macron atop a letter "n" to distinguish this character hatsuon from a doubing of one in the "n" tier of kana.
Non-standard romanization

In addition to the standardized systems above, one can see many other romanizations. These are used by many people, either because they do not fully understand the particular system they are attempting to use, or for deliberate stylistic reasons. Macrons and other diacritical symbols are often omitted or substituted for, because of carelessness, difficulty in remembering or inputting them, or simply unavailability in one's character set (although this last reason is becoming less frequent with the widespread introduction of Unicode).

Some romanization systems (Nippon-Shiki, Hepburn) use the macron diacritic to indicate long vowels (thus, for instance, Tokyo may actually be rendered Tōkyō). Most typewriters, and many word processors and other computerized systems cannot handle this diacritic, or make it difficult to input it. For this reason, the macron is often replaced by a circumflex accent (thus, Tôkyô) – all âîûêô are in the ISO-8859-1 character set, and may be easily input on a variety of systems.

Also commonly seen are wāpuro rōmaji, referring to the various methods that IMEs use for converting keystrokes on a roman keyboard to kana. (Wāpuro derives from do purosessā [word processor].) Unlike the standard systems, wāpuro rōmaji requires no characters from outside the ASCII character set.

Romanizations that one is likely to come across "in the wild" include:

  • oh for おお or おう (Hepburn ō). This is sometimes known as "passport Hepburn", as the Japanese Foreign Ministry has authorized (but not required) this usage in passports [1] (
  • ou for おう (also Hepburn ō). This is an example of wāpuro rōmaji. This romanization style is popular with fans of anime (otaku).
  • ô for おお or おう (Hepburn ō). This is valid Kunrei-shiki, but occasionally occurs in otherwise Hepburn-romanized words due to confusion or substitution (since ô exists in ISO-8859-1 but ō does not).
  • jya for じゃ (Hepburn ja) and so on. This seems to be the result of confusion between the Hepburn and the other romanization systems.
  • dzu for づ (Hepburn zu). Another combination between multiple systems, in this case Hepburn and Nihon-shiki.
  • cchi for っち (Hepburn tchi) and so on. This is often used for stylistic reasons when rendering nicknames (e.g., あきこ Akiko becoming あっちゃん Acchan rather than Atchan).
  • la for ら (Hepburn ra) and so on. Since the Japanese consonant /r/ has a sound (IPA ɽ) that is somewhat between an English "r" and an "l" (and to some listeners sounds somewhat like an American "d"), this is unsurprising.
  • a for ああ (Hepburn ā) and so on -- in other words, merely failing to mark long vowels at all.
  • na for んあ (Hepburn n'a) and so on.
  • nn for ん (Hepburn n). This is also an example of wāpuro rōmaji, although many IMEs also accept the Hepburn n'. Since this leads to ambiguity with the more widespread Hepburn system (in, e.g., the cluster nna, which unambiguously represents んな in Hepburn but would be んあ in this system), this form occurs only rarely.

While there may be arguments in favour of these romanizations in specific contexts, their use (especially if mixed) generally leads to even greater confusion, especially when Japanese words are romanized for indexing in a database.

Personal names can be subject to even more variation, with spellings depending on the individual's preference. For example, the manga artist Yasuhiro Nightow's family name would be more conventionally written in Hepburn as Naitō.

In addition, Japanese words and names that have established English spellings, such as kudzu and jiu jitsu, are sometimes written as they are in English, without regard for the rules of romanization.

Example words written in each romanization   system
English Japanese Kana spelling Romanization
Modified Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Nihon-shiki
Roman characters ローマ字 ローマじ rōmaji rômazi rōmazi
Mount Fuji 富士山 ふじさん Fujisan Huzisan Huzisan
tea お茶 おちゃ ocha otya otya
governor 知事 ちじ chiji tizi tizi
shrink 縮む ちぢむ chijimu tizimu tidimu
Chart of romanizations
Kana Modified Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Nihon-shiki
うう ū û ū
おう, おお ō ô ō
shi si si
しゃ sha sya sya
しゅ shu syu syu
しょ sho syo syo
ji zi zi
じゃ ja zya zya
じゅ ju zyu zyu
じょ jo zyo zyo
chi ti ti
tsu tu tu
ちゃ cha tya tya
ちゅ chu tyu tyu
ちょ cho tyo tyo
ji zi di
zu zu du
ぢゃ ja zya dya
ぢゅ ju zyu dyu
ぢょ jo zyo dyo
fu hu hu
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