Romaji is somewhat of a conversion from kanji and kana to the Roman alphabet.

What are the disadvantages of learning only or mostly romaji aside from being unable to read/write in kanji? I don't think there are many advantages.

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    It's called the "Roman alphabet". Both the English and Japanese names have their origin in Rome (ローマ). Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 22:52
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    for those of us who think that romaji (or the concept at least) is useless, take a look at how chinese children learn their kanji. Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 13:50
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    @Gerard: I do not think methods to learn Chinese are applicable to Japanese in any way. For a start, Japanese has a somewhat simple syllabary that can be used to spell any of its words and is only about 3-4 times bigger than the roman alphabet (not even taking in account the different scripts one need to learn in order to read roman letters).
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 0:26
  • @Dave: I think Gerard wasn't talking about westerners learning the Chinese language, but Chinese people learning the Japanese language. Chinese-jin versus Chinese-go, as it were.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 10:13
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    @Andrew: that's perfectly how I read it and understood it. And my comment still applies: regardless of whether you are native or not, learning basic Chinese hanzi poses a fundamental problem with how to memorise the readings, whereas Japanese specifically has its syllabary for that: kanas.
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 16:27

8 Answers 8


Your question body contradicts the title, so I'll answer both questions:

Advantages of rōmaji (I never thought I'd say this!):

  • No need to learn new characters
  • Can be "read" by most people, even if not understood. Although anybody who doesn't know Japanese will get even the pronunciation wrong.

Disadvantages of rōmaji:

  • Complete inability to read and write in Japanese. I can't just "set this aside". If you're learning a language, you will most likely want to/need to be able to read and write it as well. Japanese people write in Japanese, and by extension anybody who wants to learn Japanese beyond tourist-level "Which way to the airport?" or a few anime catchphrases will need to learn to read and write in Japanese.
  • Kana make the way Japanese is broken into syllables much more obvious.
  • Due to the number of homophones, telling words apart is difficult (this applies to kana-only text as well)
  • Learning kanji enables you to understand where words come from. A lot of words in Japanese are compound words formed from multiple kanji. If you know the kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of the word and its reading - even if you've never seen it before!
  • Perfect sum-up! (and in case that needed pointing out: I think it's clear the disadvantages outweigh the advantages by a good margin ;-)
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 0:13
  • You have a bias. What do you mean by "can be read by most people"? Are you mentioning the fact that the population of the world who can pronounce from a roman alphabet is more than half of the world population? But that seems to be irrelevant here. If you consider the pupulation who are using Japanese, I am sure that more people can read hiragana, katakana and kanji than can do roman alphabets.
    – user458
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 4:17
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    @sawa: Did you see how I put "read" in quotes? If we take a person who doesn't know Japanese at all, they will be able to understand latin letters more than real Japanese writing. They won't be able to understand the meaning, but they'll be able to recognize and reproduce the text, and perhaps even make an attempt at pronunciation. That's why romanization can be useful for names and whatnot, although the meaning will the opaque if you don't know Japanese. Also, most Japanese people can also read romanized Japanese. Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 17:19
  • 1. Do you have a basis for claiming that a person who doesn't know Japanese at all will be able to understand a latin alphabet more? 2. What about a person who knows Japanese? What is the basis for claiming that they know latin alphabet more than Japanese? And I know of no Japanese who can read romanized Japanese better than reading Japanese.
    – user458
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 17:55
  • @sawa 1. Isn't it pretty obvious that letters you can recognize will be more understandable and memorable (even if opaque), when compared to letters or symbols you don't even recognize? 2. I never said better, please don't put words in my mouth. I'd bet that most Japanese people are able to read and understand romanized Japanese, if need be. Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 20:54

The real question is "Advantages/disadvantages for whom?".

For students of Japanese, Romaji is really useful when they start out, because they don't have to learn anything to be able to read it (although without learning Kana, they'll probably end up reading it incorrectly, especially if they're native English speakers :(). Another advantage is that Romaji text (unlike normal Japanese text) has spaces, which can really help the beginning student recognize word boundaries. Another minor advantage is that Romaji (especially Nihon-shiki or Kunrei-shiki, which is not so common in western Japanese teaching materials nowadays) sometimes makes it somewhat easier to catch verb conjugations where the stem-final consonant remains the same but the vowel changes (e.g. wakaru -> wakaranai).

These advantages make usage of Romaji acceptable for beginners, but there are disadvantages that make it a terrible burden for students who want to progress beyond that level. Most of them have already been described by Matti, so I wouldn't repeat them.

Japanese speakers are the second audience for Romaji usage, and they are often ignored in such debates. Most of the advantages and disadvatages for learners of Japanese don't apply to them, since they can already perfectly read and write kanji and kana. The reasons they would choose to use Romaji (as they, indeed, do quite often) is different:

  • Writing in Japanese when when using mediums that don't support Japanese text (such as computer software that has no Japanese support).

  • For typographic effect. This use of Romaji is incredibly common in advertisements and in logos.

  • For typing Japanese on the computer. Japanese keyboards have kana, and you can certainly set it to kana-mode use the kana keys for input, but from my experience, most Japanese actually prefer to input Japanese in Romaji-mode instead.

  • Just a small comment to your sub-item on Japanese speakers' use in typing: while it is true that people generally prefer to use romaji-input IME, when it comes to cellphones, the preference goes strongly toward 9-key kana input (I've seen people fiddling around forever to enable 9-key input on iPhone because they didn't want to use the romaji input).
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 5:43
  • @Dave that's probably because it's way easier to make a mistake on a touchscreen device while typing and also quite a struggle to correct, hence, nice big 9-key inputs are preferred? also that layout is pretty intuitive. that's the plus to having only 5 vowels, and 5 directions (counting dead center as a direction)
    – psosuna
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:26

By transcribing everything into latin alphabet (heck, even to hiragana/katakana syllables), written Japanese will lose most of the legibility than if it were to be written in full kanji+kana. It may be hard to describe, but let me give you a nonsense english sentence:

Wheel you go two the par tea two knight at ate? Eye think it's awed they are having it so far aweigh. Eye wont to reed this book, have you red it? Herald was in this mourning's gnus. Eye bet heal be surprised to here that.

The above is what Matti was saying in his third point about homophones/homonyms.

Not only that, by not using kanji, you lose the ability to instantly make out what is being said in a text, something that is very essential in speed reading (which is also why I have a hard time playing those FamiCom games; they lack kanji for the most part).


I've softened significantly from my beginner-level "all romaji should be purged from the earth" fanaticism. There are two related questions here, "Should I avoid a roomaji-based textbook like the plague?" and "Can I get away with learning Japanese without studying kanji?"

The TLDR version is "No" and "Yes, but you obviously will be illiterate".

"Should I avoid a roomaji-based textbook like the plague?" - No, roomaji does have some significant advantages in some contexts

  • If you use a computer, you're going to use it anyway. Not a single one of my Japanese coworkers types on the computer using kana keys. You type in roomaji and let the IME figure out the kanji/kana. Welcome to the future.
  • For those who are primarily focused on grammar, pronunciation and not really intending to learn the writing system, it provides a mechanism for them to look up and write down words (and ask questions on JL&U). Spaces look strange in kana, but workable in roomaji.
  • For absolute beginners, it allows them to actually look up a word you wrote to them
  • Since you asked about 'advantages in learning roomaji'... well... you don't learn them. As long as you pick an intelligent roomaji system (ie, not Hepburn), you can focus exclusively on pronunciation, and don't need to study the written language simply to read vocabulary words.**
  • If you use a roomaji-using language program, you can try one of the "full set" kanji studying methods simultaneously with studying Japanese structure without interference. Heisig is fairly adamant that you should learn ALL of the kanji in his book before studying onyomi, kunyomi or compounds. Using a roomaji based text would allow you to study the language while following his method.
  • To be bluntly honest, every textbook I've seen that has tried to mix studying grammar and kanji at the same time simply fails to do so. As a result, most texts do their actual coverage with a set of 1st-3rd grade kanji and the kana set, and then give you a dozen or so kanji to brute-force memorize (full readings, writing, and 3 token compounds) per chapter. Pedagogically, this is awful. If you're going to study both, and I recommend it, you're going to need to make your own curriculum anyways, so you might as well not skip out on roomaji-based resources that could be useful.
  • Many of the best Japanese resources in the world work with roomaji. GG4th (not sure about 5th) comes in a roomaji version, as does the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

"Can I get away with learning Japanese without studying kanji?" - Sorta... but here's where you'll face issues

  • Related to my last advantage. There are quite a few resources (reference works) that are only available with heavy doses of kanji. I don't know of a roomaji-version of a kokugo dictionary.
  • Again related to reading materials. If you skip studying kanji entirely, you don't get a chance to read manga, political fliers (more fun than it sounds), novels or Japanese newspapers.
  • There are occasional meaning-connections (and particularly bad puns) that only make sense with exposure to the kanji underlying a particular word.
  • "Learning kanji enables you to understand where words come {from}. A lot of words in Japanese are compound words formed from multiple kanji. If you know the kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of the word and its reading - even if you've never seen it before!" - stolen blatantly from Matti
  • "Due to the number of homophones, telling words apart is difficult (this applies to kana-only text as well)" - also stolen from Matti. But this isn't too much of a serious concern if you're explicitly not that interested in reading/writing.

** Some have claimed that using roomaji somehow retards development of proper pronunciation. This is simply false, and I have to question if those adhering to this idea have ever studied a western language. Does "ll" or "j" in Spanish cause anyone any trouble after the first 2 weeks?

  • Regarding the comment about pronunciation - For individual words it doesn't matter, but imageine reading out an entire sentence written in romaji as a beginner. You may hit each word properly, but your overall sentence rhythm will be off. When you use the syllabary, each symbol is one syllable and you can read it similar to how you read musical notes.
    – Brandin
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:31
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    No, you can't. The tones that are part of Japanese pronunciation are not marked in any way in kana/kanji. The rhythm of Japanese does need to be practiced, but this is completely unrelated to the writing system used.
    – jkerian
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 4:12
  • Maybe a better analogy would be musical lyrics, where words are broken up into syllables. This is what romaji cannot give you but kana does naturally. Anyway, you may be able to do fine with just romaji, but really there's no compelling reason not to use kana. As a learner beyond the first month you obviously should just use kana. Romaji is a special purpose text like for name cards, signs, internet addresses, etc.
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 6:32

I personally think there are no advantages to using romaji whatsoever. I think it's just a crutch beginners use to not have to memorize them, but it should be something you embrace. Hiragana and Katakana do not take that long to learn (assuming you have the motivation). Once you can read and write them well, it's almost hard to go back to reading/writing romaji. From there, you go on to kanji. It's also difficult to go back to using pure kana once you're comfortable with kanji.


I think learners should try to spend 99% of their time using the Japanese writing system and not romanization:

  1. Reading is a highly overlearned skill, and it takes absolutely huge amounts of practice to become literate in the Japanese writing system. Since learners have limited amounts of time, it's to their advantage to start using kana and kanji as early as possible.

  2. The flip side of point 1 is that if you practice reading romanized Japanese, you'll get better at it. That might not sound like a disadvantage, but it is! When rōmaji seems easier than kana and kanji, some students develop bad habits like mentally converting, or even converting on paper! And this can be a major problem for some students who never manage to move beyond rōmaji.

  3. There usually isn't a one-to-one correspondence between the two. Very rarely is romanization a transliteration of kana and kanji as you claim; instead, most systems of romanization are designed as transcriptions of speech. Generally speaking that's helpful, but it unfortunately means you'll have to relearn the spelling of a number of words when you switch, and relearning has a high cost.

    For example, in one common system 王(おう) is ō while 追う is ou. On the one hand it's helpful because unlike kana it represents pronunciation, but on the other hand it forces you to relearn down the road, which is unfortunate.

So I definitely would not recommend romanization for learners in general.


There are advantages to romanizing! And as long as you spend 99% of your time using kana and kanji, it shouldn't hurt to romanize when it's to your advantage to do so. Most of these advantages are related to pronunciation or to being able to divide kana into CV pairs:

  1. The biggest advantage is that it's much easier to discuss morphology using rōmaji. Why? Well, see this post by Alexander Vovin for some discussion of how morpheme boundaries don't always line up with syllable boundaries. Kana forces you to segment things in an artificial manner that doesn't quite match the Japanese language itself―note that most Japanese verb stems actually end on consonants and not vowels!

  2. Phonemic romanization is very helpful for discussing phonology without worrying about kana boundaries. For example, we could talk about the historic /au/ → /oo/ sound change in 書かう→書こう, or we could talk about /ai/ → /ee/ in じゃない→じゃねえ, or the assimilation of /rn/ -> /ɴn/ in 分からない→分かんない, and so on.

  3. It can also be useful to romanize older forms of the language, as in the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese (OCOJ). Kana were not always pronounced the way they are now, and romanizing can prevent the reader from making certain false assumptions about sound-character correspondences.

  4. Romanization is also helpful for communicating with linguists or others who are unfamiliar with the language and can't read kana or kanji themselves.

You've probably noticed these are all related to linguistics, and I don't think that they're things beginners need to worry about. Personally, I'd say you should learn to read kana and kanji first. Worry about this stuff down the road, after you're already comfortable reading Japanese as it's normally written.


The disadvantages are all in the corner cases. Some romanizations represent づ and ぢ as "zu" and "ji" respectively, which is less than perfectly accurate since those are also used to represent ず and じ (I represent them as "dzu" and "dji" myself, but one can't force others to do so). And that's not even touching upon the issues with katakana and strange combinations such as ウィ and the like.

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    This would be a disadvantage of particular romaji systems (notably Hepburn), not necessarily of a better system like kunrei.
    – jkerian
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 21:09
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    @jkerian: and you inadvertently name another major disadvantage of Romaji: there is no single agreed-upon standard. What people call "romaji" is at least 3 or 4 completely different systems used by different groups.
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 0:23

One disadvantage of romaji is that some textbooks will say write せんせい as sensee as opposed to sensei. If you learn the former, then when you go to learn actual kana, you'll get all confused. For instance, is it romaji? roomaji? or roumaji?

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