Previously we looked at the Japanese syllabaries hiragana and katakana. The Japanese language is also represented in Latin script and this is referred to as romaji (literally "Rome letters"). Thus the sentence: 私はアメリカ人です is transcribed in romaji as "watashi wa amerika jin desu - I am American."
Romaji, and by extension English, is all around you in Japan, used in road signs, station names, advertising, magazine titles, company names, shop fronts and of course, on those wacky "Engrish" T-shirts.
The Hepburn romanization system dating from the late nineteenth century is still the most widely used method of transcription of Japanese into the Latin alphabet. At elementary school Japanese children are taught to read and write romanized Japanese and romaji is widely used to imput Japanese text into computers, electronic dictionaries and mobile phones.
Some romanization can, however, be puzzling to the Western reader. For example, the sound sho, or jo, is sometimes alternatively written syo or jyo, but the pronunciation is exactly the same. Also, sometimes the tsu sound is written tu - but pronounced tsu.
The romanization of Japanese began in the 16th century with the arrival of the first Portuguese traders and priests. However, as Japan reduced contact with the West during the Edo Period, romaji fell out of use and it wasn't until the late 19th century and further Western intrusion and influence, that there was a need to transcribe Japanese into the main Western alphabet. Some Meiji-era reformers such as Japan's first minister of education, Mori Arinori, in their enthusiasm for all things Western and "modern", wanted to scrap Chinese characters and kana scripts altogether and replace them with romaji.
This idea that romaji and foreign languages are somehow modern and cool continues today. Thus shops and businesses use romaji, loanwords and English to grab attention, often with mixed results.
Last week's Japanese lesson: onomatopoeia
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Thursday, March 20, 2008