Why You Should Never Learn Japanese with Romaji

Why You Should Never Learn Japanese with Romaji

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

No Romaji
Picture: 水乃みのる / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Some argue that beginners to the Japanese language can skip the writing system and just use romaji. Here's why that's never a good idea.

Are you starting to learn Japanese? Are you wondering whether you should learn with romaji (Roman characters) to help simplify getting started?

Well, I’m here to tell you: don’t. You should never learn Japanese with romaji – and here’s why.

The Japanese writing wall

Japanese newspaper
Picture: Ystudio / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Look, I won’t deny it. For Western speakers, learning Japanese is a tall wall to climb. The writing system is often the hardest part of the scramble. With close to 2,000 standard kanji (ideographic characters) and two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, there’s a lot for a newbie to pick up.

Given this, it’s no surprise we’re all scrambling for shortcuts. For example, some learners use systems such as Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji to slam as many of the characters into their heads as they can in big gulps. (I’m not a fan but to each their own.)

For most people, the first part of the journey is learning the syllabaries. Hiragana in Japanese is used for everything from regular words to verb and adjectival inflections. Meanwhile, katakana, which is used primarily for loan words and emphasis, enables English speakers to pick up a lot of words that have crossed over into the Japanese lexicon. (Just beware of the “false friends” between Japanese and English.)

Why romaji is no shortcut

But…what if you didn’t have to learn even the kana? What if you didn’t have to learn any Japanese writing at all?

Advertisements

Recently, I came across an article by DC Palter that argued that both kana and romaji were decent choices for Japanese learners. In particular, the author argued that “light” learners – people who just wanna speak a little – could skip kanji and kana entirely and study strictly in romaji. Some textbooks, such as the first book of Japanese for Busy People (note: affiliate link), take this approach.

First of all, let me emphasize a point that Palter would likely agree with. If your goal is to learn enough Japanese to be fluent, or you plan to work or live in Japan, you absolutely should not learn Japanese with romaji.

Jay Allen / アレン・ジェイ on Twitter: “It is ALWAYS better to learn hiragana first and NEVER learn Japanese in romaji and I will die on this hill pic.twitter.com/NdBD7300Kp / Twitter”

It is ALWAYS better to learn hiragana first and NEVER learn Japanese in romaji and I will die on this hill pic.twitter.com/NdBD7300Kp

Getting fluent – or even conversational – requires practicing Japanese speaking. However, you also need a ton of input to fuel your output. That’s why, in my guide to learning Japanese, I recommended getting the writing system down as quickly as possible. The more you can read, the more Japanese you can expose yourself to on a daily basis. That accelerates your path to fluency.

Hiragana first? Or katakana?

The question is: What syllabary do you learn first? Should you tackle hiragana or katakana?

In my X thread on this subject (above), I had a lot of people agreeing with me that learning Japanese via romaji was misguided. Several of them argued that you should prioritize learning katakana. The reason? The increasing use of loan words makes it easier to pick up new vocabulary if you know katakana. That’s particularly true if you’re a native English speaker, as the number of loan words taken from English is accelerating.

I think that’s a fair argument. But I also don’t think it matters much. Both kana syllabaries come under 100 characters total and neither takes long to learn. Get both of them down before moving on to hardcore kanji study.

Why even “light” learners should learn kana

Girl studying hard (or hardly studying?)
Picture: y.uemura / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

But what about the argument that romaji is fine if you’re a “light learner”?

First, what’s a light learner? In Palter’s case, it’s people learning Japanese casually at the community center where he would teach students. In Palter’s words, “most of my students just want to learn enough to travel to Japan, connect with Japanese family, or understand anime movies.”

If that’s what we mean by a “light learner”, I cannot for the life of me understand why you wouldn’t recommend that such folks learn kana.

Let’s take traveling to Japan. If you know kana (and maybe a handful of kanji), there will be stuff you can read. A few things that are simplified for kids or foreigners still learning Japanese may be written with furigana, or hiragana written over kanji to communicate their pronunciation.

Do you know how many Japanese signs in Japan are written in romaji? None. Zero. It’s not a thing. You’ll find plenty in large cities written in English but nothing in romanized Japanese.

Same goes for anime. You won’t see anything in an anime written in romaji. You’ll see plenty of kana, however.

Every time you encounter Japanese in the wild (by which I mean, outside of the classroom), it’s a chance to do two things:

  1. Reinforce what you already know; or
  2. Learn a new word, phrase, or grammatical point.

If you don’t know even the basic writing systems, you’re losing out on so many opportunities to improve your Japanese.

Romanization can be weird

There’s also another reason not to use romaji, which is that it can be very, very weird when you’re also trying to master Japanese pronunciation.

There isn’t just one way to romanize Japanese. There are several romanization systems you may see used in textbooks. Hepburn/Revised Hepburn is the most common used outside of Japan and is the most intuitive. (I.e., it matches most closely to actual Japanese pronunciation for non-linguists.) There’s also the Nihon-shiki system invented in Japan, followed by the Kunrei-shiki, which tweaks the Nihon-shiki. These don’t map quite as neatly to Japanese pronunciation, which can cause confusion when learning the language for the first time.

(As an interesting historical side note: there have been efforts to replace the Japanese writing system with romanization systems like the Nihon-shiki. They haven’t had much success.)

Take the verb 続く. In Hepburn, this is spelled close to how you’d pronounce it: tsuzuku. In Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki, however, there’s spelled tuzuku and tuduku, respectively. Knowing that tu in these systems should actually be pronounced like tsu is a piece of otherwise useless knowledge you have to ingrain to learn how to pronounce this style.

Examples of romanization in Revised Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki, and Nihon-shiki
Table of romanization examples. (Source: Wikipedia)

Believe it or not, there are even worse examples. The JSL romanization system, developed by Eleanor Jorden for her book Japanese: The Spoken Language, is based on Kunrei-shiki and is supposed to follow Japanese phonology closely. Which might be great if you’re a linguist. But for a language learner, it means you end up with stuff like this:

minami on Twitter: “Anyway the romaji system I was forced to use/learn with was…well, it spelled 少々お待ちください as syoo syoo omati kudasai, if you want an example / Twitter”

Anyway the romaji system I was forced to use/learn with was…well, it spelled 少々お待ちください as syoo syoo omati kudasai, if you want an example

“Anyway the romaji system I was forced to use/learn with was…well, it spelled 少々お待ちください as syoo syoo omati kudasai, if you want an example.”

Seriously…at this point, just learn the kana and proper pronunciation. It’s not that hard.

Have fun with Japanese – but don’t sell yourself short

I understand the desire for shortcuts. Learning a language is a long haul. And learning Japanese when your first language is a language like English can feel at times like a death march.

But some shortcuts lead you past your destination. And studying in romaji is one of them.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy