English Tip: Romanization

I. Romanization = Spelling Japanese words 

I want to start with the Basics. And romanization of Japanese words is very basic, yet I often see mistakes by Japanese people writing English. 

There are two romanization systems commonly used today: Hepburn (ヘボン式) and Kunrei (訓令式). 

You should be aware of the differences and be careful which system you use when you write Japanese words in English. 

Hepburn is by far the most common system. JR train stations, Japanese passports, Japanese-English dictionaries, and English newspapers all use the Hepburn system. I strongly recommend the Hepburn system for normal writing in English. Kunrei is found most often in Japanese textbooks for foreigners and it is useful because it makes it easier to see the linguistic inflections. 

Notice the difference between Hepburn (left column) and Kunrei (right column): 

Shiga-ken | Siga-ken 
Chikubushima | Tikubusima 竹生島 
Kusatsu-shi | Kusatu-si 草津市 
Shigaraki | Sigaraki 信楽 
Takashima | Takasima 高島 
Hachiman | Hatiman 八幡 
Chomeiji | Tyomeizi 長命寺 
Aisho-cho | Aisyo-tyo 愛荘町 
Azuchi-cho | Azuti-tyo 安土町 | 
Takatsuki-cho | Takatuki-tyo 高月町 
Eigenji | Eigenzi 永源寺 
Ishibe-juku | Isibe-zyuku 石部宿 
Hokkoku Jinja | Hokkoku Jinzya 豊国神社 
Taga Taisha | Taga Taisya 多賀大社 
Hifuri Matsuri | Hihuri Maturi 火ふり祭 

As you can see, the spelling can be very different (especially Chomeiji). Many Japanese people confuse or mix the two systems. They might spell Aisho-tyo or Aisyo-cho. One reason is that many people type romaji with a personal computer and Kunrei system is sometimes shorter and faster to type. Kunrei is okay when you write in Japanese with a PC. But not good when you write in English in most cases. 

So please be more careful when you spell Japanese words in English.

English Tip: Spelling Long Vowels

Long vowels

Spelling Long Vowels 

Spelling long vowels has been and will always be a permanent problem for all of us. There is no perfect way to spell long vowels in Japanese words. So people spell long vowels in different ways, which makes it confusing for everyone. 

For example, 近江(おうみ). 

See the image for the sample spellings. 

I always spell it as “Omi,” which is the most common and practical way to spell it. The best way is actually #2 which has a macron to indicate a long vowel sound. A macron is a small horizontal bar above the vowel. 

The problem with #2 is that it is troublesome to type a macron. I was unable to type it here in mixi, so I use this image to show you. Most English newspapers, magazines, and books also do not type a macron. It is too much trouble. 

Using a macron for long vowels is actually the Hepburn system. JR train stations and subway stations follow the Hepburn system so they all use macrons too. 

A macron helps us to pronounce the name more accurately. Those of us familiar with Japanese will very much appreciate macrons. So in J-E romanized dictionaries and Japanese textbooks, you may find it. 

However, to people who don’t know Japanese, a macron makes no difference. They will pronounce the word in the same way, with or without the macron. 

Since it is too troublesome (or impossible) to type a macron, some people insert an “h” to indicate long vowels like #3. For example, 近江鉄道 and 近江バス spell it “Ohmi.” 

The problem with “Ohmi” is that it can be confused with おおみ instead of おうみ. Many people use “h” to spell the double o (おお) such as 大津 (Ohtsu), 太田 (Ohta), and 大井 (Ohi). The “h” looks very awkward and it is completely unnecessary for normal English speaking. People who don’t know Japanese will not understand the difference between Otsu and Ohtsu anyway. The “h” has no real pronunciation value or indicator in English. 

Also remember that we always spell 大阪 as “Osaka,” not “Ohsaka.” And regarding 大井, “Ohi” will make it おひ instead of おおい. This is another reason to avoid using “h.” 

Of course, nobody spells 大津 as “Ootsu.” It looks too strange. So there is no reason to spell 近江 as “Oumi.” This is another spelling method you should avoid (except when you are teaching Japanese or typing kanji). “Oumi” will likely invite mispronunciation by someone who doesn’t know Japanese. And remember that 東京 is always “Tokyo,” not “Toukyou.” 

Also for 町, such as Aisho-cho, best to spell it “cho” and not “choh” or “chou.” 

Note also 甲賀市 (Koka), 栗東市 (Ritto), 甲良町 (Kora), 竜王町 (Ryuo), 蒲生郡 (Gamo), 余呉町 (Yogo). Be careful when you spell these place names having long vowel sounds. 

If the name of a person or company has a long vowel sound, you should check how they spell it and follow their preference. So please spell 近江鉄道 as “Ohmi Railway” and 近江バス as “Ohmi Bus.” It is their name and their preference, so you should respect it. 

When you write someone’s name in English, also check how they spell it. Maybe you can check their English 名刺. But you should always respect how a person or company spells their corporate or personal name. 

Next time you pass by 近江八幡駅 or 近江今津駅, notice the romanization of the train station name.



Continuing my English tips on romanization, my next topic is hyphenation. 

A hyphen is used to indicate a connection between two different units of meaning. At the same time, it also helps to indicate proper pronunciation and understanding. 

However, the rules of hyphenation are not clear cut, especially when romanizing Japanese words. There is a gray area and some exceptions 例外. We often debate over whether we should use a hyphen or not. 

To make it easier to decide whether to use a hyphen or not, I present some examples here. 

A. Definitely use hyphens: 

For personal honorifics: Tanaka-san 田中さん 
For municipalities: Shiga-ken, Otsu-shi 大津市, Gamo-gun 蒲生郡, Taga-cho 多賀町, Kutsuki-mura 朽木村, Sakyo-ku 左京区 
For direction + place name: Higashi-Omi 東近江, Nishi-Shinjuku 
For provincial name + place name: Omi-Hachiman 近江八幡, Omi-Imazu 近江今津 
For street names: Chuo-dori, Shijo-dori 四条通り 
For 新 + place name: Shin-Osaka 新大阪 
For mountain names: Fuji-san 富士山, Ibuki-yama 伊吹山, Hakodate-yama 
For kami names: Izumo-no-Kuni, Izanami-no-Mikoto 
For train lines: Tokaido-sen 東海道線 (Tokaido Line), but shinkansen is OK. 
For castle names: Hikone-jo (but we usually say Hikone Castle) 

B. Hyphen unnecessary (maybe) 

For most temple names: Enryakuji (not Enryaku-ji), Miidera, Kinkakuji, Horyuji, Ukimido, Sanjusangendo 
For shrine names: Taga Taisha (not Taga-Taisha), Omi Jingu (not Omi-Jingu) 
For festival names: Gion Matsuri (not Gion-matsuri), (but Hanamatsuri is OK, and ) 
For park names: Kibogaoka Koen (not Kibogaoka-Koen) 希望ヶ丘公園 
For most river names: Setagawa (not Seta-gawa) 瀬田川, Anegawa 姉川 
For most gate names: Sakuradamon, Sanmon 

C. Hyphen case-by-case 
Ishiyama-dera is better than Ishiyamadera 
Kabuki-za, Minami-za, Gion Kobu Kaburenjo 
Chion-in 知恩院 
Genkyuen or Genkyu-en 玄宮園 (hard to say which is better) 

So how do you romanize a name like 純一郎? 

Is it Junichiro, Jun-ichiro, or Jun’ichiro? 

The problem with “Junichiro” is that it might be pronounced as じゅにちろう instead of じゅんいちろう。 So some people might use a hyphen such as “Jun-ichiro.” However, this is actually not proper usage of a hyphen because Jun and ichiro are not really separate units. So the correct answer is Jun’ichiro which uses an apostrophe to aid correct pronunciation.


Let me talk briefly about how to be a good interpreter. 

Obviously, you must be bilingual. But this is not enough. You also need to have good knowledge of the subject you are interpreting. For example, if you are a tour guide interpreter taking foreign tourists around to shrines and temples, you will need to know about the history of the shrine or temple and the gods and buddhas worshipped. 

You may have to also explain about a famous festival held by the shrine. All this knowledge can easily be gained by reading a book about the shrine, temple, etc. 

If you’re Japanese, you can read this information in Japanese and soon become knowledgeable about the subject. However, this is still not enough. Next, you have to figure out how to say it in English (or any other foreign language you’re interpreting in). 

How do you do this? The best way is to read a book in English about the same subject. Then you will see how various Japanese terminology is translated into English. Ultimately, you have to study the same subject twice, once in Japanese and once in English. Yes, this can be time-consuming. However, it is very effective and you also learn a lot too. 

Note that the English book you read must have been written by a native speaker of English, and preferably published in an English-speaking country. Don’t read or rely on the English tourist pamphlets published by Japanese tourist associations. The English in those pamphlets are only translations of the Japanese and often not a very good example as English. 

In the case of religion, there are many common words like 神棚、鳥居、菩薩、地蔵。Some words have English equivalents, but often there are none. In such a case, you can either use the word as is in Japanese (such as “torii”) and explain it, or add a descriptive English word to it (such as “torii gate”). 

A word like 神棚 can be translated as “household Shinto altar.” Some dictionaries call it “household altar,” but this is not good because it does not indicate the religion (Budddhist or Shinto). 神棚 is definitely Shinto, and 仏壇 is “household Buddhist altar.” If you only say “household altar,” it could be either Shinto or Buddhist or whatever religion. 

So study hard and do a lot of reading, in both Japanese and English (or the foreign language you’re interpreting in).

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