Is Romaji a bad idea?

Romaji is the way of writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet. I have often seen posts on Japanese learning sites debating whether using romaji is a good idea or a bad idea.

I think it has its uses.

1. The character set is familiar
If English (or a European) language is your first language you are very familiar with the roman alphabet. You’ll be drawing on years of experience.
When you’re beginning you won’t be scared off by an unfamiliar and complex writing system. You can immediately get to grips with classroom situations.

2. It’s quick to take notes in
Again by the time you start learning Japanese you can probably write quite quickly using script (joined-up-writing) or even printing for clarity. Probably much faster and neater (and hence legible) than writing in kana. It’s good for speed.

3. It’s easy to read
Once again it’s familiar. As long as you learn the romanisation system properly and are not tempted to use an English style of pronunciation, reading romaji is pretty plain sailing.
The English writing conventions of capitals and lowercase, spaces, ascenders and decenders, makes it very easy to read quickly. You read by the word shapes. There are experiments where you can still read a sentence as long as the first and last letters in a word are correct and the number of letters is correct. There are also experiments showing that lowercase letters aid legibility.
By comparison the unfamiliar forms of kana mean you often have to read a word if not a sentence symbol by symbol. Granted once you can read kanji reading actually becomes easier.

4. It’s easier to use in an index
I can never remember the order of the kana much beyond あいうえお、かきくけこ、and I only know いろは of the traditional order. Even if I have to recite it sometimes I do know the alphabet’s order.

5. You’ll use it to type anyhow.
To use a roman keyboard to input Japanese you have no choice but to use romaji.
You can buy a Japanese keyboard and input kana directly. However, oddly enough this can be slow as you are probably more familiar with a QWERTY layout even if you are a two fingered look at the keyboard typist than you are with the kana layout. I know I tried and reverted back to QWERTY fairly quickly. Maybe with time you would become familiar with the kana locations.

6. You don’t actually need kana or kanji to speak Japanese.
but it helps. This is a slightly old argument now. Once Japanese courses didn’t teach kana or kanji at all. And it’s possible to speak perfectly good Japanese without being able to read or write it. Just be prepared for the huge shock of finding yourself almost completely illiterate if you ever arrive in Japan.


Kana and kanji are what are used in Japan and to be literate you have to learn them. I think you should use them as soon as possible and as much as possible.
Usually students use romaji at first and then kana is introduced and then kanji even later on, if ever.

One of the main reasons not to use kana and kanji from the beginning perhaps, is so as not to scare beginning students!
(I remember the first class I took. The teacher spoke Japanese all the time! Everyone thought she couldn’t speak English. )
Kana, Kanji and a new language could be information overload.

But perhaps there could be another way. use romaji in a furigana way. That is until students are comfortable with kana give the kanji, kana and romaji for any given word. Eventually dispense with romaji in favour of kana then gradually dispense with kana for particular kanji.

Another possible solution is a foundation course. Before beginning a Japanese course proper have a short 3 to 4 week course to learn kana and some basics of how the writing system and the language works. Basic words would be introduced as a result but no grammar or constructions as such. (and possibly even learn kanji using the Heisig method although this would be very controversial and would take 2 to 3 months.)

You can find further details about romaji at wikipedia

06. February 2008 by ロバート
Categories: other • 残り | Tags: , | 6 comments

Comments (6)

  1. Yeah, I have to agree with all your points. I sit on the fence regarding the issue, but I have to admit, the more I studied kana, the more I appreciate the need to study it, and the importance of getting away from romaji only. :)

  2. I agree. It’s important to be able to read *actual* Japanese. But I think there’s no need to ignore romaji because it isn’t “authentic” enough.
    When studying kana, I suggest giving more time to katakana. It often seems to be such an afterthought but is much harder to read yet for complete words it’s used more often than hiragana.

  3. I would say that you should learn hiragana in the beginning. I mean, if you are going to put in the effort, may as well do it right. later on you are going to find words that conjugate and sound exactly the same that are completely different words. Even hiragana can’t help you out in that instance. You are going to need to use Kanji.

    • I agree. When I started there was a month or so between enrolling in the class I took and the class starting. One of the things I concentrated on in this period was learning kana. I think it was a good idea too.
      However I dislike the romaji is evil meme on Japanese learning websites.
      Romaji has it’s uses, and for some people learning Japanese, at a tourist level perhaps, they don’t need the extra burden of learning kana sometimes. Also in a classroom situation you can’t put learning Japanese (speaking) on hold just to learn the kana. In a weekly night class this could take months to cover properly. Far better to use romaji and students to mostly self-learn kana with some class time and teacher correction of handwritten letterforms. Or once students are immersed and committed to Japanese two or three dedicated classes about writing might consolidate kana use.

  4. I agree on both sides because if Japanese students learn to read romaji it can help them learn English (or another European language) and it also helped me learn to pronounce the kana and kanji. But romaji can also make students who are leaning Japanese pronounce it incorrectly, like their native language. E.g. fu and the r sound.

    • Thanks for your comment.
      kana can help in disconnecting the familiar fu and r from the sounds they represent in English, but I think it’s overstated. I’d bet for most students the thought process is ふ →fu →/Φɯ/ (the sound). What should be happening in reading and writing is first you know the sound then you know a symbol for it. It doesn’t really matter if that symbol is ふ or fu (or hu if not using Hepburn )
      The compelling case for kana and kanji is that is what is used in Japan and therefore if you want to communicate in written Japanese these are what you need to know.

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