Romaji Is Evil

Meguro Train Station

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.

Read about the history of Romaji at Wikipedia »

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.

Free Hiragana charts and worksheets available here »

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seifip 6 pts

Please sign the NO ROMAJI manifesto & support the cause at http://noromaji.com/ :)

RuthieIida 5 pts

Yes, romaji is evil.....but even more so for poor Japanese children trying to learn correct English! Because of romaji, they learn to end every word with a vowel sound (for instance "to" instead of just the "t" sound), and see the vowels (a-e-i-o-u) as " あいうえお”. I have spent years telling parents NOT to let their kids fool around with romaji on the computer until they've learned to read in standard English first.....but that rarely happens. Young children hear romaji-English every day until their ears are attuned to it, and the real thing sounds strange and unfamiliar to them. Big sigh here from one who is tempted, but has not given up, the battle.

zonjineko 5 pts moderator

RuthieIida I guess for young Japanese kids the temptation is too great. It really is up to the teachers and parents to ensure they learn the correct way but it might be hard to stop I think, which is a shame.

I would like to know how one will be able to distinguish what word is being used if somebody ikitai is written in Romaji. I mean, do you want to "go" or to "die." Hmmm..... Not even hiragana can save you if you don't know the kanji, and you can't really learn the kanji until you know hirigana. Just type "hirigana" in romaji makes me feel dirty.

Hi there!

Thank you, zonjineko, for this most enlightening blog and this most excellent subject entry.

I am the epitome of the absolute novice learner of the Japanese Language. I really have only just begun to try and begin to learn the actual physical written language, rather than say memorise a few stock phrases to amuse myself with the idea that I 'know' some Japanese.

I have been incredibly daunted by what appears to be the complexity of the language - this entire multiplicity of layers of Hiragana, the mostly foreign word syllabary Katakana, Kanji and then also Romaji on top of all these just kept putting me off trying to even think about tackling the subject ... also, I am not a very good student of languages, in fact, I am a very poor student of languages except my own native one lol... so, taking on one that appears as desperately complex and difficult as Japanese may seem a catastrophic waste my time to those that know me, but I really do want to learn the language of the people I have been so attracted to for so very long, and will one day in the nearish future visit, for some time I hope!

After reading through this post, and grappling with this revolutionary idea of dumping romaji altogether as part of Japanese language learning has clarified how I will approach my self tutored language learning process.

This post, and all the very and most excellently helpful follow on comments have finally given me a better understanding of what I should actually be focusing on.

I am deeply grateful for being guided so well in the short space of time it took to read this blog entry :)
Thank you :)

Wow thx - really glad to hear that. I think in the long run you'll be thankful you went down the "no romaji" road ^_^

Best of luck with your studies and please feel free to let me know what we're missing here on zonjineko!

My first Japanese teacher taught us to HATE romaji.. So, I feel pretty good that I never fell into the "lazy" trap.. On the other hand, she did not anticipate how my computing skills would be affected... You need romaji.. but probably it should be introduced half-way into second year.. or later.. it does need to be studied.. but I hate it! hehe

That's a great point about being introduced to it later. You will need to get the point of it for use on a computer and just general knowledge but not as a crutch to stop you learning Japanese properly.

i agree with Jenny and Rick.

Anon what you need to realise in the point zonjineko is trying to make, it is to eliminate "the training wheels" A.S.A.P . For a child to get familiar with riding a bicycle, he needs the support for the familiarity to occur. Once familiar, the child must take the next bold step of riding without support, purely based on the newly aquired information of physics.

Relating that to learning a language such as Japanese - Romaaji being your training wheels, Hiragana + Katakana being your pedals. The first step to reading and writing in Japanese (and essentially listening and speaking) is to infuse your brain with the CORRECT understanding of HOW Japanese is processed in one's mind. Get to that stage via Romaaji, as soon as you are comfortable with using Hiragana and katakana, leave romaaji behind - That is the point. Keep moving forward.

Romaaji is only that extra missing step foreigners require, to get them onto pedaling the bicycle, the Japanese way. The challenge is Kanji, but let Hiragana be your aid. As you might have noticed, Furigana is used to display the reading for certain Kanji's in textbooks, newspapers, etc. Not Romaaji.

One last thing, you will notice in the end of all this, reading romaaji just isn't as simple as you might've thought it was once. It becomes more difficult to interperate the Japanese meaning through it, and CERTAINLY takes up more reading effort for your brain to process, Rather than the shortened version of Hiragana.

Cheers.

Very well put, Amir thx ^_^

@Anon - of course I'm all high and mighty as you put it. I took the time to learn hiragana. If the person wants to speak to me in Japanese then they need to take the time to learn hiragana.

Why should I be penalized and forced to learn romaji when it's the other person who needs to take the time to learn hiragana? Notice I'm not saying kanji. It doesn't matter to me how many kanji they know, as long as they write in real Japanese. Even when I'm talking with native speakers, I'll ask them to wait so I can look up things I don't know. Why should they lower themselves to my level?

You sound like one of these lazy fools who won't take the time to start learning Japanese the correct way, and just wants an easy way!

You wouldn’t be saying that if you didn’t know kanji, so congrats for having the motivation to go through the trouble, but that doesn’t change the fact that kanji are a needlessly difficult writing system, and I’d still be saying this even if I knew them.

You don't need to learn kanji to not use romaji, you only need to learn hiragana - 46 characters. This can be accomplished in a couple days with flash cards if you are motivated. Just wanted to make this clarification.

I have nothing against romaji but one thing I dislike is that words like "Tokyo" are not accurate. It should be "Toukyou." As a result, many people say it wrong. Not just Tokyo of course but many, many words. So if you are content with romaji keep in mind that you will be incorrectly pronouncing a LOT of words. If that is acceptable to you, then have at it.

BTW, I totally ignore romaji. When someone writes in romaji in a chat room, I’ll just ignore it since it’s not either English or Japanese. These people are probably fluent when speaking Japanese, but I can bet they will never be able to read a sign or the newspaper.

Why aren't we all high and mighty. You'll just disregard everything anyone says in romaji, because that person couldn't possibly have anything worthwhile to say because he doesn't know kanji?

You wouldn't be saying that if you didn't know kanji, so congrats for having the motivation to go through the trouble, but that doesn't change the fact that kanji are a needlessly difficult writing system, and I'd still be saying this even if I knew them.

The point of the article is that if you’re serious about learning Japanese then learning romaji is not learning Japanese per se.

You're not "learning romaji", you already know the alphabet and can use it. You probably meant "learning Japanese in romaji", which is still, you know, learning Japanese. Whichever characters you use, it's still the same thing: a written representation of language.

But yes, I agree that knowing kanji is useful. I just wish they'd use the Korean hangeul characters instead! There's only a few dozen of them, they're simple, straightforward, consistent, and efficient.

Romaji is evil, it's the reason why so many katakana words are completely mispronounced in Japanese.

Classic example, the origin of ラジオ (RAJIO).

Japanese person asks foreigner "what is this strange new-fangled contraption you have brought to our shores?"

Foreigner: "It's a radio"

Jpse person: "What?"

Foreigner: "Radio, you know...Ray-dee-ohh"

Jpse person "Huh? How do you write it?"

Foreigner: "R-A-D-I-O"

Jpse person: "Ohhhh I see.... RA (ラ) JI (ジ) O(オ)!" (DI replaced with JI)

From this day on, anytime a foreigner says "Radio" in Japan they are "corrected" to say "Rajio"

Ergo - dakara - Romaji is evil!

Don't forget that there seems to be two ways to write romaji. For example: ちゃ can be written either as "cha" or "tya." I've even seen Shinjuku spelled as Sinjyuku, and scratching my head of WTF that was until I saw the kanji.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of good books that still insist on using romaji. At least they did add the normal correct Japanese to the book. In this case I use the romaji to be able to read the kanji. :)

BTW, I totally ignore romaji. When someone writes in romaji in a chat room, I'll just ignore it since it's not either English or Japanese. These people are probably fluent when speaking Japanese, but I can bet they will never be able to read a sign or the newspaper. ;)

ya~ i agree~
romanji is a killer~ is good for beginners who still learning hiragana
but at times goes by, i realized romanji confused u ..

btw, chanced upon this site.
is a great site!

Thanks - I totally agree. It seems alot of us all made the same mistake with romaji at the start.

Glad to hear you enjoyed the site - hope to see you back again one day.

I never used romanji O.o and im still in japanese 1 :3

However, Romanji input is a necessary evil, if you want to compute with a non Japanese character keyboard. Since computing is ubiquitous in our lives now, it has its place also. Therefore, some knowledge of the unique phonetic building and consonant blending in roman characters is probably useful too.

Yes romaji (not romanji) is necessary for character input, which is why I said in my article that at the very beginning of your studies you have will have to first learn か = ka but then move on.

The article says to learn romaji, there's no way around that, but move on as quickly as possible and don't get caught in the trap of relying on it as it makes you lazy and, more importantly, it's not Japanese.

That makes sense, but your advice wasn't exactly humble, was it? Ok, so Japan doesn't use Romaji very much, but if it is used as a learning tool for English speakers, then it's not exactly evil or unnecessary, is it? If it has its place, then fair enough. I want to learn the language and if Romaji is to be used almost as a training wheel to be removed later on, I'm all for that.

Thanks Rob. You'll notice I do say in my article that you need to learn か is ka and I say there is no way around that really - for an English speaker as you need to get your head around it and tie it back to something you know.

The point of the article is that if you're serious about learning Japanese then learning romaji is not learning Japanese per se. You're putting off something you really need to do, which is to learn Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

I learnt with romaji to begin with and soon found out the error of my ways.

In the end, romaji is not wrong of course but it just becomes a crutch that gets harder and harder to throw away.

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