Romaji Is Evil
Saturday, August 1st, 2009
Okay so maybe that’s a little bit over the top but one of the things I have learnt the hard way is to avoid romaji when you are learning Japanese.
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. Once you get outside of the bigger cities, you’re pretty much on your own.
So what’s this romaji thing anyway?
Romaji is the use of the English (aka Roman) alphabet to write the Japanese language. It is normally seen at airports, restaurants and on street signs and is provided for foreigners who mostly have no knowledge of the Japanese writing system (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji) and would be lost without it.
A real-life example of romaji is featured on the image at the top of this article that I took at the Meguro train station (目黒駅) on the Yamanote line in Tokyo.
Written in hiragana, Meguro looks like this – めぐろ (me-gu-ro) and written in kanji it looks like this – 目黒 (me-guro). You can see both are featured in the image above along with the romaji version, which was taken on the Meguro train station platform.
On our visits to Japan, we have found most train stations in the main cities have a list of the suburbs in both romaji and Kanji, however, there were more than a few times that we were faced with a JR map full of kanji train station names and no romaji to be seen. So knowing that Meguro was 目黒 made it very simple to find our way back home.
Don’t let me freak you out about travelling around Japan, I have found there is always someone ready to help a lost foreigner.
Romaji = Lazy
Romaji also makes you very lazy. As a rookie English-speaking student of Japanese, it’s perhaps human nature to immediately read the romaji if both are available in situations like a text book. So do yourself a favour, remove the temptation and only use websites or text books that do not use romaji. It really works – if the romaji isn’t there you have to look up the kana or kanji and you’ll remember it for next time.
As a test, look at the example below. Did your eyes go straight to the romaji example?
- Hiragana: いぬですか。
- Kanji: 犬ですか。
- Romaji: Inu desu ka?
Won’t I Use Romaji When I’m Learning The Kana?
Yes, you will (I use it in my beginner’s worksheets) and as a native English speaker (if you are) there is no getting away from that really.
The key with that is to learn か = ka but then move on to where か is just a sound in your head. The Japanese hear the sound “ka”, they don’t think of “ka” in the English way we do.
If English is your first language then you more than likely process it from か to “ka” and then to か (as a sound) again.
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.
So try and steer clear of romaji and learn to read and write Japanese the way they do – you’ll be much better off in the long run despite the early headaches. Stick with it and eventually hiragana and katakana will become as easy as your own alphabet.