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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.