Sunday, July 21, 2013

To rōmaji or not rōmaji? That is the question.

To rōmaji or not rōmaji? That is the question.

Apparently a lot of people out there don't like rōmaji.
Rōmaji (ローマ字) literally means "Roman letters" and refers to the transcription of Japanese into Latin alphabet.

According to Tofugu "rōmaji can ruin your day":

According to this site "it will leave you illiterate":

And this site says "it isn’t real Japanese":

Personally I have no problems with rōmaji, I still use it for quick notes when I am too lazy to write in kanji or even hiragana.

Some reasons to learn rōmaji:
1. Rōmaji is necessary for writing Japanese in a computer.
2. It is extremely easy to learn.
3. It makes more sense to initially teach Japanese in rōmaji instead of forcing students to memorize hiragana before teaching a single word.
4. Phrasebooks for casual tourists necessarily need to be written in rōmaji because these tourists don't have the time to memorize hiragana, they just want to be able to deal with emergencies like "where is the toilet".
5. It is not possible to skip rōmaji because you have to use it to learn hiragana itself.
6. Only rōmaji tells you where the long vowels are. It is not possible to see the long vowels, not even in hiragana.
7. It is possible to learn a great amount of conversational Japanese using only rōmaji.

So why are there so many people ranting against rōmaji?
Let's address some of the issues with rōmaji.

1. Rōmaji is confusing.
Absolutely not. I don't think rōmaji is confusing. The problem is that there are many KINDS of rōmaji. In my opinion the best one is the Hepburn romanization:
It was created by an American scholar based on the English language and designed specifically for English speakers. It is consistent with the English language so it is the easiest for English speakers.
The other main romanization is the kunrei-shiki:
It was created by the Japanese government, but it is not consistent with any European language, so it is not popular among foreigners. Unfortunately it is the one taught at  schools in Japan. Even though Japanese people almost never use rōmaji, when they do use it, it will usually be in kunrei-shiki.
Besides those, some textbooks may create their own kinds of rōmaji.

2. Rōmaji slows you down.
Only if you are lazy. The problem is not rōmaji, the problem is that you refuse to learn kana (hiragana and katakana) and kanji. Rōmaji only tells you how to pronounce the words, but those words need to be written in kana and kanji.
I would argue that rōmaji speeds you up, because some people get so overwhelmed by kanji, that they forget to memorize the words. They waste time memorizing the etymology of kanji, the various on-yomi, kun-yomi, all the list of jōyō kanji, etc and they forget the most important part: the words. Any language is made up of words put together according to the grammar rules. It doesn't matter how many kanjis you know, it is the number of words you know that is important. By using rōmaji you can focus on the words instead of the kanjis.

Rōmaji is extremely easy. A good teacher can explain it to you in less than 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes!! There is no reason not to learn it. You have to know how to pronounce the vowels, which are, I think, similar to Italian. You have to know the pronunciation of R and T which are slightly different than English. You have to learn the long vowels, which are exactly what it means, vowels pronounced longer than normal. Finally you have to know the double consonants. End of story. All the rest is pretty much like English.


  1. Yes, indeed. I see someone has understood the actual concept. Roomaji is an actual part of learning Japanese. I say "part" because it is just that. thanks for the incisive explanation.