Spelling and the Hepburn System


How to write Japanese Sounds
with the Latin Alphabet

The Hepburn System

The Hepburn romanization system (Hebon-shiki) was devised by an American missionary doctor in the 1860s to transcribe the sounds of the Japanese language into the Roman alphabet (in Japanese, "Roomaji").
It is widely used today both in the English-speaking world and in Japan, where many younger people are most familiar with the Roman alphabet through the study of English and thus find its spelling conventions more comfortable than the official Monbusho romanization standard.
Compared to the Kunrei (Monbusho) system, it compromises with English phonography rather than adheres to Japanese phonological system.
!!!! that is the good point !!!!

Read more here:


byoobu   屏風 
Long vowels should be doubled. That is the easiest to show on any computer these days.
Only in case of well-known words like TOKYO, Kyoto, we can renounce the lenth-indicator otherwise it causes trouble with the meaning:
shuujin, shujin (a prisoner <> my husband)

The use of OU instead of OO comes from the Japanese word processor, which represents the Japanese hiragana spelling, but should not be used for English representations of long vowels. It may lead to a completely different pronounciation of a word.

O with a little hypen above, ō that was always used in the times of printed books, but many wordprocessors do not have this letter. It is therefore usually not found when googeling with it.

Another posibility is to use a little roof-like accent on the o (or u), like this: ô.
Some monitors do not display these letters and show it like this:
o^ u^.
This is a problem of the computer encoding of letters and not a correct spelling of any kind.


The sound TSU (as in TSUNAMI) is part of the Japanese language. TU is not.
The same thing, you would not spell it TUNAMI in English.

TUTI , that is hard to understand. Here are some hints:

つ = tsu
ち = chi
し = shi

tsuchi つち 土 (it means, the earth)


Here is a good page about the Hepburn System

All long vowels are indicated by doubling the vowel, e.g. long o is written oo.

This page features all the charts you need for the correct spelling.

<> Use of roomaji <>
The Hepburn system is now the most widely used romanisation system. Roomaji is the standard way of transliterating Japanese into the Latin alphabet. In everyday written Japanese, romaji can be used to write numbers and abbreviations. It is also used in dictionaries, text books and phrase books for foreign learners of Japanese.

Basic syllables
written from right to left and top to bottom.
a i u e o... ka ki ku ke ko ...


There is a famous poem using all these sylables once only, called

IROHA 以呂波 いろは, the Japanese ABC
© More in the WIKIPEDIA !

. ichibun ningyoo 一文人形 dolls with one letter of the IROHA .


This is non-sense:


this is very hard to decipher and harder to understand.
Please better use this spelling, separating the single words, since this is not written Japanese but Japanese written in alphabet type. A hyphen works wonders.

furu-ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

There is a difference in input when you use a Japanese wordprocessor to input hiragana or kanji and when you write some legible roomaji with the alphabet for people who do not speak Japanese (otherwise you would be using hiragana or kanji anyway).

Japanese wordprocessors use the Japanese style, of course, therefore we are stuck with all this confusion. Before the age of wordprocessing, things were simpler。

Mizunoo, he was an emperor of Japan ! 後水尾天皇

mizunoo to
mizu no oto

see, it is better to separate.

Enjoy your studies of Japanese Language !
August, 2004


AAA, the spelling of bentoo in Roomaji!

A friend asked about it, so here are some points to consider:

the correct spelling in Hepburn is with two oo for the length of the pronunciation

................ bentoo 弁当

The variations for a long oo are
............. ou, oh, ō with a little hypen on top

just one o provokes a different pronunciation and is wrong in my opinion.
But some words, like Tokyo, Basho, are so common now with the short version, we (linguists) keep them as they are used in the newspaper.

the O in front of the bentoo is an expression of honorability, お弁当

the honorable lunchbox

It is short in the pronounciation so one o is correct : o-bentoo

If you write oobentoo (oo-bentoo) it would mean a HUGE bentoo, since OO  大 is a word meaning big, large huge, like
oo-ame, huge rain 大雨 (the ones we are experiencing just now... rainy season thunderstorm..)

Since  o  お it is an addition to the main word it should be spelled with a hyphen between the o and the b。

o-cha .. .. .. the honorable tea
o-hayoo ... the honorable morning

The main problem now is the googeling. If you google for bentou you come up with some, but not all entries...

The divergence from the Hepburn system became more frequent with the appearance of the wordprocessor machines in Japan, where they use the ou version to input a word.

I have written about it here above.

For the World Kigo Database, I insist on the Hepburn system, since this is the spelling one would use to google for a word.
I then usually leave some of the other spellings (even put them in brackets myself) to make sure someone will find it when he googles with another possibility.

Gabi Greve, July 2005

Lunchbox (bentoobako) Topic for Haiku


Reading Romaji Only

Can you understand a Japanese haiku properly if you are only looking at a version in Romaji and not see the kanji/hiragana/katakana it was really written in?

The question arose with this one by Buson

tamakura ni mi o aisu nari oborozuki

AISU ...

ai su ... 愛す short for ai suru 愛する, to love
aisu アイス is short for icecream

temakura ni mi o ai su nari oborozuki

手枕, can be read as tamakura in poetry.

It is essential to see the Japanese writing before translating a haiku, because the same word can be written in Kanji, Hiragana or Katakana (some clever poets now even use the English alphabet), and each one makes for a slight shift in mood and perception of the poem.
This can never be expressed with romaji, unfortunately.


In modern Japanese,
ateji (当て字, 宛字 or あてじ, literally "assigned characters")
primarily refers to kanji used phonetically to represent native or borrowed words, without regard to the meaning of the underlying characters. This is analogous to man'yōgana in pre-modern Japanese. The term ateji is also used for the opposite process, writing words using kanji for meaning only, without regard to the reading.

For example, sushi is often written with the ateji 寿司. Though the two characters are respectively read as su and shi, the character 寿 means "one's natural life span" and 司 means "to administer", neither of which has anything to do with the food. Ateji as a means of representing loanwords have been largely superseded in modern Japanese by the use of katakana, although many ateji coined in earlier eras still linger on.

An example of the opposite process (meaning only) is 煙草 (tabako) for "tobacco", where the individual kanji respectively mean "smoke" and "herb" but have no phonetic relationship to the word tabako. This is also considered a kind of ateji.
The ad hoc usage of Chinese characters for sound dates to the introduction of Chinese characters to Japan, in the man'yōgana – the same sound might be represented by many different characters, at the discretion of the author. The kana (hiragana and katakana) were then developed as systematic simplifications of man'yōgana, to be used for sound – each Japanese mora corresponds to a single hiragana character and a single katakana character (with some exceptions due to sound shifts over the centuries – see historical kana usage). Despite the existence of the kana, ad hoc Chinese characters continued to be used for representing words, as is traditional in China.
© More in the WIKIPEDIA !

also check about kanji, hiragana and katakana for more details.

- quote -
. . . At this point in time occurred the beginning of the great age of classical Japanese literature. Up to then literature in Japan had meant Chinese literature, even though Nihon Shoki and Kojiki contain snippets written in Japanese by using Chinese characters for their sound only, and the great Manyoshu collection of Japanese poetry had been put together using the same method. Now, a simple and elegant system for writing Japanese with a syllabary of about 50 characters (the exact number varied for a time) based on highly simplified Chinese characters had been invented and come into wide use.
There were some exceptions, but it was generally thought that there was no need for women to learn to read and write Chinese, so any literature intended for both men and women must necessarily be written in Japanese. The first major book published was Ise Monogatari which may be considered a tribute to the life and works of Ariwara Narihira, a poet who died in 880. The exact date of the book is not known, but it was early in the 10th century. Another crucial book for this era is Konjaku Monogatari. It is thought to have been completed around 1077 but it is a collection of short stories that includes much old material, including many pieces evidently written about this time.

. Japanese History / The Early Heian Period .


The Tower of Babel バベルの塔

to encode Japanese kanji characters - UNICODE UTF-8

the windows of babbel -
a new meaning
in the World Wide Web

. "Windows of Babel" .

babbel - this is a German expresison for chattering.

our Tower of Babel
what do they make of it

- Shared by Johnny Baranski -
Joys of Japan, 2012

each one
in his own voice -
tower of babel

Gabi Greve


. Spelling and Punctuation .
capital letters or not in English?

Read my Haiku Theory Archives





Anonymous said...

roomaji no dore ni mo fuyu no hato no ite

romanized Japanese
in each letter, there is
a winter pigeon

Yuge Fujio 藤尾ゆげ
(Tr. Fay Aoyagi)

Gabi Greve said...

Kobayashi Issa

hatsu yuki ya i-ro-ha-ni-o-e to narau-goe

first snowfall--
"A B C D E F..."
she practices

Or: "he practices."
Whatever the gender, a child is reciting. In Japanese, there is no alphabet, but "i-ro-ha-ni-ho-e" provides a way to memorize hiragana: a poem on the Buddhist theme of life's transience.
David Lanoue

Gabi Greve said...

James Curtis Hepburn (1815 - 1911)
and the temple 宗興寺 Soko-Ji, Kogaya - Yokohama