Romaji and why it sucks
If you’re not familiar with the term, “romaji” (ローマ字) is the use of roman letters to write the Japanese language. Roman letters are used in English as well as other languages like Spanish. There are essentially three main systems of romanisation: the hepburn system, nihon-shiki, and kunrei shiki. Then, of course, we have the non-conformist usage. Each system represents the Japanese language in various ways, to their merit and downfall. However, there are so many problems with using romanisation to read and write Japanese that I don’t even really know where to start.
My major complaint with romanisation is the language barrier it establishes. It encourages Japanese learners to be lazy and illiterate. While you can certainly get away with this if you are just speaking Japanese, you most certainly won’t be able to read anything in Japan. Newspapers will look like complete garbage. You won’t be able to order anything off the menu at a restaurant. You will find yourself lost everywhere you are going because you won’t be able to read signs (that is, unless you ask somebody where to go, but even then that doesn’t help much). It’s an insult to your intelligence that you didn’t spend the appropriate time to learn the language and it’s embarrassing to have tell everybody that you can’t read actual Japanese and can only read romanisation.
Although in my Hiragana Guide I included romanisation for helping people associate a sort of sound with it, I gave audio pronunciation as well. And I only did this with the individual characters, not actual words. Leaving people with just romanisation alone is where the problem lies, because you can’t get the real Japanese pronunciation from it. You will associate English language sounds with them instead. I knew somebody in person, who, for a long time, kept saying “いい” for the word “ええ” because the romanisation given was “ee.” It simply doesn’t work.
The writing systems are not compatible in the sense that romanisation doesn’t represent Japanese’s syllabic nature in a few ways. Let’s look at the word “山陽,” a district in Japan. In romanisation, this could be represented as “sanyou.” The problem then becomes, to those who don’t know the word, “Is it read as さんよう, or is it さにょう?” Unless you mark where the “n” goes with an apostrophe (san’you in this case), it becomes ambiguous in pronunciation. To top that off, it can also be seen as “sanyo” or “sanyoo,” which can drop the long vowel or mislead somebody into saying it as “さんよ / さにょ,” or “さんゆう” as a double “oo” for English words frequently sounds that way. This is how romanization completely destroys the syllabic aspect and pronunciation of Japanese.
Another issue is the vast amount of homophones that Japanese has, which are only distinguishable through pitch accent in spoken language and context clues. There is no way to tell what pitch is being used in romanisation (or at least none has been devised thus far), and if the word appears on its own (say, if somebody put romanisation on a sign), it’d be impossible to know what it meant! Kanji tells the reader what the meaning is of the word if it has multiple homophones. For example, typing だん into your IME will bring up tons of results for different words! With Kanji, we can write 団 to mean “a group,” 段 to mean a “step” or a “flight,” or 男 to mean “a man.” All three of those words are pronounced “だん.” Without Kanji, it would be impossible to know which was intended.
Now don’t get me wrong, romanisation also has its uses. There are people who are just visiting Japan and don’t have any time to learn how to read and write the language. These people just need to learn the spoken language to get by for a brief period of time, and that’s okay. There’s also the case of representing Japanese words for English written articles, such as place names, people names, or a sort of Japanese product (like sushi). But if you’re moving to Japan for an extended time or have a deep interest in learning the language, romanisation is practically useless.
The only reason why I learned romanisation was to be able to type in Japanese with an IME (input method editor). It essentially takes the romanized Japanese you typed and converts it to the written Japanese equivalent. Even so, you can set it to map the Japanese syllabary to your keyboard and type Japanese that way, and in that respect you don’t even need romanisation at all.
Don’t let romanisation hinder your language learning ability. Start by learning to read hiragana and katakana, which you can do in as little as two weeks! And gradually, you’ll learn Kanji too. The Japanese people can read more than 2,000 of these Kanji and they do it every day. Their children spend a large chunk of time in school learning these characters as well. If children can do it, so can you! You really can’t represent the language without their writing systems, so do yourself a favor and dive into real Japanese - you won’t regret it!
If you’re wondering what the image at the top is all about, it says “どこへ行ったか？！俺の鼻は？！” which translates to “My nose, where did it go?!” Although, since it was given in romanisation, it could have said “どこへ入ったか？！俺の花は？！” which would translate to “Where did it go in, my flower?!” It’s a terrible joke, I know. You can yell at me all you want. I deserve it. ;~;
Actually, other languages do just fine. It’s all about context.
Note that “read” is spelled the same way, but you had no trouble discerning the proper pronunciation. Languages that “over simplify” this sort of thing have been doing just fine for ages. Besides, it isn’t always about laziness. Languages are fluid and ever-evolving facets of daily life. When people are too rigid about this sort of stuff, it hinders the natural flow of the evolution of the language in question.
Where is my mind. Here, I will just refer everyone to the always magnificent Stephen Fry who put it quite clearly.