The romanization of Japanese is the use of
Latin script The Latin script, also known as Roman script, is an alphabetic writing system based on the letters of the classical Latin alphabet, derived from a form of the Greek alphabet which was in use in the ancient Greek city of Cumae, in southern It ...
to write the Japanese language. This method of writing is sometimes referred to in Japanese as . Japanese is normally written in a combination of logographic characters borrowed from Chinese (
kanji are the logographic Chinese characters taken from the Chinese script and used in the writing of Japanese. They were made a major part of the Japanese writing system during the time of Old Japanese and are still used, along with the subseq ...
) and syllabic scripts (
kana The term may refer to a number of syllabaries used to write Japanese phonological units, morae. Such syllabaries include (1) the original kana, or , which were Chinese characters (kanji) used phonetically to transcribe Japanese, the most pr ...
) that also ultimately derive from Chinese characters. There are several different
romanization Romanization or romanisation, in linguistics, is the conversion of text from a different writing system to the Roman (Latin) script, or a system for doing so. Methods of romanization include transliteration, for representing written text, an ...
systems. The three main ones are Hepburn romanization,
Kunrei-shiki romanization is the Cabinet-ordered romanization system for transcribing the Japanese language into the Latin alphabet. Its name is rendered ''Kunreisiki rômazi'' in the system itself. Kunrei-shiki is sometimes known as the Monbushō system in English be ...
(ISO 3602) and
Nihon-shiki romanization Nihon-shiki ( ja, 日本式ローマ字, "Japan-style," romanized as ''Nihonsiki'' in the system itself), is a romanization system for transliterating the Japanese language into the Latin alphabet. Among the major romanization systems for Japa ...
(ISO 3602 Strict). Variants of the Hepburn system are the most widely used. Romanized Japanese may be used in any context where Japanese text is targeted at non-Japanese speakers who cannot read kanji or kana, such as for names on street signs and passports and in dictionaries and textbooks for foreign learners of the language. It is also used to transliterate Japanese terms in text written in English (or other languages that use the Latin script) on topics related to Japan, such as linguistics, literature, history, and culture. All Japanese who have attended elementary school since
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great powers—forming two opposin ...
have been taught to read and write romanized Japanese. Therefore, almost all Japanese can read and write Japanese by using ''rōmaji''. However, it is extremely rare in Japan to use it to write Japanese (except as an input tool on a computer or for special purposes like in some logo design), and most Japanese are more comfortable in reading kanji and kana.


The earliest Japanese romanization system was based on
Portuguese orthography Portuguese orthography is based on the Latin alphabet and makes use of the acute accent, the circumflex accent, the grave accent, the tilde, and the cedilla to denote stress, vowel height, nasalization, and other sound changes. The diaeresis w ...
. It was developed around 1548 by a Japanese Catholic named Anjirō.
Jesuit , image = Ihs-logo.svg , image_size = 175px , caption = ChristogramOfficial seal of the Jesuits , abbreviation = SJ , nickname = Jesuits , formation = , founders = ...
priests used the system in a series of printed Catholic books so that missionaries could preach and teach their converts without learning to read Japanese orthography. The most useful of these books for the study of early modern Japanese pronunciation and early attempts at romanization was the ''
Nippo jisho The or ''Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam'' (''Vocabulário da Língua do Japão'' in modern Portuguese; "Vocabulary of the Language of Japan" in English) is a Japanese to Portuguese dictionary compiled by Jesuit missionaries and published in ...
'', a Japanese–Portuguese dictionary written in 1603. In general, the early Portuguese system was similar to Nihon-shiki in its treatment of
vowel A vowel is a syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant. Vowels vary in quality, in loudness and also in quantity (le ...
s. Some
consonant In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are and pronounced with the lips; and pronounced with the front of the tongue; and pronounced wit ...
s were transliterated differently: for instance, the consonant was rendered, depending on context, as either ''c'' or ''q'', and the consonant (now pronounced , except before ''u'') as ''f''; and so ''Nihon no kotoba'' ("The language of Japan") was spelled ''Nifon no cotoba''. The Jesuits also printed some secular books in romanized Japanese, including the first printed edition of the Japanese classic ''
The Tale of the Heike is an epic account compiled prior to 1330 of the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Genpei War (1180–1185). Heike () refers to the Taira (), ''hei'' being the ''o ...
'', romanized as ''Feiqe no monogatari'', and a collection of ''
Aesop's Fables Aesop's Fables, or the Aesopica, is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE. Of diverse origins, the stories associated with his name have descended to ...
'' (romanized as ''Esopo no fabulas''). The latter continued to be printed and read after the suppression of
Christianity in Japan Christianity in Japan is among the nation's minority religions in terms of individuals who state an explicit affiliation or faith. Between less than 1 percent and 1.5% of the population claims Christian belief or affiliation. Although formally b ...
(Chibbett, 1977). From the mid-19th century onward, several systems were developed, culminating in the Hepburn system, named after
James Curtis Hepburn James Curtis Hepburn (; March 13, 1815 – September 21, 1911) was an American physician, translator, educator, and lay Christian missionary. He is known for the Hepburn romanization system for transliteration of the Japanese language into th ...
who used it in the third edition of his Japanese–English dictionary, published in 1887. The Hepburn system included representation of some sounds that have since changed. For example, Lafcadio Hearn's book '' Kwaidan'' shows the older ''kw-'' pronunciation; in modern Hepburn romanization, this would be written ''
Kaidan is a Japanese word consisting of two kanji: 怪 (''kai'') meaning "strange, mysterious, rare, or bewitching apparition" and 談 (''dan'') meaning "talk" or "recited narrative". Overall meaning and usage In its broadest sense, ''kaidan'' refers ...
'' ().

As a replacement for the Japanese writing system

In the Meiji era (1868–1912), some Japanese scholars advocated abolishing the
Japanese writing system The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji, which are adopted Chinese characters, and syllabic kana. Kana itself consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana, used primarily for native or naturalised Japane ...
entirely and using ''rōmaji'' instead. The Nihon-shiki romanization was an outgrowth of that movement. Several Japanese texts were published entirely in ''rōmaji'' during this period, but it failed to catch on. Later, in the early 20th century, some scholars devised syllabary systems with characters derived from Latin (rather like the Cherokee syllabary) that were even less popular since they were not based on any historical use of the Latin script. Today, the use of Nihon-shiki for writing Japanese is advocated by the
Oomoto ''Chōseiden'' in Ayabe , also known as , is a religion founded in 1892 by Deguchi Nao (1836–1918), often categorised as a new Japanese religion originated from Shinto. The spiritual leaders of the movement have always been women within ...
sect and some independent organizations. During the
Allied occupation of Japan Japan was occupied and administered by the victorious Allies of World War II from the 1945 surrender of the Empire of Japan at the end of the war until the Treaty of San Francisco took effect in 1952. The occupation, led by the United States ...
, the government of the
Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers was the title held by General Douglas MacArthur during the United States-led Allied occupation of Japan following World War II. It issued SCAP Directives (alias SCAPIN, SCAP Index Number) to the Japanese government, aiming to suppress its "mil ...
(SCAP) made it official policy to romanize Japanese. However, that policy failed and a more moderate attempt at
Japanese script reform The Japanese script reform is the attempt to correlate standard spoken Japanese with the written word, which began during the Meiji period. This issue is known in Japan as the . The reforms led to the development of the modern Japanese written ...

Modern systems


Hepburn romanization generally follows English phonology with Romance vowels. It is an intuitive method of showing Anglophones the pronunciation of a word in Japanese. It was standardized in the United States as ''American National Standard System for the Romanization of Japanese (Modified Hepburn)'', but that status was abolished on October 6, 1994. Hepburn is the most common romanization system in use today, especially in the English-speaking world. The Revised Hepburn system of romanization uses a macron to indicate some long vowels and an
apostrophe The apostrophe ( or ) is a punctuation mark, and sometimes a diacritical mark, in languages that use the Latin alphabet and some other alphabets. In English, the apostrophe is used for two basic purposes: * The marking of the omission of one o ...
to note the separation of easily confused
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-we ...
s (usually, syllabic ''n'' from a following naked vowel or semivowel). For example, the name is written with the kana characters ''ju''-''n''-''i''-''chi''-''ro''-''u'', and romanized as ''Jun'ichirō'' in Revised Hepburn. Without the apostrophe, it would not be possible to distinguish this correct reading from the incorrect ''ju''-''ni''-''chi''-''ro''-''u'' (). This system is widely used in Japan and among foreign students and academics.


Nihon-shiki romanization was originally invented as a method for Japanese to write their own language in Latin characters, rather than to transcribe it for Westerners as Hepburn was. It follows the Japanese syllabary very strictly, with no adjustments for changes in pronunciation. It has also been standardized as ISO 3602 Strict. Also known as Nippon-shiki, rendered in the Nihon-shiki style of romanization the name is either ''Nihon-siki'' or ''Nippon-siki''.


Kunrei-shiki romanization is a slightly modified version of Nihon-shiki which eliminates differences between the kana syllabary and modern pronunciation. For example, the characters and are pronounced identically in modern Japanese, and thus Kunrei-shiki and Hepburn ignore the difference in kana and represent the sound in the same way (''zu''). Nihon-shiki, on the other hand, will romanize as ''du'', but as ''zu''. Similarly for the pair and , they are both ''zi'' in Kunrei-shiki and ''ji'' in Hepburn, but are ''zi'' and ''di'' respectively in Nihon-shiki. See the table below for full details. Kunrei-shiki has been standardized by the
Japanese Government The Government of Japan consists of legislative, executive and judiciary branches and is based on popular sovereignty. The Government runs under the framework established by the Constitution of Japan, adopted in 1947. It is a unitary sta ...
and the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 3602. Kunrei-shiki is taught to Japanese elementary school students in their fourth year of education. Written in Kunrei-shiki, the name of the system would be rendered ''Kunreisiki''.

Other variants

It is possible to elaborate these romanizations to enable non-native speakers to pronounce Japanese words more correctly. Typical additions include tone marks to note the
Japanese pitch accent is a feature of the Japanese language that distinguishes words by accenting particular morae in most Japanese dialects. The nature and location of the accent for a given word may vary between dialects. For instance, the word for "now" is in ...
and diacritic marks to distinguish phonological changes, such as the assimilation of the moraic nasal (see
Japanese phonology The phonology of Japanese features about 15 consonant phonemes, the cross-linguistically typical five- vowel system of , and a relatively simple phonotactic distribution of phonemes allowing few consonant clusters. It is traditionally descr ...


JSL is a romanization system based on Japanese phonology, designed using the linguistic principles used by linguists in designing writing systems for languages that do not have any. It is a purely
phonemic In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-w ...
system, using exactly one symbol for each phoneme, and marking the pitch accent using diacritics. It was created for
Eleanor Harz Jorden Eleanor Harz Jorden (1920 – February 18, 2009) was an American linguistics scholar and an influential Japanese language educator and expert. Born Eleanor Harz, she married William Jorden, reporter and diplomat; the marriage ended in divorce. J ...
's system of Japanese language teaching. Its principle is that such a system enables students to internalize the phonology of Japanese better. Since it does not have any of the other systems' advantages for non-native speakers, and the Japanese already have a writing system for their language, JSL is not widely used outside the educational environment.

Non-standard romanization

In addition to the standardized systems above, there are many variations in romanization, used either for simplification, in error or confusion between different systems, or for deliberate stylistic reasons. Notably, the various mappings that Japanese input methods use to convert keystrokes on a Roman keyboard to kana often combine features of all of the systems; when used as plain text rather than being converted, these are usually known as '' wāpuro rōmaji''. (''Wāpuro'' is a
blend A blend is a mixture of two or more different things or substances; e.g., a product of a mixer or blender. Blend Blend may also refer to: * Blend word, a word formed from parts of other words * ''Blend'' (album), a 1996 album by BoDeans * B ...
of ''wādo purosessā''
word processor A word processor (WP) is a device or computer program that provides for input, editing, formatting, and output of text, often with some additional features. Early word processors were stand-alone devices dedicated to the function, but current ...
.) Unlike the standard systems, ''wāpuro rōmaji'' requires no characters from outside the
ASCII ASCII ( ), abbreviated from American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is a character encoding standard for electronic communication. ASCII codes represent text in computers, telecommunications equipment, and other devices. Because of ...
character set. While there may be arguments in favour of some of these variant romanizations in specific contexts, their use, especially if mixed, leads to confusion when romanized Japanese words are indexed. Note that this confusion never occurs when inputting Japanese characters with a word processor, because input Latin letters are transliterated into Japanese kana as soon as the IME processes what character is input.

Long vowels

In addition, the following three methods of representing long vowels are authorized by the Japanese Foreign Ministry for use in passports. * ''oh'' for or (Hepburn ''ō''). * ''oo'' for or . This is valid JSL romanization. For Hepburn romanization, it is not a valid romanization if the long vowel belongs within a single word. * ''ou'' for . This is also an example of '' wāpuro rōmaji''.

Example words written in each romanization system

Differences among romanizations

This chart shows in full the three main systems for the romanization of Japanese: Hepburn, Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki: This chart shows the significant differences among them. Despite the
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin script. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association in the late 19th century as a standardized representation o ...
, the /j/ sound in , , and is only romanized with the letter J in languages that use it for /j/ like Hungarian and Czech.


Japanese is written without spaces between words, and in some cases, such as compounds, it may not be completely clear where word boundaries should lie, resulting in varying romanization styles. For example, , meaning "to marry", and composed of the noun (''kekkon'', "marriage") combined with (''suru'', "to do"), is romanized as one word ''kekkonsuru'' by some authors but two words ''kekkon suru'' by others.

Kana without standardized forms of romanization

There is no universally accepted style of romanization for the smaller versions of the vowels and ''y''-row kana when used outside the normal combinations (, , etc.), nor for the
sokuon The is a Japanese symbol in the form of a small hiragana or katakana '' tsu''. In less formal language it is called or , meaning "small ''tsu''". It serves multiple purposes in Japanese writing. Appearance In both hiragana and katakana, t ...
or small ''tsu'' kana when it is not directly followed by a consonant. Although these are usually regarded as merely phonetic marks or diacritics, they do sometimes appear on their own, such as at the end of sentences, in exclamations, or in some names. The detached sokuon, representing a final glottal stop in exclamations, is sometimes represented as an apostrophe or as ''t''; for example, might be written as ''a'!'' or ''at!''.

Historical romanizations

:1603: '' Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam'' (1603) :1604: '' Arte da Lingoa de Iapam'' (1604–1608) :1620: ''Arte Breve da Lingoa Iapoa'' (1620) :1848: ''Kaisei zoho Bango sen'' (1848)

Roman letter names in Japanese

The list below shows the Japanese readings of letters in Katakana, for spelling out words, or in acronyms. For example, NHK is read . These are the standard names, based on the British English letter names (so Z is from ''zed'', not ''zee''), but in specialized circumstances, names from other languages may also be used. For example, musical keys are often referred to by the German names, so that B is called from German B. Sources: Kōjien (7th edition), Daijisen (online version). Note: Daijisen does not mention the name ''vī'', while Kōjien does.

See also

* Cyrillization of Japanese * List of ISO romanizations *
Japanese writing system The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji, which are adopted Chinese characters, and syllabic kana. Kana itself consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana, used primarily for native or naturalised Japane ...
* Transcription into Japanese




* * * * * *

Further reading

* Hishiyama, Takehide (菱山 剛秀 ''Hishiyama Takehide''), Topographic Department (測図部).
Romanization of Geographical Names in Japan
" (地名のローマ字表記)
Geospatial Information Authority of Japan The , or GSI, is the national institution responsible for surveying and mapping the national land of Japan. The former name of the organization from 1949 until March 2010 was Geographical Survey Institute; despite the rename, it retains the same ...

External links

* * An extensive collection of materials relating to rōmaji, including standards documents and HTML versions of Hepburn's original dictionaries.
The rōmaji conundrum
by Andrew Horvat contains a discussion of the problems caused by the variety of confusing romanization systems in use in Japan today. {{DEFAULTSORT:Romanization Of Japanese Phonetic guides Romanization Japanese writing system