When you are learning Japanese you will be introduced to the writing systems hiragana, katakana, and kanji. You may also encounter a fourth writing system called romaji. Here, Japanese teacher Kaoru N. explains what you need to know about romaji…
Romaji simply means “Roman characters.” Japanese people use the letters to write other languages based on the alphabet, and also to write Japanese syllables. You will typically use romaji when you type Japanese sentences with a computer keyboard.
“Romaji is the representation of Japanese sounds using the western, 26-letter alphabet,” says Donald Ash, creator of TheJapanGuy.com. “Romaji puts Japanese into a format that most Westerners can read and understand.”
Although romaji is one way to write Japanese syllables, it’s not a completely functional system.
“First of all, there are ways in which the Japanese sound system is different from English – especially in some of the ways things are allowed and not allowed to combine,” says Tofugu writer Linda Lombardi. “Second, there’s more than one way to write even some English sounds in English.”
Romaji isn’t used as often as kanji, katakana, and hiragana, but it’s still a good idea to be familiar with it when you’re learning to speak Japanese.
Let’s take a look at romaji, and the the standard Japanese syllables.
Hiragana is the basic writing system that is commonly used in Japan. Hiragana uses 46 letters, so there are 46 romaji variations to represent all hiragana (chart 1). Japanese syllables, however, have more variations than 46 because hiragana letters can be combined to describe variations of sounds.
* Read this chart from right to left, top to bottom
1) Dakuon and Han-dakuon
Japanese syllables consist of dakuon (impure sounds) and han-dakuon (half-impure sounds). Dakuon sounds occur in the か(ka), さ(sa), た(ta), は(ha) rows. Consonants for each rows; k, s, t, h should be changed to; g, z, d, b. (chart 2).
Han-dakuon only occur on the “h” consonant row, which changes the sound to a “p” (Chart 3). In Japanese writing, dakuon is described by simply adding two dots right next to the original letters. Han-dakuon uses a small circle instead of dots.
*Be aware of that “zi”, and “zu” are used twice for different letters.
Here are some quick notes:
- The romaji for じ(zi) and ぢ(zi), ず(zu) and づ (zu) are the same
- Spelling “zi” to describe the sound can be confusing, because from an English speaker’s perspective, it should be spelled “ji.” The same thing applies for “し” (si/shi)and “つ”(tu/tsu), too.
- Romaji uses the Hepburn system of romanization, which is a Japanese-English translation system. For example, if you type “ji” on a computer, it will be translated to “じ” automatically.
Yôon (twisted sound) is formed by combining hiragana. You have already been introduced to the や(ya), ゆ (yu), and よ(yo) letters in chart 1.
When these three letters follow other letters, except for “あ” vowel row or わ (wa),を (wo), and ん(n), it’s going to create distinctively different sounds. This conjugation happens to dakuon and han-dakuon sounds as well (Chart 4).
You must know the rule when や,ゆ, and よ are conjugated with other letters, the size of those three letters has to be smaller. If you write the letters in the same size, it’s not considered a conjugation. It’s just two syllables happening successively.
For example, “きや” is read and written as “kiya” instead of “kya,” one syllable sound. ちゃや which means “tea shop,” is written as “tyaya” in romaji.
Tyôon means “long sound.” It often happens in Japanese that two vowels are written successively. Also, since all Japanese syllables have a vowel, the vowel in tje first syllable can be connected with another vowel directly. When this happens, it creates the feeling of a longer sound.
In Japanese hiragan, tyôon is written as ちょうおん. If you write each syllable in romaji, it would be “tyouon.”
Now let’s focus on the first two syllables of the word, ちょう. The vowel “o” in “tyo” is connected with the vowel “u.” This “ou” sound is considered a “longer sound.”
In official romaji writing, this is supposed to be written so as “tyôu” with a circumflex (a mark placed over a vowel to indicate a contraction or change in length or tone). Longer sound is a very important part of Japanese pronunciation.
You can see this in two common Japanese last names; おおの (Ôno) and おの(ono). These two names are similar but distinctively different.
If you don’t know about longer sound, you may not understand the difference. You can see two vowels are written in the same row for the first word. When you see two “O’s,” you may be tempted to say “oo” as in the word “ooze.” Using a circumflex can help to eliminate this confusion.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. For example, when the vowels “e” and “i” are combined, you can’t use a circumflex. So romaji writing for the term “movie,” えいが, should be written as “eiga.” Just write each syllable rather than “êga,” even though this is still one of the longer sounds.
On the other hand, if two “e’s” are combined, you still have to follow the circumflex rule, even though the pronunciation for “ei” and “ee” are the same. It’s a very confusing rule.
Sokuon means urging sound. I’d describe this as a skipping or jumping sound. These kinds of words are written with a small “tu” in hiragana (いった (went) and やった (did)).
Just like yôon, there is a smaller letter in between. In romaji, you should write the two examples as “itta” and “yatta.”
Here’s another example: “きて”(please come) is written in romaji as “kite.” If you make add consonant on “t”, it will be “kitte,” which is written in hiragana:“きって.” And that means “postal stamp.”
Most of time, romaji writing works when you type on the keyboard. It doesn’t always work perfectly, however, describing Japanese syllables with the alphabet sometimes requires adjustments.
For instance, じ、ず、and ぢ、づ are the same in romaji: “zi, zu.” When you need to type ぢ and づ on the keyboard, you can actually use “di” and “du” because ぢ and づ belong to the だ(da) row. (Chart-1)
Also, new Japanese syllables have been added since foreign words and new terms were imported. These new syllables combine vowels and consonants. These new syllables are still controversial, and most of them are not even officially acknowledged, even though you can see them everywhere in Japan.
Romaji is a very unique component of Japanese language. The amount of romaji you will use during your studies will vary based on your individual experience. Ask your Japanese teacher what he or she thinks of romaji.
Photo by Benjamin Krause