Romaji vs. Hiragana

For students of Japanese, unless you’re only learning enough to go on vacation—“Hello! Nice to meet you! Where’s the bathroom?”—you’ll eventually need to learn hiragana.

Japanese uses four writing systems: hiragana, a set of 46 characters and their combinations that represent syllables; katakana, a similar set usually reserved for writing foreign names and words; romaji, or the western alphabet of ABCs; and kanji, logograms that represent words and concepts.

Yokohama written in hiragana よこはま
Yokohama written in katakana ヨコハマ
Yokohama written in romaji Yokohama
Yokohama written in kanji 横浜

Adults typically know 2000-3000 kanji and learn them starting in first grade and continuing through high school. But first, everyone learns hiragana. Kanji found in children’s books, important signs (such as in a subway station), and kanji that’s rare or have nonstandard pronunciations often have small hiragana—known as furigana—next to them so they can be read by anyone.

But after Japanese-language students have learned hiragana, the continued use of romaji creates more problems than it solves, and can be a hindrance to learning new words and speaking Japanese properly.

Japanese uses double vowel sounds in many words. When an O sound is doubled, this is usually represented by adding a hiragana U (such as in the word Toukyou, the phonetic spelling of Tokyo), but there are many times when a doubled O is represented by adding another O (such as in the word Oosaka, which is the city of Osaka).

Japanese language books that use romaji do not always use the same system to represent doubled vowel sounds. You might see Toukyou in some books, but I’ve also seen Tohkyoh, Tōkyō, Tôkyô (or any number of other diacritical marks), Tookyoo (which looks like it should sound like “two cue”), or just plain Tokyo.

When an English-language publication that’s not a dictionary or teaching guide uses a Japanese word—for example, the city of Kobe—I have to look it up in a Japanese dictionary to see if it’s really Kobe, Koube, or Koobe (the answer is Koube) so I do not pronounce or spell it incorrectly. Similarly, bento is bentou, Noh is Nou, ramen is ra-men*, jiu-jitsu is juujutsu, sumo is sumou, tofu is toufu, and so on. A similar situation happens with double N syllables, which may be spelled with a single N. Someone not checking the spelling may say feathers (hane) for half-price (hanne), or ask a store clerk for his or her hand in marriage (kon’yaku) when all they really wanted were some yam cakes (kon’nyaku). And even romaji is not rendered properly in romaji:  it’s really ro-maji*.

But don’t these variations sound pretty much the same? Wouldn’t context tell the listener what the speaker means? It could, but you might still say to your friend that you spent a wonderful afternoon under the clouds experiencing a kuusou (daydream) but he might think you soiled your pants (kuso means shit). Or you may wish to tell the police you were the victim of an oshiiri (break-in) but leave them with the impression someone sat on you (oshiri means buttocks). Even if a mispronunciation doesn’t render an embarrassing word, it does sound odd to the Japanese ear, not unlike Allo Allo’s Officer Crabtree wishing everyone a “good moaning”.

Someone in favor of romaji said to me that each dictionary and study manual usually have guides at the beginning indicating how words are to be spelled or read in Japanese. That’s fine, but different books may use different systems, and many serious students of Japanese will use multiple dictionaries. It takes far less time to learn hiragana than an endless series of romaji systems.

Even if we get past the problem of proper spelling, by seeing words written in romaji, the learner may be tempted to pronounce it according to the rules of his or her native tongue. For example, mitsu (honey) consists of two Japanese syllables, MI and TSU, but seeing it in romaji makes it tempting to pronounce it MIT-SU. Doing so also makes the T sound like a germinate consonant, making it sound to Japanese ears like MITTSU (three). Arimasu (to exist) is A-RI-MA-SU, not AR-I-MA-SU; combining an R sound with the first A gives the speaker a distinctly Western accent, since Japanese R sounds tend to be flicked with the tongue, and it’s difficult to do this with a preceding vowel.

And despite our best intentions, it’s still easy to want to say the English spellings of shogun as show-gunn, Kyoto as KEE-yoto, futon as foo-TAHn, karate as kuh-RODDY, and karaoke as carry-oh-kEE. Seeing words in hiragana, even ones familiar to English speakers, forces one to sound them out and pronounce them correctly.

The more you rely on romaji, the more mistakes you’re likely to make (which can be difficult to unlearn), and the longer it will take to get used to reading Japanese. If you see Japanese words in newspapers or magazines and want to learn them, look them up in a furigana dictionary for the proper spelling and pronunciation. After all, if you work as a consultant for your boss and you make a trip to Japan and you’re eager to show off your new language skills to your Japanese hosts, you definitely do not want to introduce yourself as your boss’s koumon. Komon means consultant, while koumon means gate … or anus.

*In katakana words like ra-men and ro-maji, doubled vowels are often rendered not with a second vowel, but with a line called a chouonpu.

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