The Latin alphabet was first used in Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries, who devised a romanisation system based on Portuguese spelling. Later the Dutch introduced a romanisation system based on Dutch.
By the 20th century, there were a number of different romanisation systems in use, including the Nippon, Kunrei and Hepburn systems.
The Hepburn system was devised by James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911), an American missionary from Philadelphia who arrived in Japan in 1859 and compiled the first modern Japanese-English dictionary about a decade later. The Hepburn system is now the most widely used romanisation system.
The Kunrei system was promulgated by the Japanese government during the 1930s. A revised version was issued in 1954.
The main differences in spelling between the Kunrei and Hepburn systems are as follows (Hepburn in brackets): 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 (jo). Long vowels: â (ā), ê (ē), î (ī), ô (ō), û (ū).
The Nippon system was the creation of Tanakadate Aikitsu and was first used in 1881. It is identical to the Kunrei system except for the sounds da, di, du, de, do, dya, dyu, dyo, which are written da, zi, zu, de, do, zya, zyu, zyo in the Kunrei system and da, ji, zu, de, do, ja, ju, jo in the Hepburn system.
Reading in vertical columns running from top to bottom and from right to left, the first column (in green) is hiragana, the second (in yellow) is katakana and the third is rōmaji, and so on.
Rōmaji is the standard way of transliterating Japanese into the Latin alphabet. In everyday written Japanese, rōmaji can be used to write numbers and abbreviations. It is also used in dictionaries, text books and phrase books for foreign learners of Japanese.
When typing Japanese on computers, most people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, use rōmaji, which is converted to kanji, hiragana or katakana by the input software. It is also possible to type in hiragana or katakana if you have a Japanese keyboard, but few people are familiar with this method.
Subete no ningen wa, umarenagara ni shite jiyū de ari, katsu, songen to kenri to ni tsuite byōdō de aru. Ningen wa, risei to ryōshin to o sazukerarete ori, tagai ni dōhō no seishinn o motte kōdō shinakereba naranai.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason
and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
- information about the various rōmaji systems (in Japanese)
Total Quality Japanese: The Romaji Conundrum (the source of some of the information on this page): http://www.cic.sfu.ca/tqj/JapaneseStudy/romaji.html
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