Hepburn romanization, known as Hebon-Shiki (ヘボン式) in Japanese, is a way to write Japanese using the roman alphabet. It is named after an American missionary called James Curtis Hepburn who used it in the third edition of his Japanese to English dictionary, published in 1886. Hepburn did not invent this system. It was invented by a Japanese organization called the Rōmaji-Kai (羅馬字会) in 1885.
Hepburn romanization is less regular than the two other main systems of romanization, Nippon-shiki (see What is Nippon-shiki romanization?) and Kunrei-shiki (see What is Kunrei or Kunrei-shiki romanization?) systems. For example, the kana し is romanized as shi so that the members of the sagyō or "s" kana さしすせそ are romanized as sa, shi, su, se, and so rather than the Kunrei or Nippon-Shiki sa, si, su, se, so. Similarly つ is romanized as tsu rather than tu, and ち is romanized as chi, giving ta, chi, tsu, te, to rather than the Kunrei or Nippon-Shiki ta, ti, tu, te, to for たちつてと.
The Hepburn system uses a macron (a bar over the letters) to indicate long vowels. For example, the long vowels in Tōkyō (東京) are written as ō, and the long vowel in kenkyū (研究), "research", is written as ū. Capital letters also have macrons, so the Western Japanese city Osaka (大阪) is Ōsaka in Hepburn. The Hepburn romanization is based on the pronunciation rather than the Japanese writing of the word, so the same long vowel form is used both for vowels represented using a hiragana u (う), as in とうきょう, and for vowels represented in Japanese using the chōon mark, as in トーキョー. The Hepburn system does not use macrons over i, thus しいたけ is shiitake rather than shītake.
In Hepburn, the voiced version of the shi kana is written as ji, and the yōon sounds are written as ja, ju, and jo, not jya, jyu, and jyo. (See What is yōon? for more about yōon.) In contrast, the Kunrei and Nippon-Shiki romanizations use zi, zya, zyu, zyo for these. In Hepburn, the voiced version of the chi kana, ぢ, is also written as ji, whereas it is written zi in Kunrei and di in Nippon-Shiki.
In Hepburn and in the Kunrei and Nippon-Shiki systems, the ambiguity between kana n and kana yo, んよ, and kana ni and small kana yo, にょ, is indicated by an apostrophe. Syllabic N plus the yo kana, んよ, is written as n'yo, and the ni kana plus small yo, にょ, is written as nyo.
In the original Hepburn system, syllabic n before a b, p or m sound, such as shimbun (新聞), "newspaper", is spelt with an m. In a modified version of the Hepburn system, it is spelt with an n, as in shinbun. The original Hepburn system represents pronunciation, and the modified version represents the kana spelling. It is not possible to make an n sound before a b, p or m sound like "shinbun", "hanpa" or "Gunma" as written, unless the speaker pauses to close the mouth after producing the n. The mouth has to be closed before producing the b and p sounds, called bilabial plosives or bilabial stops, and the m sound, called a bilabial nasal, whereas an n sound (an alveolar nasal) always ends with the mouth open. If the mouth is closed, as it has to be to pronounce the b in "shimbun", an n sound becomes an m sound (a bilabial nasal). See What are the differences between kana writing and pronunciation? for more on the pronunication of syllabic n and other Japanese kana.
In most cases the sokuon or "small tsu", っ, is represented in Hepburn by a doubled consonant, such as makka for まっか, bright red (真っ赤) but in the case of ち, which is chi in Hepburn romanization, it is represented by a "t", hence matcha for まっちゃ, the Japanese tea (抹茶), not maccha.
Place names romanized for road signs commonly use a modified version of the Hepburn system in which long vowels are ignored, hence "Tokyo" and "Osaka" with no macrons. Similarly syllabic n (see What is syllabic n?) is not usually distinguished with an apostrophe. However, railway and subway stations use macrons on romanized names.
The particles を, へ and は are romanized as o, e, and wa. Originally wo and ye were used for the first two.
J.C. Hepburn first published a dictionary of Japanese in 1867. The romanization system used at this time was not exactly the same as the final form of romanization now known as "Hepburn" romanization. For example the kana つ was romanized as "tsz", and the kana え as "ye". Hepburn states in the preface of the dictionary
...the system of orthography, with a few variations, is that generally adopted by the students of the language in Japan.In the third edition of the dictionary, Hepburn adopted a system of romanization created by the "Romanization Club" or Rōmajikwai (羅馬字会) which is the system we now know as "Hepburn" romanization.
The system of orthography adopted in the previous edition of this work has been modified in a few particulars so as to conform to that recommended by the Romajikwai
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