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The romanization of Japanese or rōmaji (ローマ字 ?) (About this sound listen ) is the use of the Latin alphabet to write the Japanese language. Japanese is normally written in logographic characters borrowed from Chinese (kanji) and syllabic scripts (kana). The romanization of Japanese is done in any context where Japanese text is targeted at those who do not know the language, such as for names on street signs and passports, and in dictionaries and textbooks for foreign learners of the language. The word "rōmaji" is sometimes incorrectly transliterated as romanji or rōmanji.

There are several different romanization systems. The three main ones are Hepburn romanization, Kunrei-shiki Rōmaji (ISO 3602), and Nihon-shiki Rōmaji (ISO 3602 Strict). Variants of the Hepburn system are the most widely used.

All Japanese who have attended elementary school since World War II have been taught to read and write romanized Japanese. Romanization is also the most common way to input Japanese into word processors and computers. Therefore, almost all Japanese are able to read and write Japanese using rōmaji. The primary usage of rōmaji is on computers and other electronic devices that do not support the display or input of Japanese characters, in educational materials for foreigners, and in academic papers in English (or other Western languages) written on Japanese linguistics, literature, history, and culture.



The earliest Japanese romanization system was based on the orthography of Portuguese. 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 orthography. The most useful of these books for the study of early modern Japanese pronunciation and early attempts at romanization was the Nippo jisho, a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary written in 1603. 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, depending on context, as either c or q, and the /ɸ/ consonant (now pronounced /h/) as f, so Nihon no kotoba ("The language of Japan") was spelled Nifon no cotoba. The Jesuits also printed some secular books in romanized Japanese, including the first printed edition of the Japanese classic The Tale of the Heike, romanized as Feiqe no monogatari, and a collection of Aesop's Fables (romanized as Esopo no fabulas). The latter continued to be printed and read after the suppression of Christianity in Japan (Chibbett, 1977).

Following the expulsion of Christians from Japan in the late 1590s and early 1600s, rōmaji fell out of use, and were only used sporadically in foreign texts until the mid-19th century, when Japan opened up again. The systems used today all developed in the latter half of the 19th century.

The first system to be developed was the Hepburn system, developed by James Curtis Hepburn for his dictionary of Japanese words and intended for foreigners to use. Hepburn's system included representation of some sounds that have since changed. For example, Lafcadio Hearn's book Kwaidan shows the older kw- pronunciation; in modern Hepburn romanization, this would be written Kaidan (lit., ghost tales.)

As a replacement for Japanese writing system

In the Meiji era, some Japanese scholars advocated abolishing the Japanese writing system entirely and using rōmaji (lit., Roman letters) instead. The Nihon shiki romanization was an outgrowth of that movement. Several Japanese texts were published entirely in rōmaji during this period, but it failed to catch on. Later, in the early 20th century, some scholars devised syllabary systems with characters derived from Latin (rather like the Cherokee syllabary); these were even less popular, because they were not based on any historical use of the Latin alphabet. Today, the use of Nihon shiki for writing Japanese is advocated by Oomoto[1] and some independent organizations.[2]

Modern systems


The Revised Hepburn system of romanization uses a macron to indicate some long vowels, and an apostrophe to note the separation of easily confused phonemes (usually, syllabic n ん from a following naked vowel or semivowel). For example, the name じゅんいちろう, is written with the kana characters ju-n-i-chi-ro-u, and romanized as Jun'ichirō in Revised Hepburn. Without the apostrophe, it would not be possible to distinguish this correct reading from the incorrect ju-ni-chi-ro-u. This system is widely used in Japan and among foreign students and academics.

Hepburn romanization generally follows English phonology with Romance vowels, and is an intuitive method of showing Anglophones the pronunciation of a word in Japanese. It was standardized in the USA 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.


Nihon-shiki is probably the least used of the three main systems. It was originally invented as a method for the Japanese to write their own language. It follows Japanese phonology and the syllabary order very strictly and is hence the only major system of romanization that allows lossless mapping to and from kana. It has also been standardized as ISO 3602 strict form.


Kunrei-shiki is a slightly modified version of Nihon-shiki which eliminates differences between the kana syllabary and modern pronunciation. For example, when the words kana かな and tsukai つかい are combined, the result is written in kana as かなづかい with a dakuten (voicing sign) ゛on the つ (tsu) kana to indicate that the tsu つ is now voiced. The づ kana is pronounced in the same way as a different kana, す (su), with dakuten, ず. Kunrei-shiki and Hepburn ignore the difference in kana and represent the sound in the same way, as kanazukai, using the same letters "zu" as are used to romanize ず. Nihon-shiki retains the difference, and romanizes the word as kanadukai, differentiating the づ kana from the ず kana, which is romanized as zu, even though they are pronounced identically. Similarly for the pair じ and ぢ, which are both zi in Kunrei-shiki and both ji in Hepburn romanization, but are zi and di respectively in Nihon-shiki. See the table below for full details.

Kunrei-shiki has been standardized by the Japanese Government and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO 3602). Kunrei-shiki is taught to Japanese elementary school students in their fourth year of education.

Other variants

It is possible to elaborate these romanizations to enable non-native speakers to pronounce Japanese words more correctly. Typical additions include tone marks to note the Japanese pitch accent and diacritic marks to distinguish phonological changes, such as the assimilation of the moraic nasal /n/ (see Japanese phonology).


JSL is a romanization system based on Japanese phonology, designed using the linguistic principles used by linguists in designing writing systems for languages that do not have any. It is a purely phonemic system, using exactly one symbol for each phoneme, and marking pitch accent using diacritics. It was created for Eleanor Harz Jorden's system of Japanese language teaching. Its principle is that such a system enables students to better internalize the phonology of Japanese. Since it does not have any of the advantages for non-native speakers that the other rōmaji systems have, and the Japanese already have a writing system for their language, JSL is not widely used outside the educational environment.

Non-standard romanization

In addition to the standardized systems above, there are many variations in romanization, used either for simplification, in error or confusion between different systems, or for deliberate stylistic reasons.

Notably, the various mappings that Japanese input methods use to convert keystrokes on a Roman keyboard to kana often combine features of all of the systems; when used as plain text rather than being converted, these are usually known as wāpuro rōmaji. (Wāpuro is a blend of do purosessā word processor.) Unlike the standard systems, wāpuro rōmaji requires no characters from outside the ASCII character set.

While there may be arguments in favour of some of these variant romanizations in specific contexts, their use, especially if mixed, leads to confusion when romanized Japanese words are indexed. Note that this confusion never occurs when inputting Japanese characters with word processor, because inputted roman alphabets are transcribed into Japanese kana characters as soon as IME decides what character is input.

The following variant romanizations are common:

  • Japanese words and names that have established English spellings, such as kudzu and jiu jitsu, or loanwords such as kyatto for "cat", are sometimes written as they are in English, without regard for the rules of romanization.
  • Jya for じゃ, which is ja in Hepburn and zya in Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki, and similarly jyu for じゅ and jyo for じょ. The extraneous y seems to be the result of confusion between the romanization systems.
  • Cchi for っち (Hepburn tchi) and so on. This is wāpuro rōmaji, but is often used for stylistic reasons when rendering nicknames (for example, あきこ Akiko becoming あっちゃん Acchan rather than Atchan).
  • La for ら (Hepburn ra) and so on. The Japanese consonant /r/ has a sound (IPA [ɺ]) that is near, but not identical to, both of English "r" and "l". "R" and "l" are both transcribed into Japanese using the Japanese /r/. Examples of "l" in romanized Japanese include Japanese children's doll リカ, romanized as Licca.
  • Na for んあ (Hepburn n'a) and so on. This form of romanized Japanese is used in public information such as road and railway signs in Japan.
  • Nn for ん (Hepburn n). This is also an example of wāpuro rōmaji (although many Japanese input methods also accept the Hepburn n'). This leads to ambiguity with the more widespread Hepburn system. For example, the cluster nna, which is んな in Hepburn, represents んあ in this system. The double n is sometimes seen in names.

Long vowels

The most common variant romanization is to omit the macrons or circumflexes used to indicate a long vowel. This is extremely common in the romanized version of Japanese words used in English. For example the capital city of Japan, correctly written Tōkyō in romanized Japanese, is universally written as Tokyo. In Japan, since romanized Japanese is seen mostly as a convenience for foreigners to be able to read signs easily, macrons and circumflexes are usually omitted for simplification.

Many typewriters, word processors, and computerized systems cannot easily deal with the macron used in Hepburn romanization. Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki use a circumflex accent (thus, Tôkyô). This may allow for easier input, since all of â, î, û, ê, and ô are in the ISO-8859-1 character set, and may be easily input on a variety of systems.

In addition, the following three "non-Hepburn romaji" (非ヘボン式ローマ字 hi-hebon-shiki rōmaji ?) methods of representing long vowels are authorized by the Japanese Foreign Ministry for use in passports.[3]

  • Oh for おお or おう (Hepburn ō).
  • Oo for おお or おう. This is valid JSL and modified Hepburn.
  • Ou for おう. This is also an example of wāpuro rōmaji.

Archaic variants

In older texts, other variant romanizations which are now no longer used are sometimes seen. Some of them have survived to the present day, although few of them are still actively used. Examples include:

  • The vowel i plus o was sometimes used to represent the Japanese yōon sound: hence Tokyo becomes "Tokio" and Kyoto becomes "Kioto". This romanization can still be seen in the species name "mioga" of the Japanese vegetable myōga.
  • The kana ゑ was rendered as ye. The actual pronunciation of this kana was once we, but the w had already been lost by the time that (e.g.) ゑど "Wedo" was first romanized as Yedo.
  • The kana づ (Nihon-shiki du) was romanized as dzu, as seen in the plant names adzuki and kudzu. This enjoys some currency even today as Hepburn-like wāpuro rōmaji, and has a phonetic value distinct from zu in many dialects of Japanese.
  • "e" has sometimes been rendered "ye"—e.g. "Iyeyasu" instead of "Ieyasu", "Inouye" instead of "Inoue", and "yen" instead of "en." This usage, like ye for the kana ゑ (we), reflects the older pronunciation of e as ye. This pronunciation was lost sometime in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Romanization of Japanese names

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 romanization as Naitō.

Other variations seen in names include the substitution of K with C, as in the name of television celebrity Ricaco or the snack food Jagarico.

Example words written in each romanization system

English Japanese Kana spelling Romanization
Revised Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Nihon-shiki
Roman characters ローマ字 ローマじ rōmaji rômazi rômazi
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
to shrink 縮む ちぢむ chijimu tizimu tidimu
to continue 続く つづく tsuzuku tuzuku tuduku

Differences among romanizations

This chart shows the full three main systems for romanization of Japanese: Hepburn, Nippon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki:

Hiragana Katakana Hepburn Nippon-siki Kunrei-siki
きゃ キャ kya
きゅ キュ kyu
きょ キョ kyo
shi si
しゃ シャ sha sya
しゅ シュ shu syu
しょ ショ sho syo
chi ti
tsu tu
ちゃ チャ cha tya
ちゅ チュ chu tyu
ちょ チョ cho tyo
にゃ ニャ nya
にゅ ニュ nyu
にょ ニョ nyo
fu hu
ひゃ ヒャ hya
ひゅ ヒュ hyu
ひょ ヒョ hyo
みゃ ミャ mya
みゅ ミュ myu
みょ ミョ myo
りゃ リャ rya
りゅ リュ ryu
りょ リョ ryo
n-n'-m n-n'
ぎゃ ギャ gya
ぎゅ ギュ gyu
ぎょ ギョ gyo
ji zi
じゃ ジャ ja zya
じゅ ジュ ju zyu
じょ ジョ jo zyo
ji di zi
zu du zu
ぢゃ ヂャ ja dya zya
ぢゅ ヂュ ju dyu zyu
ぢょ ヂョ jo dyo zyo
びゃ ビャ bya
びゅ ビュ byu
びょ ビョ byo
ぴゃ ピャ pya
ぴゅ ピュ pyu
ぴょ ピョ pyo

This chart shows the significant differences among them.

Kana Revised Hepburn Nippon-shiki Kunrei-shiki
うう ū û
おう, おお ō ô
shi si
しゃ sha sya
しゅ shu syu
しょ sho syo
ji zi
じゃ ja zya
じゅ ju zyu
じょ jo zyo
chi ti
tsu tu
ちゃ cha tya
ちゅ chu tyu
ちょ cho tyo
ji di zi
zu du zu
ぢゃ ja dya zya
ぢゅ ju dyu zyu
ぢょ jo dyo zyo
fu hu
n-n' -m n-n'

Historical romanizations

1603: Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam (1603)
1604: Arte da Lingoa de Iapam (1604–1608)
1620: Arte Breve da Lingoa Iapoa (1620)
1603 a i, j, y v, u ye vo, uo
1604 i v vo
1620 y
きゃ きょ くゎ
1603 ca qi, qui cu, qu qe,que co qia qio, qeo qua
1604 qui que quia quio
1620 ca, ka ki cu, ku ke kia kio
ぎゃ ぎゅ ぎょ ぐゎ
1603 ga gui gu, gv gue go guia guiu guio gua
1604 gu
1620 ga, gha ghi gu, ghu ghe go, gho ghia ghiu ghio
しゃ しゅ しょ
1603 sa xi su xe so xa xu xo
じゃ じゅ じょ
1603 za ii, ji zu ie, ye zo ia, ja iu, ju io, jo
1604 ji ia ju jo
1620 ie iu io
ちゃ ちゅ ちょ
1603 ta chi tçu te to cha chu cho
ぢゃ ぢゅ ぢょ
1603 da gi zzu de do gia giu gio
1604 dzu
にゃ にゅ にょ
1603 na ni nu ne no nha nhu, niu nho, neo
1604 nha nhu nho
ひゃ ひゅ ひょ
1603 fa fi fu fe fo fia fiu fio, feo
1604 fio
びゃ びゅ びょ
1603 ba bi bu be bo bia biu bio, beo
1620 bia biu
ぴゃ ぴゅ ぴょ
1603 pa pi pu pe po pia pio
1620 pia
みゃ みょ
1603 ma mi mu me mo mia, mea mio, meo
1620 mio
1603 ya yu yo
りゃ りゅ りょ
1603 ra ri ru re ro ria, rea riu rio, reo
1604 rio
1620 riu
1603 va, ua vo, uo
1604 va y ye vo
1603 n, m, ~ (tilde)
1604 n
1620 n, m
1603 -t, -cc-, -cch-, -cq-, -dd-, -pp-, -ss-, -tt, -xx-, -zz-
1604 -t, -cc-, -cch-, -pp-, -cq-, -ss-, -tt-, xx-
1620 -t, -cc-, -cch-, -pp-, -ck-, -cq-, -ss-, -tt-, -xx-

Alphabet letter names in Japanese

The list below shows how to spell Latin character words or acronyms in Japanese. For example, NHK is spelled enu-eichi-kei, (エヌエイチケイ). The following pronunciations are based on English letter names; otherwise, for example, A would likely be called ā (アー) in Japanese.

  • A; ē or ei (エー or エイ)
  • B; (ビー, alternative pronunciation , ベー)
  • C; shī (シー or シィー, sometimes pronounced , スィー)
  • D; (ディー, alternative pronunciation , デー)
  • E; ī (イー)
  • F; efu (エフ)
  • G; (ジー)
  • H; eichi or ecchi (エイチ or エッチ)
  • I; ai (アイ)
  • J; or jei (ジェー or ジェイ)
  • K; or kei (ケー or ケイ)
  • L; eru (エル)
  • M; emu (エム)
  • N; enu (エヌ)
  • O; ō (オー)
  • P; (ピー, alternative pronunciation , ペー)
  • Q; kyū (キュー)
  • R; āru (アール)
  • S; esu (エス)
  • T; (ティー, though sometimes pronounced chī, チー, and alternatively pronounced , テー)
  • U; (ユー)
  • V; vi (ヴィ, though often pronounced bui, ブイ)
  • W; daburyū (ダブリュー, often pronounced daburu, ダブル)
  • X; ekkusu (エックス)
  • Y; wai (ワイ)
  • Z; zetto, zeddo, or (ゼット, ゼッド, or ズィー, though sometimes pronounced , ジー)

Kana without romanized forms

There is no generally accepted form of romanization for some forms of kana. In particular there is no form of romanization for full-sized kana combined with smaller versions of the vowel kana, "ぁ", "ぃ", "ぅ", "ぇ" and "ぉ", the smaller versions of the y kana, "ゃ", "ゅ", and "ょ", and the sokuon or small tsu kana "っ". Although these are usually regarded as merely phonetic marks or diacritics, they do appear on their own, such as at the end of sentences or in some names.

There is also no commonly accepted way of romanizing common combinations such as "トゥ" of katakana to and small u, used to represent sounds as in the English word "too". Some people write this pair as tu, but this is likely to be confused with the tu Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki romanizations of the kana ツ, romanized as tsu in Hepburn romanization.

On a computer or word processor, these smaller kana may be produced in various ways. For example, an "x" or an "l" preceding the romanization of the full-sized kana produces a small version on some systems, thus xtu gives "っ" on Microsoft Windows. However this is not standardized, and these forms are restricted to use in input systems; they are not used to represent the smaller kana in romanized Japanese.

See also


  • Chibbett, David (1977). The History of Japanese Printing and Book Illustration. Kodansha International Ltd.. ISBN 0-87011-288-0.  
  • Jun'ichirō Kida (紀田順一郎 Kida Jun'ichirō ?) (in Japanese). Nihongo Daihakubutsukan (日本語大博物館 ?). Just System (ジャストシステム Jasuto Shisutem ?). ISBN 4-88309-046-9.  
  • Tadao Doi (土井忠生 ?) (1980) (in Japanese). Hōyaku Nippo Jisho (邦訳日葡辞書 ?). Iwanami Shoten (岩波書店 ?).  
  • Tadao Doi (土井忠生 ?) (1955) (in Japanese). Nihon Daibunten (日本大文典 ?). Sanseido (三省堂 ?).  
  • Mineo Ikegami (池上岑夫 ?) (1993) (in Japanese). Nihongo Shōbunten (日本語小文典 ?). Iwanami Shoten (岩波書店 ?).  
  • Hiroshi Hino (日埜博 ?) (1993) (in Japanese). Nihon Shōbunten (日本小文典 ?). Shin-Jinbutsu-Ôrai-Sha (新人物往来社 ?).  

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