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What's wrong with romaji?

Romaji, ローマ字 (literally "Rome letters" in Japanese), gets a lot of flack from students of Japanese.

Zonjineko (a nice blog with bits of Japanese learning trivia) has a rather prototypical post on why Romaji is Evil: "If you’re thinking of visiting Japan for a quick holiday and want to get your head around a few phrases so you don’t end up taking a taxi to Utashinai then go for it but if you are serious about learning, and I mean really learning, then avoid it at all costs – trust me. When you get to Japan you will realise there is nothing (or very little) written in romaji except for the usual train station names, some street names, store names and a few other things that are there to make life easier for foreigners. [...] Romaji also makes you very lazy. [...] if the romaji isn’t there you have to look up the kana or kanji and you’ll remember it for next time. [...] So my humble advice is to do as the kids do and learn the Hiragana characters and their sounds and once you have mastered those you can move on to Katakana. After that comes kanji, which we’ll get to later."

And here's a standard blog post on Kanji vs. Romaji: "Unfortunately, a lot of textbook writers use romaji for everything. As a result, a lot of textbooks allegedly about Japanese, are actually about some strange artificial language, “Romaji Japanese”, which no one in the world actually uses. [...] One of the big arguments for romaji is that it allows students to start pronouncing Japanese right away. Fortunately, Japanese has a pair of alphabets (well, technically syllabaries). These alphabets are called “hiragana” and “katakana” and they allow Japanese words to be rendered phonetically. [...] The Japanese department at Ohio State University is in love with Romaji and I’ve been subjected to some of the ugliest romanized Japanese the world has ever seen. It’s not even standard romaji, but some crazy half-baked alternative romanji, with the amusing side effect that even English borrow words get screwed up (in this textbook, for instance, “ninja” would be spelled “ninza”, and “Mitsubishi” would be “Mitubisi”!) Now, in preparing for lessons (I still have to memorize dialogs, so there is still some preparation), I have to actually reverse engineer this crazy abomination of language to figure out what it’s actually saying in Japanese."

Some people go a bit further: "My most damning criticism is the publishers that still use romaji in the belief that either people won't buy books without it, or that Japanese is too difficult to learn without that crutch. Romaji is completely unnecessary even for beginners and should burn in a hell reserved for the vilest filth ever invented by humanity."

Hmm... Is that so?

How Japanese people really use romaji
Before I address those points, I'd like to offer you the following example of native Japanese speaker-produced romaji. This is off of some genuine Japanese snackfood intended for a Japanese customer base:


Notice anything funny about that romaji? Not only are there spaces in strange places, but the spellings of 'si' and 'moti' are anything but intuitive for an English speaker. The fact is, Japanese people do use romaji. They use it all the time! They use it in acronyms and names of products. They use it online in places where Japanese text isn't well enabled. They use it in ads and on packaging because it looks cool and foreign. It's like putting a bunch of French words in cursive all over your fancy cake box (something the Japanese also like--almost as much as we English speakers do). What Japanese people don't do is use romaji in ways that make sense to English speakers.

On average, romaji produced by native speakers of Japanese tends to:

1. Follow Japanese kana spellings.
2. Be decorative rather than informative.

In other words, it's intended for Japanese people, not for you. You'll see enough of it that it can be useful to have a rough idea of the systems Japanese people generally use. This isn't an important skill you should be wasting time practicing, but it can be helpful to have a basic familiarity with non-Hepburn romaji.

Non-Hepburn romaji
Basically, there are three ways to romanize Japanese: You can follow English spelling rules in a way that is mostly intuitive for English speakers (Hepburn and its derivatives), you can follow Japanese kana spelling rules (nihon-shiki, kunrei-shiki, JSL), or you can use whatever you'd type into a computer to get the correct kana ("wapuro" romaji).

Kana Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Wapuro
ちゃ cha tya chya
じゃ ja zya jya

None of these systems is inherently right or wrong. The student favorite, Hepburn romanization, can actually be somewhat confusing for a native Japanese speaker who perceives "shi" and "si" as the same sound. Kunrei-shiki and other similar systems can be equally confusing for a native English speaker who expects romaji spelling to match English spelling. Each is useful in a particular context to particular people.

Myths about romaji

1. Romaji makes you lazy.
Underlying this myth is the idea that you need to learn the kana right away because otherwise you'll never get enough practice to be comfortable with them. In reality, anyone can learn kana with a stack of flashcards and a few days of free time. The reason many students take a long time to become proficient at kana is that reading a textbook for a few hours a week isn't enough practice, but once you start using kana regularly outside of class, they'll sink in in no time. If you're studying on your own, then by all means, learn kana as early as you want. If you're in a formal class and you're stuck learning kana very slowly or very late in the curriculum, don't despair: Using romaji will only make you lazy if you let it.

2. Romaji teaches you bad pronunciation.
Again, this is nonsense. Some people are good at pronunciation; others are terrible. I've seen students of both types who used romaji for ages; I've seen students of both types who never used it at all. It's true that looking at a romanization like "si" will mislead English speakers who aren't familiar with Japanese pronunciation, but learning that "し" is pronounced "shi" can do the same thing. The "shi" sound in English and the "shi" sound in Japanese aren't quite the same. The only way to have good pronunciation is to get good at listening to and imitating native speakers. Writing systems are completely irrelevant.

3. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic writing systems. Learn them, and you'll have good pronunciation.
Yeah right! Kana spelling underwent a massive spelling reform just after WWII to make most kana spelling mostly match standard Tokyo pronunciation. Thus, Japanese spelling is much closer to being "phonetic" than English spelling is, but it is still not entirely phonetic. Some particles are pronounced in an irregular fashion, and some sounds can be written multiple ways. Kana spelling also does nothing to indicate regular sound changes of nasals (and, for some speakers, intervocalic g's), vowel reduction, or pitch. None of these things make hiragana and katakana bad writing systems, but they are hardly the perfect, 100% clear systems that romaji haters like to suggest. Even if you do learn to pronounce each kana correctly in isolation, there are still other aspects to correctly pronouncing complete words and sentences that are not immediately clear from the written form. Whether romaji would be helpful or not, kana do not, by themselves, lead to good pronunciation.

4. Reading long texts in romaji is unnatural. That's not how they do it in Japan.
This is sort of true, but it usually hides the implicit assumption that all-hiragana text is natural and that reading it is a useful skill. In reality, all-hiragana text is very, very rare. It's basically only used in children's picture books, and reading it can be just as awkward as reading long passages in romaji. If all-hiragana text doesn't include spaces between the words, it's even more difficult to read, especially without a strong knowledge of Japanese grammar and vocabulary, but if it does include spaces, it looks even less like normal writing. Natural Japanese text uses no spaces and lots of kanji, either with or without furigana. There can be advantages to giving example sentences in natural Japanese writing, but all-hiragana textbooks and example sentences are not superior to all-romaji ones.

5. Romaji isn't "real" Japanese!
Japanese is a spoken language. Every language is a spoken language. Don't confuse writing systems with languages. You could write Japanese in Cyrillic or Devanagari and it would still be Japanese. Being able to read normal Japanese writing produced by native speakers is a good long term goal, but it's not something you'll be able to do after your first Japanese class no matter what study method you use. Sometimes, using romaji at first can help students pick up grammar and vocabulary more quickly, which can make kana and kanji easier to learn later. Other times, it just gets in the way. It really depends on your program, your textbook, and your teacher.

6. Textbooks only use romaji because textbook writers think all students are idiots/lazy/scared of Japanese writing.
Some textbooks (Japanese For Busy People, for example) come in both a romaji version and a kana version. In those cases, I'm tempted to agree with this assessment. However, there are also textbooks that use romaji for other reasons. JSL (Japanese The Spoken Language) is one of the most common targets of anti-romaji rants, but this particular text actually has sound pedagogical reasons for its use of romaji. (Reasons which are explained quite well in the introduction to volume 1, but ranters never seem to have read that...)

Good romaji, bad romaji

The bottom line is that too much romaji use can be a warning sign that a textbook, a class, or a whole program isn't very good. However, while it can mean this, it doesn't necessarily. The best argument I've seen against romaji is that you don't really need it. Most people are perfectly capable of learning kana quickly, and there are many Japanese learning materials available that use little or no romaji. It's not something you'll need much in monolingual Japanese contexts, so if you're doing self-study, there's no reason to specifically seek it out.

However, if you're taking Japanese at a university, you probably won't have a choice about what textbook to use. As long as your text has clear reasons for how and when it uses romaji, and as long as you have good teachers who understand how to teach this particular curriculum, romaji will not hinder your Japanese studies. It may even help. A bad attitude and a virulent, unthinking hatred of your Japanese program, however, are a major impediment to Japanese learning.

If you're still in the process of choosing a program or a book, romaji use is one valid factor to consider, but it will probably have much less effect on your success at Japanese than things like the overall success of students in the program, the talent of the teachers, what extra materials come with the book, and how much time and effort you put in.
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