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Romaji, Romanization and Transliteration - What is it

Wednesday, August 10, 2016
If you've ever started learning Japanese or dealt with any Japanese words you might have heard about  the mysterious romaji ローマ字. That thing which is... something. Some people can only read romaji, others don't like romaji, and you can't say you know Japanese if all you know is romaji. But what is romaji exactly?

Simply put, romaji is a way to write Japanese words using the latin alphabet. A perfect example of romaji is the word romaji itself. You don't write romaji in Japanese, in Japanese you write ローマ字, but people who can't read Japanese can't read that. So what you do? You write the romaji instead just for them.

If you don't get it yet, let me try to make it more obvious.
  • The word 漢字 is read as かんじ.
  • The romaji for か is ka
  • The romaji for ん is n.
  • The romaji for じ is ji.
  • The romaji for 漢字 is kanji.

Literally speaking, romaji means roman letters, the latin alphabet. The roma ローマ part is the "roman" and the ji 字 means "letter." Chinese characters are kanji 漢字 for example, and numerals are suuji 数字.

Learning Japanese with Romaji

One great thing about romaji is how it can help you learn Japanese.

Let me tell you how it does it: it does not.

To begin with, romaji was created exactly for the people who couldn't bother with learning Japanese but wanted to communicate with Japanese speaking people. So there's fundamentally no way you could ever dream of learning Japanese with it.

The first step into learning Japanese is not romaji, it's hiragana ひらがな. Not learning hiragana means you can't read Japanese. You're a Japanese illiterate. So you can't look up words in dictionaries, you can't read Japanese blogs, you can't even read Japanese manga!

What's the point of "knowing" Japanese if you can't read manga???

Romaji vs. Furigana

People who can't read any Japanese at all need romaji to be able to read the words. Interestingly, people who know some of the Japanese alphabet, including the people of Japan itself, need furigana to read difficult words.

This is because the each kanji 漢字 can have multiple readings. The verb "to read," for example, is yomu 読む in Japanese, but a "reader" would be dokusha 読者. Note how the 読 kanji has both yo and doku readings.


So, to help those people who don't know all words in Japanese (that would be everyone on the Planet), writers often have the hiragana transliteration of difficult kanji written beside them. A transliteration is writing the same word in a different alphabet. Which is what happens when you get 漢字 and make it かんじ.


But then we have those people who can't even read basic Japanese, so even the basic Japanese alphabet wouldn't help. Then we have to transliterate to the latin alphabet, that is, romaji. When we transliterate to the latin alphabet specifically we call it romanization. So kanji is the romanization of both かんじ and 漢字.

Systems for Romaji

Transliterations, including romanizations, aren't perfect things. You can't always transliterate a text to a different alphabet keeping the same sounds.

If you tried to transliterate from English to Japanese, for example, you would notice there is no syllable starting with L or V in the Japanese alphabet. The word "level" would become reberu レベル for example.

Though romaji isn't that extreme, there are different systems of romanizations that romanize certain sounds differently. Some of these systems are:
  • Hepburn
  • Nippon-Shiki
  • Kunrei-Shiki


The most extreme difference is in the syllables ぢ and づ, which are rare to find. One system says they are ji and ju, other says they are di and du, and the last zi and zu. The し can be romanized as shi or si depending on the system.

Notice how they are more or less the same thing, a change in the romanization system doesn't change how the word sounds, after all. Here are some word examples:
  • ローマ字 (ろーまじ)
  • 先輩 (せんぱい)
  • 後輩 (こうはい)

As you can see, there is no right way to write these words with romaji. There is a right way to write them in Japanese. With romaji, you're just trying to make sure a person can actually read them without knowing Japanese.

Doubts? Post a comment below!

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