sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.3. Other questions on writing

1.3.4. What are the systems of romanization of Japanese?

The usual method of writing the Japanese language, used by the Japanese people themselves, is with a mixture of kanji, Chinese characters, and kana, characters which represent Japanese sounds. It is also possible to write Japanese completely in kana, although this rarely happens in practice.

For the benefit of non-Japanese who cannot read kana or kanji, ways to write Japanese in the roman alphabet have been developed. The very first system was invented by the Portuguese in 1603 for a dictionary now referred to as the Nippo-jisho. The official system now taught to Japanese children is called kunrei (訓令) romanization. In this system, しか, "deer", becomes sika, and つなみ, "tidal wave" becomes tunami. Another system of romanization, which is commonly used in English speaking countries for romanizing Japanese names, is the "Hepburn" (hebon (ヘボン)), also called the hyōjun or "standard" system. In this system, しか becomes shika and つなみ becomes the usual tsunami.

This system was invented by the "Romaji-kai" in 1885, and popularized by a dictionary of J.C. Hepburn, after which it was named. It is less regular than the kunrei romanization, but the spellings make more sense to English speakers.

In the original Hepburn system, the long vowels of Japanese are represented using a "macron" or bar over the vowel, so that the Japanese capital city "Tokyo", とうきょう in kana, is represented as Tōkyō, and actor Toshiro Mifune is represented as Toshirō Mifune. However, this macron is usually dropped outside the context of language textbooks, leading to the usual forms "Tokyo" and "Toshiro Mifune". In the Kunrei system, a circumflex, a hat character, is used, so in the Kunrei system these names become Tôkyô and Tosirô Mihune.

Another, much less common, system is Nippon-shiki (日本式) romanization. In both the kunrei and Hepburn systems, two kana may both have the same romanization, for example ぢ and じ both become "ji" in Hepburn and "zi" in the Kunrei system. In the Nippon-shiki system, there is a one-to-one correspondence between kana and rōmaji, so ぢ becomes "di", and じ becomes "zi". Nippon-shiki romanization was presented by physicist Aikitsu Tanakadate in 1885. See 1.3.4.1. What is romanization? for full details.

If you are interested in seeing a complete table of the differences between the three systems of romanization mentioned here, please refer to 1.3.4.5. A table of romanizations

Many variations in romanization systems also exist. Sometimes "dzu" is used to romanize a づ (a tsu with a dakuten). This was used for the English name "adzuki" beans, but the Japanese pronunciation of the word is azuki and the "d" is not pronounced.

The "n" sound of the ん kana before a b or p sound is sometimes written as "m" because of the change in pronunciation. For example, し んぶん (shinbun) meaning "newspaper" is often written as shimbun.
OH SHI MIZU
A vending machine uses
"OH" for the long vowel
Sometimes the double vowel "oo" is written as "oh", as in the sign for the vending machine. This is quite common in Japanese people's names, and because it is permitted for use in passports, this has become known as "passport romaji".

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