Romaji - The Romanization of the Japanese language

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Today we are going to talk a little about the romaji, which is a writing system used to transcribe the reading of Japanese words into the Roman/Latin alphabet, making it possible for people who do not know Japanese to read.

Romaji (ローマ字) literally means “Roman letter”, so we call the transliteration of the Japanese language. This romanization is present where there are messages intended for foreigners, as in street signs, in passports, in dictionaries and in textbooks for students of the language.

Interestingly the word Romaji can be written in different ways, as there are different types of romanization of the Japanese language. You can find roumaji, romaji, ro-maji or rōmaji (with accent). There is no right or wrong!

Romaji - the romanization of the Japanese language

The Origin of Japanese Romanization - Romaji

The first romanization originated from the Portuguese orthography, and was created in 1548 by a Catholic called Yajiro. This system was created so that missionaries could preach and teach without having to learn to read Japanese. There is a great similarity between the Japanese syllables with the syllables in English, making this work much easier.

In the Meiji era, some Japanese scholars tried to abolish the Japanese writing system and use only rōmaji. Several Japanese texts were published entirely in rōmaji, but the idea soon died, probably because of the numerous words with the same pronunciation or just 1 syllable. Kanji is a very necessary item in Japanese and can never go unused.

Rōmaji makes life easier for many who don't understand Japanese. Let's see the example of a romanized sentence:

Responsive Table: Scroll the table sideways with your finger >>
Japanese 俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない
TranslationThere's no way my sister can be that cute
RoumajiPray no imouto ga konnani kawaii wake ga nai
Rōmaji Pray no imōto ga konnani kawaii wake ga nai

As you may have noticed, there are 2 different ways to write “rōmaji” or “roumaji”, both are correct, it all depends on the type or romanization system you use. The romanization system can use either a vowel, a macron or an accent to romanize long vowels. Let's get to know some types of Rōmaji.


Throughout Japanese history, several versions of romanization were created, among them:

Hepburn System (ヘボン式 / hebon-shiki) - The Hepburn system was created by James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911). An American missionary from Philadelphia, who arrived in Japan in 1859 and compiled the first Japanese-English dictionary. The Hepburn system is now the most widely used romanization system.

Kunrei System (訓令式 / kunreishiki) - The Kunrei system was enacted by the Japanese government during the 1930s. A revised version was issued in 1954. See below for differences between the Kuntei and Hepburn romanizations:

Responsive Table: Scroll the table sideways with your finger >>
Hepburn si, you, hu, zi, sya, syu, syo, tya, tyu, ty, zya, zyu, zyo
Kunrei shi, chi, tsu, fu, ji, sha, shu, sho, cha, chu, cho, ja, ju, jo

JSL - JSL is a romanization system based on Japanese phonetics. It is written as heard and has no accents or dashes. The difference with Hepburn is that JSL uses vowels instead of accents to represent long vowels.

Long vowels are pronounced by lengthening the vowel. Words like 東京 (Tokyo) and ローマ字 (rōmaji) have long vowels, see how they are romanized in each system:

Romaji - the romanization of the Japanese language
Responsive Table: Scroll the table sideways with your finger >>
JSL ooo ortoukyou or tookyooromanization
Hepburna, e, i, o, utōkyōrōmaji
Kunreiâ, ê, î, ô, ûtôkyôrômazi

Nihon-shiki (日本式 / nipponshiki) - It is a little used system, and it was created by Tanakadate Aikitsu in 1881.

Responsive Table: Scroll the table sideways with your finger >>
Japanof, from, for
Kunreida, ji, zu, de, do, ja, ju, jo
Hepburnda, ji, zu, de, do, ja, ju, jo

Is it worth using romanization to study Japanese?

The romanization of the Japanese language can be more of a hindrance than a help. Starting with the fact that there are different types of romaji, causing people to even get into arguments about the right way to write.

Other changes take place when romanizing a word or the name of a person of foreign origin, words that have the “L" but which in Japanese are written with "R" can easily be romanized with "l".

Many question, why the Japanese don't just use romaji? The main reason is the words homonyms and homophones, there are thousands of them in Japanese. How will you know which one kami [紙,神,髪] is "paper" and there are several words with the same spelling and pronunciation.

Romaji - the romanization of the Japanese language

Constant use of rōmaji will only hinder your learning. If you already know hiragana and katakana, stay away from rōmaji as much as possible. If you need to convert a text to rōmaji, just paste it into Google translator or some converter.

If you've already mastered the basics of the Japanese language like hiragana and katakana, we strongly encourage you to stay away from romanization. However, for those who have not yet immersed themselves in the Japanese language, our Roman letters have advantages, one of which is their ease of reading and the space between words that does not exist in standard Japanese. 

With Romaji you can easily learn basic things like:

  • Asking basic everyday questions;
  • Compliments;
  • To learn and sing Japanese songs;
  • The numbers
  • The hours, the days, and months;
  • Shopping;
  • Ask for directions;
  • To stay in a hotel;
  • Share with people who do not speak Japanese;
  • Among others..;

It is necessary to use romanization to learn hiragana and katakana from scratch.

There are problems and difficulties in studying using only romanization in the long term. Some of these problems are:

  • Very similar words;
  • Lack of different sounds in Japanese;
  • Words written in kanji;
  • Words written with only one syllable or phoneme;
  • Different types of romaji;
  • Lack of romanized material;

In addition to Romaji, there is another facilitator for those who have already learned hiragana and katakana called Furigana. We recommend reading the article about furigana click here.

The article is still halfway through, but we recommend also reading:

Videos about Romaji

Finally, we will leave some videos about romanization below that can help you understand more about the subject. Starting with a video made by the sensei from our Japanese course at Suki Desu and then by Luiz Rafael who is another Sensei that I respect a lot, I share and follow with pleasure.

YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video

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