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Japanese Romanization

» Development
» Systems and Differences
» What We Use Now
» Bibliography - Links - Resources for Rōmaji
» Search Guide for Japanese

In general, the process of writing one language using the alphabet of another language is called "transliteration."  Rōmaji means "Roman characters" and refers to the set of letters used when Japanese is written using the English alphabet; the transliteration process of Japanese into English letters is called "romanization."  It is not a translation: the language is still Japanese, but written as if it were English.  Here at the library, romanization is used so that English speakers can read information about Japanese materials - such as the title and author - without having to read the Japanese script.


The first romanization system was developed in Japan in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries, and was based on Portuguese. Under the initiative of the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, a printing press had been brought to Japan in 1590, and the Jesuits printed various religious texts, which were translated to Japanese and printed in Japanese script or rōmaji.  When the Christians were expelled in 1614, the use of rōmaji decreased; however, in the mid-19th century, with the opening of Japan to foreigners, the need for rōmaji again rose, and many debates sprang up about what kind of system to use.

In 1885 the Rōmajikwai (ローマ字会 - as it was then spelled) was instituted - a group of Japanese and foreigners who were interested in developing and promoting romanization in place of the existing mix of kanji and kana.  One of the members, Dr. James Hepburn, a missionary and physician, used the Rōmajikwai system in his Japanese-English dictionary; despite being co-developed, the system came to bear his name: the Hepburn system (ヘボン式).  It is also called the Hyōjun, or "standard," style (標準式).  In the third edition of the Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (1954), the editors presented a modifed Hepburn system, which is called "modified Hepburn" or "revised Hepburn," and which remains the most common version of the system today.

An alternate system came out the same Rōmajikwai, one developed and promoted by a professor at Tōkyō University, Tanakadate Aikitsu.  This system was originally called the Nippon style (日本式), but was modified twice: once in 1937, and called the Kokutei style (国定式), as it was then "officially authorized" by the Japanese cabinet; and once in 1954, called the Kunrei style (訓令式), from the "government pronouncement" in 1954 that made it the official romanization system in Japan.  The Kunrei system is sometimes called the "Monbushō" system, after the Monbukagakushō (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology), which until recently used the system in its educational curriculum.

Today, the modified Hepburn and Kunrei systems are the main competing romanization systems for Japanese.  Despite being the "official" system, Kunrei is used far less regularly than Hepburn - which is used by Japan Railway and other transportation services, as well as for most public signs and notices in Japan.  Modified Hepburn is used for most Japanese-English dictionaries, other foreign-language publications, and in the Library of Congress cataloging system.  The Kunrei system is still used by some goverment agencies, though is slowly being replaced by modified Hepburn - however, it is the only romanization system for Japanese recommended by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Systems and Differences:

The Hepburn system is based on English phonology - that is, the sounds that are made by English speakers - whereas the Kunrei system is based on Japanese phonology and the kana syllabary.  According to certain arguments, linguists prefer the Kunrei system because it is more phonemically consistent than Hepburn, while it is said that the Hepburn system is more intuitive, as far as actual pronunciation, to English speakers.

For example: The Japanese syllabary is a system which combines consonant sounds with the five vowels, a, i, u, e, o to form letters.  In both Kunrei and Hepburn systems, a line like:

か き く け こ

which is written

ka  ki  ku  ke  ko

poses no problems because one sound [k] is represented by one consonant "k" plus each of the five vowels.  However, when other consonant sounds need to be represented, differences in the systems become more apparent.  A line like:

さ し す せ そ

is written differently in each system:

Kunrei: sa  si  su  se  so   vs.   Hepburn: sa  shi  su  se  so

The Kunrei system always uses one "s" plus one vowel to represent this series of sounds, while the Hepburn system uses an "sh" in front of the i.  To an English speaker who is reading the sounds for the first time "shi" more closely approximates the sound of し in Japanese, but because it uses both "s" and "h" it is not as linguistically consistent as the Kunrei system.

This is just one example where the systems differ.  The chart below illustrates the areas of difference between the modified Hepburn, Kunrei, and Nippon styles of romanization.

Kana Modified Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Nippon-shiki
うう ū û ū
おう, おお ō ô ō
shi si si
しゃ sha sya sya
しゅ shu syu syu
しょ sho syo syo
じゃ ja zya zya
じゅ ju zyu zyu
じょ jo zyo zyo
ちゃ cha tya tya
ちゅ chu tyu tyu
ちょ cho tyo tyo
ぢゃ ja zya dya
ぢゅ ju zyu dyu
ぢょ jo zyo dyo

What We Use Now:  (see also Search Guide for Japanese)

The Library of Congress uses modified Hepburn for cataloging materials in Japanese - which means that most of the libraries in America, including Hamilton Library, do too.  Cataloging of Japanese materials - or any non-roman script languages - in America has always been done using romanized letters, and the native script had to be written by hand on the catalog cards, if at all. Starting in 1985, some library systems were able to input native script to the computerized cataloging record, but that script could still not be displayed by the browsers - meaning, it was there but you couldn't see it - until very recently. 

That means that all records for Japanese materials in Hamilton Library are in romanized script, and only records input since 1985 have kanji or kana displays as well.  For more information about the modified Hepburn system and searching in Voyager, please see our Search Guide for Japanese.

Bibliography - Links - Resources on Romanization

Interested in rōmaji and want to learn more? Here are the materials used in making this page, plus other useful resources:


Aman, Mohammed M., ed.  Cataloging and Classification of Non-Western Material: Concerns, Issues, and Practices.  Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1980.
    Hamilton Z695.1.A37 C37

Barry, Randall K., ed.  ALA-LC Romanization Tables: Transliteration Schemes for Non-Roman Scripts.  Washington: Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress, 1991.
    Hamilton Asia REF P226 .A4 1991
    Also available online from the Library of Congress: PDF file

Fukuda, Naomi.  "Some Problems in Cataloging Japanese Books for American Libraries."  Masters thesis, University of Michigan, 1940.
    Hamilton Asia Microfilm MICROFILM 136 item 1

Palmer, Harold E.  The Principles of Romanization with Special Reference to the Romanization of Japanese.  Tokyo: Maruzun Company, 1930.
    Available through ILL; OCLC #5387341 or #9606515

Reischauer, Edwin O.  "Rōmaji or Rōmazi."  Journal of the American Oriental Society 60.1 (1940)
    Hamilton (holdings before 1975 at Sinclair) PJ2 .A6

Seeley, Christopher.  A History of Writing in Japan. Leiden, New York: E.J. Brill, 1991.
    Hamilton Asia PL545 .S35 1991

Totten, George Oakley III.  "Romanization of Japanese," in Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. Tokyo, New York: Kodansha, 1983-1986.
    Hamilton Asia REF DS805 .K633 1983

Tseng, Sally C., compiler.  LC Romanization Tables and Cataloging Policies.  Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow Press, 1990.
    Hamilton Z695.1.F66 L4 1990

Tsukamoto, Jack Toru.  "A Study of Problems of Romanization of the Japanese Language in Library Cataloging."  MLS thesis, University of Texas, 1962.
    Hamilton Asia Microfilm MICROFILM 325 item 2

Internet Resources:

"Romaji," "Hepburn," "Kunrei-shiki," "Nihon-shiki," and "Wāpuro Rōmaji" articles from Wikipedia "The Free Encyclopedia."
(*warning: Wikipedia can be a good source for information, but because it is freely edited by users, it can be unreliable and is oftentimes plagarized from other sources. Please be aware of this when using Wikipedia and always double check any facts from them*)

Preface to the original 1867 Japanese and English Dictionary published by James Hepburn. (1st edition)

Preface to the 1886 Japanese-English and English-Japanese Dictionary (3rd edition) published by James Hepburn, in which the "Hepburn system" is officially published.

ローマ字相談室 - "Rōmaji Conference Room" - website about rōmaji, including various documents (like the above) which illustrate rōmaji principles - (in Japanese)

社団法人日本ローマ字会 - The Society for the Romanization of the Japanese Alphabet - (in Japanese)

Nippon-no-Rômazi-Sya - website of the Rōmaji group founded by Tanakadate Aikitsu in 1909, who support the Nippon style - (in rōmaji)

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This history originally created by Caitlin Nelson
Asia Collection Internship Project 2005

Contact: Mitsutaka Nakamura
Japan Specialist Librarian
e-mail: mitsutak@hawaii.edu
Asia Collection, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library
2550 The Mall, Honolulu, HI 96822 U.S.A.