Japanese Writing Systems for Beginners: Learn Romaji

Learn Romaji

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 “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

romaji chart 1

(Chart 1)

 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.

romaji chart 2

(Chart 2 dakuon)


*Be aware of that “zi”, and “zu” are used twice for different letters.

romaji chart 3

(Chart 3, han-dakuon)

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).

romaji chart 4

(Chart 4, yôon)

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.

AndyWPost Author: Kaoru N.
Kaoru N. teaches Japanese, guitar, and classical guitar lessons in Brighton, MA. Originally from Tokyo, he graduated from Berklee College of Music with a dual major, and is available for in-home, in-studio, and online lessons. Learn more about Kaoru here!

Photo by Benjamin Krause

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learn kanji

The Japanese Writing Systems for Beginners: Learn Kanji

learn kanji

When you’re studying Japanese, you will learn new vocabulary, grammar, and writing systems. Now that you’ve been introduced to hiragana , it’s time to talk about kanji. Here, Brighton, MA Japanese teacher Karou N. shares some effective study tips to help you learn kanji…

If you’re interested in studying Japanese, and you’ve made up your mind to learn the language, there’s no way to avoid kanji. Understanding kanji, and being able to read and write the letters correctly, is important for anyone who wants to learn Japanese.

Kanji characters have become increasingly popular among non-Japanese speakers because of the way the symbols look. Some people get kanji tattoos or print kanji on clothing.

Many people are interested in learning kanji, but shy away from the writing system because they think it’s too complicated. Despite what you may have heard, I’m here to tell you: with a little bit of patience and persistence, you can learn kanji!

First, let’s break down some aspects of kanji which may seem confusing, and then talk about what you can do to make it easier to learn kanji.

Writing Order

Each kanji character has a specific writing order. This can get confusing, however, because some kanji have stroke order variations.

Most kanji follow a pattern. This means you can develop a sense of the writing order by learning other characters. Look at the letter . This character means yon or shi (four).

There are six lines in the letter , and the writing order goes like this:

  1.  left vertical line
  2.  top horizontal and right vertical in one stroke
  3. curved line inside left
  4. clunky line inside right
  5.  bottom

This pattern applies to other kanji like or . Both kanji have a big square with another symbol inside the square. These letters have to be written in the same pattern – left vertical, top and right vertical in one stroke, then inside materials, and finally bottom.

Stroke Order

There are a few rules that determine how to draw each line. These rules are the same in print and calligraphy, which requires a brush instead of a pen. Calligraphy rules, which were established a long time ago, still apply to print today.

When it comes to stroke order, there are three rules you need to remember:

  1. tomeru (to stop)
  2.  haneru (to jump)
  3. harau (to sweep)

These rules don’t just apply to kanji, they are also mandatory in hiragana and katakana.

Reading Variations

Kanji can be read in many different ways. There are several different ways to say person or people: nin, jin, hito, bito, and ri. There are two types of reading in kanji which causes all these variations.

The first reading method is called on’yomi. Nin is the on’yomi term. The direct translation of onyomi is “sound reading.” Kanji was originally imported from the Han Dynasty in China, and kanji actually means the “letter of Han.” When kanji was first introduced, many Japanese people imitated Chinese pronunciations.

Kun’yomi is another way to read kanji.  Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji has a meaning for each character. When kanji was imported, Japanese people matched kanji to corresponding Japanese words. Kun’yomi can be translated as “meaning reading.” Hito is the kun’yomi for “person” in kanji.

A lot of kanji need to be followed by hiragana in kun’yomi. Most kanji have both on’yomi and kun’yomi. Other pronunciations developed because of conjugations with other words.

For example, jin is a variation of nin in on’yomi, and bito is a variation of hito in kun’yomi. Ri is only used when you are counting the number of people. To avoid being confused by so many variations, I suggest memorizing a term rather than all of the variations of pronunciations.

Here are some tips to help you understand kanji.

1. Start With the Basics

This applies to anything you want to learn—it’s important to start off slow and learn the basics. This can be boring and frustrating because most students want to learn and advance quickly, but you need to build a solid foundation before you can move on to more advanced concepts.

2. Complex Kanji are Combinations of Other Kanji

Understanding this idea will make learning kanji much easier, and this is another reason you need to start with the basics. Some kanji look terribly complex, but if you understand some basic characters, you will be able to recognize repeating patterns.

Kanji can be divided into two or more parts: left and right, top and bottom, left, middle, right, top, bottom, and so on. The difficult kanji are combinations of more basic kanji. This means that once you know the basics, you will no longer be intimidated by complicated kanji.

Doesn’t this make you feel much better about kanji?

 3. Use Tracing Paper

When learning new kanji in elementary school, students are always given tracing sheets. This method isn’t just great for children, it’s helpful for adults, as well.

Find sample kanji letters to use as a reference. A sample also gives you instructions for writing order and stroke rules. After you understand these details, all you need to do is to repeatedly trace the characters. Once you get used to tracing the characters, try writing them on your own.

Studying kanji requires time, patience, and diligence, but it’s definitely not impossible to learn. I have helped many students learn kanji using the steps that I have outlined. If you’re apprehensive about learning kanji, I’m here to let you know that you can do it!

Want to master kanji and other advanced Japanese concepts? Find a Japanese tutor today! 


Kaoru NKaoru N. teaches Japanese, guitar, and classical guitar lessons in Brighton, MA. Originally from Tokyo, he graduated from Berklee College of Music with a dual major, and is available for in-home, in-studio, and online lessons. Learn more about Kaoru here!



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Photo by Stéfan