Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Hepburn romanization

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The Hepburn romanization system (Japanese: ヘボン式ローマ字, Hepburn: Hebon-shiki Rōmaji) is named after James Curtis Hepburn, who used it to transcribe the sounds of the Japanese language into the Latin alphabet in the third edition of his Japanese–English dictionary, published in 1887. The system was originally proposed by the Romanization Club (羅馬字会, Rōmajikai) in 1885. The revised edition by Romaji-Hirome-kai in 1908 is called "standard style romanization" (標準式ローマ字, Hyōjun-shiki Rōmaji) and this system has been used as the Hepburn system in Japan traditionally.


Although not officially approved, the original and revised variants of Hepburn remain the most widely used methods of transcription of Japanese, and are regarded as the best to render Japanese pronunciation for Western speakers. As Hepburn is based on English and Italian phonology, an English or Latin-language speaker unfamiliar with Japanese will generally pronounce a word romanized in Hepburn more accurately than a word romanized in the competing Nihon-shiki romanization and Kunrei-shiki romanization, the official Cabinet-ordered romanization system.

Hepburn is based on English phonology and has competed with the alternative Nihon-shiki romanization, which was developed in Japan as a replacement of Japanese script. In 1930, a Special Romanization Study Commission was appointed to compare the two. The Commission eventually decided in favor of a slightly modified version of Nihon-shiki, which was proclaimed to be Japan's official romanization for all purposes by a September 21, 1937, cabinet ordinance and is now known as Kunrei-shiki romanization. The ordinance was temporarily overturned by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) during the Occupation of Japan, but was reissued (with slight revisions) in 1954.

In 1972, a revised version of Hepburn was codified as ANSI standard Z39.11-1972. It was proposed in 1989 as a draft for ISO 3602, but rejected in favor of Kunrei-shiki. The ANSI Z39.11-1972 standard was consequently deprecated on October 6, 1994.

As of 1978, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and many other official organizations used Hepburn instead of Kunrei-shiki. In addition The Japan Times, the Japan Travel Bureau, and many other private organizations used Hepburn instead of Kunrei-shiki. The National Diet Library used Kunrei-shiki.

Although Hepburn is not a government standard, some government agencies mandate it. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires the use of Hepburn on passports, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport requires the use of Hepburn on transport signs, including road signs and railway station signs.

In many other areas where it lacks de jure status, Hepburn remains the de facto standard. Signs and notices in city offices and police stations, at shrines, temples and attractions also use it. English-language newspapers and media use the simplified form of Hepburn. Cities and prefectures use it in information for English-speaking residents and visitors, and English-language publications by the Japanese Foreign Ministry use simplified Hepburn too. Official tourism information put out by the government uses it, as do guidebooks, local and foreign, on Japan.

Many students of Japanese as a foreign language learn Hepburn.

Variants of Hepburn romanization

There are many variants of Hepburn romanization. The two most common styles are:

  • Traditional Hepburn, as defined in various editions of Hepburn's dictionary, with the third edition (1886) often considered authoritative (although changes in kana usage must be accounted for). This variant is characterized by the rendering of syllabic n as m before the consonants b, m and p, e.g. Shimbashi for 新橋.
  • Modified Hepburn (修正ヘボン式, Shūsei Hebon-shiki), also known as Revised Hepburn, in which (among other points) the rendering of syllabic n as m before certain consonants is no longer used, resulting in e.g. Shinbashi for 新橋. This style was introduced in the third edition of Kenkyūsha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (1954), adopted by the Library of Congress as one of its ALA-LC romanizations, and is the most common version of the system today.
  • In Japan itself, there are some variants officially mandated for various uses:

  • Railway Standard (鉄道掲示基準規程, Tetsudō Keiji Kijun Kitei), which follows the Hyōjun-shiki Rōmaji. All JR railways and other major railways use this type for station names.
  • Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Standard, which follows the modified Hepburn style. This is used for road signs.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs Passport Standard (外務省旅券規定, Gaimushō Ryoken Kitei), a permissive standard which explicitly allows the use of "non-Hepburn romaji" (非ヘボン式ローマ字, hi-Hebon-shiki rōmaji) in personal names, notably for passports. In particular, rendering the syllabic n as m before b, m, p, and romanizing long o as any of oh, oo or ou (e.g. any of Satoh, Satoo or Satou for 佐藤) is permitted.
  • Details of these variants can be found below.

    Obsolete variants

    The romanizations set out in the first and second versions of Hepburn's dictionary are primarily of historical interest. Notable differences from the third and later versions include:

    Second version

  • and were written as ye (e.g. Yedo)
  • and were written as dzu (e.g. kudzu, tsudzuku)
  • キャ, キョ, and キュ were written as kiya, kiyo and kiu
  • クヮ was written as kuwa
  • First version

    The following differences are in addition to those in the second version:

  • was written as sz
  • was written as tsz
  • and were written as du
  • クヮ was written as kuwa
  • Features of Hepburn romanization

    The main feature of Hepburn is that its orthography is based on English phonology. More technically, where syllables constructed systematically according to the Japanese syllabary contain the "unstable" consonant for the modern spoken language, the orthography is changed to something that, as an English speaker would pronounce it, better matches the real sound, for example is written shi not si.

    Some linguists such as Harold E. Palmer, Daniel Jones and Otto Jespersen object to Hepburn, as the pronunciation-based spellings can obscure the systematic origins of Japanese phonetic structures, inflections, and conjugations. Supporters argue that Hepburn is not intended as a linguistic tool.

    Long vowels

    The long vowels are generally indicated by macrons ( ¯ ). Since this diacritical sign is usually missing on typewriter and computer keyboards, the circumflex ( ˆ ) is often used in its place.

    The combinations of vowels are written as follows in traditional/modified Hepburn:

    A + A

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination of a + a is written aa if a word-border exists between them.
  • 邪悪(じゃあく): ji + ya + a + ku = jaaku – evil
  • In traditional Hepburn:

    The long vowel a is written aa
  • お婆さん(おばあさん): o + ba + a + sa + n = obaa-san – grandmother
  • In modified Hepburn:

    The long vowel a is indicated by a macron:
  • お婆さん(おばあさん): o + ba + a + sa + n = obāsan – grandmother
  • I + I

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination i + i is always written ii.
  • お兄さん(おにいさん): o + ni + i + sa + n = oniisan – older brother
  • お爺さん(おじいさん): o + ji + i + sa + n = ojiisan – grandfather
  • 美味しい(おいしい): o + i + shi + i = oishii – delicious
  • 新潟(にいがた): ni + i + ga + ta = Niigata
  • 灰色(はいいろ): ha + i + i + ro = haiiro – grey
  • U + U

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination u + u is written uu if a word-border exists between them or it is the end part of terminal form of a verb:
  • 食う(くう): ku + u = kuu – to eat
  • 縫う(ぬう): nu + u = nuu – to sew
  • 湖(みずうみ): mi + zu + u + mi = mizuumi - lake
  • The long vowel u is indicated by a macron:
  • 数学(すうがく): su + u + ga + ku = sūgaku – mathematics
  • 注意(ちゅうい): chu + u + i = chūi – attention
  • ぐうたら: gu + u + ta + ra = gūtara – loafer
  • 憂鬱(ゆううつ): yu + u + u + tsu = yūutsu - depression
  • E + E

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination e + e is written ee if a word-border exists between them:
  • 濡れ縁(ぬれえん): nu + re + e + n = nureen – open veranda
  • In traditional Hepburn:

    The long vowel e is written ee:
  • お姉さん(おねえさん): o + ne + e + sa + n = oneesan – older sister
  • In modified Hepburn:

    The long vowel e is indicated by a macron:
  • お姉さん(おねえさん): o + ne + e + sa + n = onēsan – older sister
  • O + O

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination o + o is written oo if a word-border exists between them:
  • 小躍り(こおどり): ko + o + do + ri = koodori – dance
  • The long vowel o is indicated by a macron:
  • 氷(こおり): ko + o + ri = kōri – ice
  • 遠回り(とおまわり): to + o + ma + wa + ri = tōmawari – roundabout route
  • 大阪(おおさか): o + o + sa + ka = Ōsaka – Osaka
  • O + U

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination o + u is written ou if a word-border exists between them or it is the end part of terminal form of a verb:
  • 追う(おう): o + u = ou – to chase
  • 迷う(まよう): ma + yo + u = mayou – to get lost
  • 子馬(こうま): ko + u + ma = kouma – foal
  • 仔牛(こうし): ko + u + shi = koushi – calf
  • The long vowel o is indicated by a macron:
  • 学校(がっこう): ga + (sokuon) + ko + u = gakkō – school
  • 東京(とうきょう): to + u + kyo + u = Tōkyō – Tokyo
  • 勉強(べんきょう): be + n + kyo + u = benkyō – study
  • 電報(でんぽう): de + n + po + u = dempō or denpō – telegraphy
  • 金曜日(きんようび): ki + n + yo + u + bi = kinyōbi or kin'yōbi – Friday
  • 格子(こうし): ko + u + shi = kōshi – lattice
  • E + I

    In traditional and modified:

    The combination e + i is written ei.
  • 学生(がくせい): ga + ku + se + i = gakusei – student
  • 経験(けいけん): ke + i + ke + n = keiken – experience
  • 制服(せいふく): se + i + fu + ku = seifuku – uniform
  • 姪(めい): me + i = mei – niece
  • 招いて(まねいて): ma + ne + i + te = maneite – call/invite and then
  • Other combination of vowels

    All remaining combinations of two different vowels are written separately:

  • 軽い(かるい): ka + ru + i = karui – light (for weight)
  • 鴬(うぐいす): u + gu + i + su = uguisu – bush warbler
  • 甥(おい): o + i = oi – nephew
  • Loanwords

    The long vowels within loanwords are indicated by macrons (ā, ī, ū, ē, ō) as follows:

  • セーラー: se + (chōonpu) + ra + (chōonpu) = sērā – sailor
  • パーティー: pa + (chōonpu) + ti + (chōonpu) = pātī – party
  • レーナ: re + (chōonpu) + na = Rēna – Lena
  • ヒーター: hi + (chōonpu) + ta + (chōonpu) = hītā – heater
  • タクシー: ta + ku + shi + (chōonpu) = takushī – taxi
  • スーパーマン: su + (chōonpu) + pa + (chōonpu) + ma + n = Sūpāman – Superman
  • Variations

    There are many variations on the Hepburn system for indicating the long vowels. For example, 東京(とうきょう) can be written as:

  • Tōkyō – indicated with macrons. This follows the rules of the traditional and modified Hepburn systems, and is considered to be standard.
  • Tokyo – not indicated at all. This is common for Japanese words that have been adopted into English. This is also the convention used in the de facto Hepburn used in signs and other English-language information around Japan, mentioned in the paragraph on legal status.
  • Tôkyô – indicated with circumflexes. Circumflexes are how long vowels are indicated by the alternative Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki romanizations. Circumflexes are often used when a word processor does not allow macrons.
  • Tohkyoh – indicated with an h (only applies after o). This is sometimes known as "passport Hepburn", as the Japanese Foreign Ministry has authorized (but not required) this usage in passports.
  • Toukyou – written using kana spelling: ō as ou or oo (depending on the kana) and ū as uu. This is sometimes called wāpuro style, as this is how text is entered into a Japanese word processor using a keyboard with Roman characters. This method most accurately represents the way that vowels are written in kana, differentiating between おう (as in とうきょう(東京), written Toukyou in this system) and おお (as in とおい(遠い), written tooi in this system).
  • However, using this method, the pronunciation of ou becomes ambiguous; it could either be a long o or two different vowels, o and u. See Wāpuro rōmaji#Phonetic accuracy for details.
  • Tookyoo – written by doubling the long vowels. Some dictionaries such as Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese dictionary and Basic English writers' Japanese-English wordbook follow this style, and this is also used in the JSL form of romanization. This rule is also used when writing words without reference to any particular system.
  • Particles

    In traditional and modified:

  • When is used as a particle, it is written wa.
  • In traditional Hepburn:

  • When is used as a particle, Hepburn originally recommended ye. This spelling is obsolete, and it is commonly written as e (Romaji-Hirome-Kai, 1974).
  • When is used as a particle, it is written wo.
  • In modified Hepburn:

  • When is used as a particle, it is written e.
  • When is used as a particle, it is written o.
  • Syllabic n

    In traditional Hepburn:

    Syllabic n () is written as n before consonants, but as m before labial consonants, i.e. b, m, and p. It is sometimes written as n- (with a hyphen) before vowels and y (to avoid confusion between, for example, んあ n + a and na, and んや n + ya and にゃ nya), but its hyphen usage is not clear.
  • 案内(あんない): annai – guide
  • 群馬(ぐんま): Gumma – Gunma
  • 簡易(かんい): kan-i – simple
  • 信用(しんよう): shin-yō – trust
  • In modified Hepburn:

    The rendering m before labial consonants is not used, being replaced with n. It is written n' (with an apostrophe) before vowels and y.
  • 案内(あんない): annai – guide
  • 群馬(ぐんま): Gunma – Gunma
  • 簡易(かんい): kan'i – simple
  • 信用(しんよう): shin'yō – trust
  • Long consonants

    Elongated (or "geminate") consonant sounds are marked by doubling the consonant following a sokuon, ; for consonants that are digraphs in Hepburn (sh, ch, ts), only the first consonant of the set is doubled, except for ch which is replaced by tch.

  • 結果(けっか): kekka – result
  • さっさと: sassato – quickly
  • ずっと: zutto – all the time
  • 切符(きっぷ): kippu – ticket
  • 雑誌(ざっし): zasshi – magazine
  • 一緒(いっしょ): issho – together
  • こっち: kotchi (not kocchi) – this way
  • 抹茶(まっちゃ): matcha (not maccha) – matcha
  • 三つ(みっつ): mittsu – three
  • Hepburn romanization charts

  • Each entry contains hiragana, katakana, and Hepburn romanization, in that order.
  • † — The characters in red are rare historical characters and are obsolete in modern Japanese. In modern Hepburn romanization they are often undefined.
  • ‡ — The characters in blue are rarely used outside of their status as a particle in modern Japanese, and romanization follows the rules above.
  • For extended katakana

    These combinations are used mainly to represent the sounds in words in other languages.

    Digraphs with orange backgrounds are the general ones used for loanwords or foreign places or names, and the ones with blue backgrounds are used for more accurate transliterations of foreign sounds, both suggested by the Cabinet of Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Katakana combinations with beige backgrounds are suggested by the American National Standards Institute and the British Standards Institution as possible uses. Ones with purple backgrounds appear on the 1974 version of the Hyōjun-shiki formatting.

  • * — The use of ウゥ to represent wu is rare in modern Japanese outside of Internet slang and transcription of the Latin digraph VV into katakana.
  • ⁑ — has a rarely used hiragana form in that is also vu in the Hepburn romanization systems.
  • ⁂ — The characters in green are obsolete in modern Japanese and used very rarely.
  • References

    Hepburn romanization Wikipedia