Should You Learn And Use Romaji?

Romaji, the version of Japanese with roman characters, isn’t usually a heavily discussed subject. If you do a simple search online, you can find quite easily that the consensus is not to bother with romaji. Go straight to hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Romaji is bad. Romaji is evil. Romaji will prevent you from ever learning Japanese. So what could I possibly add to this already decided debate?

You absolutely should learn romaji.

Blasphemy! But let me explain. People underestimate the small, but important role that romaji actually is to the Japanese language. Before I get into its value, I want to quickly list the most commonly stated reasons why you should avoid romaji at all costs:

1. It isn’t real Japanese
2. You won’t be learning Japanese like the Japanese do
3. There are too many versions of romaji and no real uniform system
4. It will mess with your pronunciation
5. It is more confusing, and doesn’t pack the type of meaning that kanji does
6. It will make you look like you are studying Japanese wrong

I’m sure there are some other points, but let’s see if we can change this perspective on trashing romaji as intrinsically the bane of a Japanese learner’s existence.


1. Japanese people also learn romaji

I don’t remember what grade it is in elementary school that Japanese kids learn romaji, but they all do. All Japanese people know romaji.

2. It is incredibly easy

There isn’t really much to learn. Except a few strange quirks on lettering (that vary anyway depending on which system is being used), you already know romaji if your native language uses the roman alphabet. This means you instantly get a return on something that you have to put little effort into.

3. It is used in the beginning with learning the pronunciation of hiragana and katakana

Yes, technically you could learn these solely by audio, but if you are are any kind of visual learner trying to learn pronunciation, you need something to test yourself on. Learning hiragana and with Anki requires something put in the question field. To learn the katakana, you can use the hiragana in the question field.

4. It is how you input Japanese into a computer

While there is a minority of those funky Japanese keyboards where it is a one key stroke, one hiragana world, the majority of the Japanese speaking world uses the romaji input. Do you plan on ever typing in Japanese? You will be using romaji. Considering the world we are living in, you are probably using romaji input more than you could possibly imagine.

5. You aren’t always at your own computer

While all modern computers come with the Japanese language pack pre-installed, most computers don’t have it set up for use. You will end up in many situations where you are using a non-home computer to write out something in Japanese. Romaji may be your only option when you can’t set up the IME system for Japanese or its not worth the effort due to brief use of a specific computer.

6. You can use it with other people who don’t know Japanese

Plenty of people are interested in Japan, picking up a few words and phrases here and there, but not actually diving into the language. I know you are not one of these people, but you definitely know people that are. When they come to you for advice on their trip to Japan, or how to say something, you have an easy way to help them out with some Japanese pronunciation.

7. The romaji signs

While it is not common, you will occasionally see signs in Japan (ex. restaurants) and other countries that solely use romaji.

8. The Japanese restaurant in your home country

You will often find menus with Japanese dishes that are written out in romaji.

9. Hide conversations from children

Remember how I said Japanese children learn romaji sometime in elementary school. If you don’t want a young Japanese child to understand something, but want a Japanese adult to, write it out in romaji.

10. It’s a trendy style of writing for some business people

For a recent job I had to go through hundreds of thousands of Japanese chat room conversations between Forex traders. In addition to those traders who couldn’t set up the IME on their computers and wrote in all romaji, there was a slightly different crowd. Japanese business people sometimes like to create a bastardized mix of English and romaji in online casual business conversations. It looks weird. It is annoying to read. But they have fun doing it.

11. You will be prepared for time travelling

The Microsoft IME and other Japanese input is fairly recent. Go back 25 years ago and you are going to have to type in some other format.

So take the hour or so it takes to learn. Then use it to immediately learn the hiragana using Anki and progress your way to kanji. However, please note that I don’t support using romaji for any other reasons than the above. Don’t take this post as me promoting romaji as a good way to learn Japanese. For the most part, romaji will not play any large role in your Japanese adventure. However, it is still a useful tool to have.

Have any other reasons that you’ve come across where romaji shines? Add them in the comments, and let’s revive romaji’s terrible reputation.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Should You Learn And Use Romaji? — 14 Comments

  1. Interesting post. I never really learned romaji as there is essentially nothing to learn if we already speak English, which I assume everybody here does.
    Also, in case some of you guys didn’t know, (like me) you don’t have to type tsu for つ or chi for ち、or shi for し。 You can do tu, ti, and ci respectively. Didn’t realize it for an entire year almost. Don’t know if it works on all IMEs, but it does on Microsoft and Baidu.

    On another note aboute Baidu Japanese IME, I highly recommend it, it is over 8000 times better than Microsoft IME in my opinion. When you install it you can convert your Microsoft IME dictionary over, and also in the Baidu dictionary, there is almost every proverb, almost every 四字熟語, a lot of 2ch phrases, IT terms, and etc. Though my favorite feature is the emoji. For almost every emotion there is a face. I don’t know all of them, you just gotta experiment with different emotion words or words like hello or bye, etc
    泣く→(´;ω;`) ゚(゚´Д`゚)゚
    怒る→(`・ω・´) ヽ(`Д´)ノ
    オッス→( ̄Д ̄)ノ
    こんにちは→ヽ(^0^)ノ (^。^)/
    etc etc

    • Ah, interesting. I’ll be sure to try out the Baidu IME.
      I’ve been using the Google IME for awhile, and I think it is quite a bit better than Microsoft’s as well (though microsoft does allow you to write the kanji while google doesn’t). For emoji on google IME you just type 顔 and it has hundreds in there.

  2. I’ll be honest: I sort of feel that this whole post is based on a misconception of what I think most people mean when they say you should avoid the romanji versus the kana.

    What is meant is not, I think, that you shouldn’t LEARN the romanji, and, truth be told, I have trouble seeing how an english speaker could not do so almost automatically… Rather, what I think is meant is that one should not USE romanji WHEN kana are viable, essentially because that deprives you of useful practice time in using the kana: in the beginning it just takes time for your brain to start making the immediate association between symbol and sound, and every opportunity to do so counts.

    • The real point of this post is to show that even though kana is the obvious choice from the beginning, romaji still has its time and place for use, and should not be completely disregarded as worthless.

      • Is Kana another name for Hiragana, because on my game it is teaching me Hiragana first. Do you have a chart for Kanji or the other one for me to study or do you know where to get one?

        • Kana refers to both the Hiragana and the Katakana together. In order to understand the best way to learn them I’d try reading this post
          Personally I used Heisig’s book (Remembering the Kana) which is great and very fast (complemented by Anki, of course), but I hear there are other great ones.

          As for Kanji, those are going to take you a LOT more time. Certainly not something you want to learn by looking at tables. But don’t worry about those right yet… their time will come.

      • I know what your point is. I just feel your characterization of the “romaji is bad” people is a bit off. Nor do I see “trashing” the romaji as an intrinsically bad thing, as you seem to, as it does much more good than bad, in my view.

        But, frankly, I don’t really think this topic is actually worth more of our time, so you are free to view my comments as the typical pedantism of the professional mathematician… Back to my reviews…

  3. Do you realize this page is actually the fifth listing in that simple online search? Apparently, you’ve made an impression =)

    Personally, I rather hate romaji. I feel my early use of it set me up with a fundamental flaw in my internal representations of the kana. For this very reason, I happen to own one of those funky keyboards you speak of – whether it will help me sort out the problem or not has yet to be seen.

    That’s just my personal experience, of course. The point is, I don’t dislike it because someone told me to. I dislike it because exclusive use of romaji was an easy trap to sink into way back when I first started learning (so many websites and resources were teaching with it exclusively), and I’m paying for it now.

    Any suggestions on fixing my representations? Studying the hell out of my kana until they somehow overtake the latin alphabet seems rather futile…

  4. For the most part, romaji really isn’t helpful to me. I only intend on learning reading and writing in Japanese, perhaps learning speaking and listening later (however unlikely it is, considering I don’t have any future plans to move to Japan or have any future conversations in Japanese). Also, when I’m reading, I have a tendency to translate the character to romaji text first, then read it, which makes my reading slower. There’s also the fact that when I look at romaji, I forget the Japanese pronunciation and pronounce it as it would be pronounced in English. Though, since I’m not focusing on speaking or listening, that doesn’t bother me too much (for now, at least). However, there is one good thing about romaji. When I was first trying to learn Japanese (a week or two ago), romaji simplified the Hiragana I was learning, so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by it and have a 10% more likely chance of giving up learning Japanese. But other than that, romaji has only been a hindrance to me.

  5. I agree. All articles on romaji are negative. Why ?
    If it’s up to me, I’ll abandon kana and kanji altogether.
    Kanji are impossible to learn. And kana is basically the same to romaji, both phonetic.
    But romaji is simpler, thus better.
    And I don’t see why I would get mixed up with meaning.
    If I would get mixed up reading, I would also get mixed up speaking.
    And that doesn’t happen !
    The great benefit of romaji is that it is simple, usable, and readable for anyone.
    But oh no, lets do it the hard way, everybody wants to write in kana and kanji, truly Japanese.

    • ” If it’s up to me, I’ll abandon kana and kanji altogether.”

      That’s probably a bad idea.

      “Kanji are impossible to learn.”

      No they’re not.

      “And kana is basically the same to romaji, both phonetic.”

      No it isn’t.

      ” But romaji is simpler, thus better.”

      It definitely isn’t, and that’s incredibly subjective.

      ” The great benefit of romaji is that it is simple, usable, and readable for anyone.”

      Not necessarily for Japanese people.

      “All articles on romaji are negative. Why ?”

      Because then people get the idea that they only need romaji.

    • If you literally only care about being able to converse, then I could see your argument for doing away with kana and kanji.

      But what happens when you want to read? Books. Games. News. Discussions. Wikipedia. Being able to comfortably read kana and kanji opens up a whole world that would otherwise be locked away.

      It’s stated many times on this site that your journey is your own. If you have no use for literacy, then it’s not my place to judge. I guess I just can’t bring myself to imagine how anyone could live without it.

  6. I’ll have to be honest and say that I think that you are missing a big “but” in this article. Yes, romaji probably has its time and place, but a beginner learning Japanese should stay miles away from it. It’s a crutch which will significantly slow learning down. Learn your kana – it can be done in an afternoon!

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