Teaching Romaji in Japanese Japanese Class


“I like singekinokyozin.” Oh, did you mean “Shingeki no Kyojin”?

Romaji. For most learners of Japanese, it is the first step in a long journey. It’s a tool for those with an understanding of the Latin alphabet to begin understanding Japanese sounds. For non-learners of Japanese, it’s their one way to comprehend the Japanese world. When a sign says:


It’s nice for tourists and businessmen to know where they’re going. Japan wants to cater to those kinds of people; tourism is good for the economy, and on a more cynical note, it’s what they expect foreigners to be.

I have a love-hate relationship with romaji for the exact above reasons: it’s a necessary piece for newcomers and those who have no plans with the Japanese language, but it’s also a dangerous crutch for learners. The romaji-in-Japanese debate has gone on for quite some time now, and arguing my point reeks of pointlessness. But hell, I’ll do it anyway:

  1. Real Japanese doesn’t use romaji.
  2. Using romaji can trick you into thinking sounds exist in Japanese when they don’t.
  3. Romaji didn’t bring beer to the last party and he’s always a mooch.

Anywho, I’m not actually here to talk about romaji for the English-speaking Japanese-as-a-foreign-language learner. I’m here to talk about romaji for the Japanese-speaking English-as-a-foreign-language learner. Or as they like to call it: romazi.

Types of Romaji

There are essentially three major families of romaji still in use today: Hepburn, Nihon-shiki, and Kunrei-shiki.

Hepburn Romanization is the most widely used Romanization for Japanese worldwide. In general, you’ll recognize Japanese words using this Romanization. Though there are quite a few official variations in this, such as what to do with long vowels (romaji or rōmaji) and word spacing (shokuji suru or shokujisuru), this system is very reliable for foreign speakers to understand Japanese sounds. This system was made with English phonology in mind, and for someone versed in both languages, it’s the most accurate tool to bind the languages.

Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki are both incredibly similar. They’re intended more for writing Japanese in English letters than anything else. Nihon-shiki does it so flawlessly that you can usually take something in kana, convert it to romaji, and then convert it back to kana without losing anything. The major difference being that Nihon-shiki differentiates between じ and ぢ, and ず and づ.

In summary:

  • Hepburn: Good for English-speakers learning Japanese. Some weaknesses representing kana differences.
  • Nihon-shiki: Good for converting kana into Latin characters. Bad for pronunciation.
  • Kunrei-shiki: Almost as good at converting kana into Latin characters. Almost. Bad for pronunciation.

Which do the Japanese use to teach their kids? Ironically, it’s the worst of the three: Kunrei-shiki.


Goddamned Kunrei-shiki

I could go on all day about Kunrei-shiki and what it is, but I think an example works 100% more effectively. So, let’s take a look at ローマ字ワールド, the standard textbook in my elementary school as part of their Japanese-language curriculum, as prescribed by the Japanese government.

This fucking book.

This fucking book.

See that in the corner? A passing knowledge of Japanese lets you know that you can “Jump to the World!” using this book. Can you now? Even when the rest of the world uses Hepburn!? How is this Romanization in any way useful for anything other than typing Japanese with a keyboard?

Okay, calm down. Let’s look at this more in-depth. But one flip of the page just shows how much delusion there is here:

Ah, so here’s how everything wor— wait a second.

Ah, so here’s how everything wor—
wait a second.

“Wait a second” is right, picture! If you start reading from top-to-bottom, before you even come across the overall transcribing guide for Kunrei-shiki, you’re treated to pictures of “romaji in the everyday world”. The one kid on the left notes that “In nearby places, a lot of romaji is used.” On the right, the girl encourages readers to “try and find other (uses of) romaji” in public. And what’re used as examples of romaji in daily life?

That’s right: Hepburn fuckin’ Romanization!

Route 246 leads to Atsugi and Mizonokuchi, not Atugi and Mizonokuti as the book would have you believe.

Route 246 leads to Atsugi and Mizonokuchi, not Atugi and Mizonokuti as the book would have you believe.

Den-en-chōfu is a pretty sweet place. Much better than Den-en-tyohu anyways.

Den-en-chōfu is a pretty sweet place. Much better than Den-en-tyohu anyways.

Okay, I’m getting a little carried away. Technically, Japan Railway uses Hyōjun-shiki. But let’s not kid ourselves—it’s basically modified Hepburn. The only difference is it uses dashes to separate words. Modified Hepburn is what’s used on all the road signs.

That’s right: Their two examples of Romanization both use Hepburn-variants! Why the hell they didn’t use something that uses Kunrei-shiki is beyond me! Actually, it’s easy to see why: Kunrei-shiki isn’t used ever.

Okay, okay. Sorry. Let’s look at some of the differences in action.

Kuti? Tuki? Tetu?

Kuti? Tuki? Tetu?

Hune? Actually, I can get behind this one. But that’s a topic for another day.

Hune? Actually, I can get behind this one. But that’s a topic for another day.



Huzi-san? No foreigner will recognize it as Mount Fuji.

Huzi-san? No foreigner will recognize it as Mount Fuji.

Those are the worst offenders, but they’re not the only ones. In actuality, the problem I have is not with Kunrei-shiki rendering Japanese for Japanese people. Fine. I don’t really know why the Japanese want their Japanese turned into Latin characters for their own use, but if that’s what they want, go for it. It probably has something to do with computers. The problem I have is when it bleeds into English class.

Get Outta My Neighborhood!

I’ve never uttered the bold words above. I hope never to. But if English class is my neighborhood, and Kunrei-shiki Romanization is a family moving in, well, I’ll be outside with burning pitchforks and enough water to keep my voice sharp for hours of screaming. I really don’t like Kunrei-shiki when it invades English class.

The most basic errors it presents are issues of spelling. Tokyo is fine, but Mount Huzi isn’t. Naruto is good, but Singeki no kyozin isn’t. Without giving away my location, my town’s name is the worst example. Three out of the five kana that make it up are different in Kunrei-shiki than in Hepburn.

I hate when they spell it with Kunrei-shiki, but I’m sure it’s worse for the students. It’s confusing to be told one way of writing Japanese things is now wrong. I tell them that there’re multiple systems and that the rest of the world uses this one, but old habits die hard. Having romaji drilled into them for years and then having to go back and correct it is a painful process.

Spelling is one pain, but the greater issue comes with pronunciation. English is now mandatory in 5th and 6th grade of elementary school, but it wasn’t always this way. Until April 2011, English was being taught only in middle school and high school, years after romaji was taught to 3rd and 4th graders. Even now, most students are exposed to romaji in the Japanese context before they see it in any English context.

Were this Hepburn, there would be no problem. Hepburn was meant to convey Japanese sounds as close to their English approximation as possible. しゅ is far closer to “shu” than “syu”, and じ is far, far closer to “ji” than “zi”. But when students are taught to associate “zi” with the sound じ, they’re going to have a harder time learning the real sound for “zi”. It’s the problem with katakana English, except that it can be solved. Hepburn, after all, only screws with the pronunciation of “r” and “fu”. Kunrei screws with “r”, “zi”, “syu”, “si”, “ti”, and “tu”.

The Solution

True, there’s no substitute for English pronunciation practice, but there is a way mitigate the obstacles in the way:

Replace Kunrei-shiki with a Hepburn variant.

There’s a couple versions the Japanese government could choose, but given their love for trains, I think a move to Hyōjun-shiki is a worthwhile choice. Or just modified Hepburn. I’d love if the roads and trains could standardize themselves, but given that JR is privately owned, I imagine that standardization could only come around if the government decided to adopt the same system the railways do.

Either way, at present, public Japan uses 3 different systems. That’s no good. It’s bad for English and confusing for foreigners. Something’s got to change.


What do you think? Are you a fan of Kunrei-shiki? Is there something I’m not seeing? Please let us know!


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