By Andrew Horvat
The official had hardly finished giving
his e-mail address over the phone when he
launched into a lengthy apology. "I know
it is very confusing but if you don't
spell my name incorrectly you won't be
able to reach me. Please don't blame me.
The computer engineers came up with the
e-mail system on their own."
Had the official's name been rendered
correctly in the romanization system in
most common use today, the modified
Hepburn, it would have been "Jun'ichi."
Using the Japanese government's slightly
different system, the same first name
would be spelled "Zyun'iti." As the
ministry's computer wizards mixed up the
two systems and placed an unnecessary "y"
after the "J," the name became part of a
hodgepodge of Latin letters used with
little regard for any accepted system of
Until a few years ago, how Japanese
wrote their language in Latin letters was
a matter of concern to no more than a
handful of educators, most of whom were
critical of the Hepburn system because, by
failing to take into account the actual
forms and sounds (the morphophonology) of
the Japanese language, it made Japanese
more difficult to teach to non-natives.
These days, however, the party most
concerned with Japan's romaji chaos is the
International Standards Organization which
has put Japan on notice to come up with a
single, rational, unified system.
Among the ISO's worries is the
difficulty Internet users are certain to
have locating Jun'ichi if sloppy computer
engineers spell his name "Jyunichi." After
all, how can "Jyunichi" be found at his
desk via e-mail when there are no fewer
than three inconsistencies in his name.
First is the non-existent "jy," then there
is the absence of a marker after the "n,"
which turns the syllabic nasal, the "n'"
in "Jun'ichi," pronounced in the back of
the mouth into an ordinary "n" (an
alveolar, made by placing the tongue
against the ridge behind the top row of
teeth). This difference in Japanese is
crucial. "Kan'i" (with syllabic nasal)
means "summary" (as in "kan'isaibansho" or
summary court). Plain "kani" means crab.
Finally there is the problem of the last
syllable in "Jun'ichi." Should it be "chi"
as in Hepburn or "ti" as in the
government's own Kunrei system?
If past precedent is any guide, neither
the ISO nor anyone else should hold their
breaths. Anarchy is likely to reign for a
long time to come. Instead, it might be an
idea for those with an abiding interest in
Japan to learn that "romaji" (the use of
Latin letters to write Japanese) can be
spelled as "roumaji," "roomazi," "roomadi"
and any number of other variations.
The first example, "romaji" is
representative of the Hepburn system named
after James C. Hepburn, the Philadelphia
medical missionary who arrived in Japan in
1859 and compiled the first modern
Japanese-English dictionary about a decade
later. As all pioneering enterprises, the
first version was bold and original but
missed a few key points including the
existence of "palatals" (for example kya,
kyu, kyo,) in Japanese. This problem has
been immortalized in the rendering of
Tokyo as Tokio in the name of the Tokio
Fire and Marine Insurance Company.
The "zi" ending of "roomazi" comes from
the Kunreishiki system promulgated in the
1930's through a cabinet order, or
"kunrei." The "di" ending is typical of
Nipponshiki romanization, an earlier
version of Kunrei which, though hardly
remembered, remains with us in the name of
the upmarket grocery chain, "Meidiya"
which generations of foreign residents
have pronounced with a hard "d" instead of
as "Meijiya." Then there is the Japanese
precision measuring device maker,
"Mitutoyo" which also uses Nipponshiki,
but which when listed in the Tokyo Yellow
Pages ends up as "Mitsutoyo" because most
publications written for foreigners
require names to be printed in
Perhaps the biggest reason for romaji
chaos is that no one single system
satisfies all users. While Hepburn makes
it easy for non-natives acquainted with
the values English assigns to Latin
letters to learn how to approximate the
sounds of Japanese, it has been strongly
denounced by serious educators for
distorting the actual forms and sounds of
For example, in Kunrei-shiki the
various forms of the verb to wait, "matu"
(in Hepburn "matsu") can be listed as
follows: matu -- informal (dictionary
form) matanai -- informal negative
matimasu -- deferential, polite mate --
informal imperative (Wait!) matoo --
informal invitational (Let's wait)
Advocates of Kunreishiki romanization
argue that only in "Kunrei-shiki" is it
apparent that the root of the verb is
"mat." Students taught using the Hepburn
system must be told that the "tsu" of
"matsu" is dropped and replaced by a
"chi," "ta," "te" or "to." Such
explanations are both clumsy and
inaccurate in that they fail to show that
far from being an exception, "matu"
follows the same rule as other "u" verbs
such as "kaku" (to write) the root of
which is "kak," or "sasu" (to point) the
root of which is "sas." Incidentally, in
Hepburn the polite form of "sas" is
"sashimasu," and this too makes a mess of
the simple rule that can be achieved in
When Kunrei was adopted in the late
1930's, the then powerful Japanese central
government did much to try to further its
use. Unfortunately, by forcing non-native
speakers of Japanese with no intentions of
learning the language to abide by a system
intended for those who have some command
of Japanese, the government gave the
impression of intolerant language
management which would have dire
consequences later on.
To give an idea of just how pervasive
Kunrei became in the short period of
strong central rule from 1937 to 1945,
even pamphlets for tourists, such as the
one I have on Japanese Proverbs published
in 1940 by the Japanese Government
Railways, provides foreigners with a list
of the new orthography next to the old
Hepburn equivalents in brackets. The list
is as follows: si (shi), ti (chi), tu
(tsu), hu (fu), zi (ji), sya (sha), syu
(shu), syo (sho), tya (cha), tyu (chu),
tyo (cho), zya (ja), zyu (ju), and zyo
The Government Railways politely
informs readers that Mt Fuji is now Mt
Huzi, Jujutsu is Zyuzyutu, and the
Chion-in Temple, Tion-in. It was the
Kunrei system's misfortune to be
introduced at a time of Japanese
militarism. After Japan's defeat, scholars
and educators attempted to introduce
romanization both as a teaching device and
as a possible simple substitute for
"kanji" (Chinese characters). but US
administrators during the Occupation were
wary of Kunrei's nationalistic in origin.
This was in spite of the fact that the
Japanese language textbooks of American
linguist, Eleanor Jorden, which were used
throughout the 1960's in courses taught to
US diplomats, relied on a modified version
of the Kunrei system.
The existence of such conflicting
systems results in confusion. But this
minor state of chaos is nothing compared
to the full blown anarchy to be found on
the Internet where the boundaries between
Hepburn and Kunrei have been demolished in
favor of an "anything goes" philosophy
made possible thanks to the ability of
computers to respond with one correct
symbol to both correct and incorrect
Thus, the syllables "ju," "zyu" and
"jyu" will all bring onto the screen the
same combination of two "kana" syllabic
symbols, which can be converted to several
"kanji" characters. Manufacturers of
Japanese word processors, needing certain
extra features to popularize the use of
their products, decided to make it
possible even for the most inept consumers
to be able to write in Japanese. They
achieved this by making their products
respond correctly to the most outlandish
mistakes in romaji. Thus, "tsi" "ti" "ci"
and "chi" will all yield the same "kana"
symbol even though only "ti" and "chi"
conform to known systems.
Another reason for the "anything goes"
philosophy of romanization is that --
strange as it may seem -- many Japanese,
perhaps even the majority, use roman
letters (and not kana syllables) to access
Japanese-language word processors. The
reason for this is symple. The few
Japanese familiar with the QWERTY keyboard
prior to the introduction of
Japanese-langauge word processing, had
learning typing as part of their English
language secretarial education. The kana
keyboard was used only by a few thousand
employees of the National Railways, whose
computers were kana based.
To make matters worse, romanization was
not taught very thoroughly in Japanese
schools. Older Japanese were familiar with
the Kunrei-shiki, but younger Japanese who
spoke English felt more at home with
Hepburn, which uses English-style rules to
write Japanese sounds. As for the vast
majority of Japanese, both systems posed
challenges. Making matters worse yet, the
QWERTY keyboard did not come with
diacriticals for lengthening Japanese
Literature on Japan for foreign readers
done in Hepburn normally dispenses with
any kind of macrons. This is because in
the case of popular books neither authors
nor readers are familiar with the critical
role of vowel lengths. But, for e-mail
addresses and for home page URLs, being
able to differentiate between Marubatsu
Kinko K.K. (a maker of strongboxes) and
Marubatsu Kinkoo K.K. (a gold mine) might
make a difference in business outcomes.
But what if the gold mine's owners,
unfamiliar with the complicated rules for
lengthening Japanese vowels in differing
romaji systems, follow the example of
native speakers and lengthen the "o" with
a "u" using the rules of kana (the
Japanese phonetic syllabaries)? The
absence of macrons on QWERTY keyboards has
inspired just such a recent change in
It is just these kinds of confusing
situations which the ISO wishes to avoid.
To make matters interesting, Japanese
officials encharged with proposing a
standard are reported to be leaning toward
proposing the Kunrei and not the more
popular Hepburn, as the future standard.
So, say good-bye to Mitsui and Mitsubishi
and welcome Mitui and Mitubisi, but if you
find the change too tough to take, just go
for a hike in the woods of Titibu.
return to the index