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Romanization angst

If, like me, you are amused by attempts to render languages in the character sets of other languages, you might like this article!

To help spell road signs in Roman characters, the government uses a handbook issued by an affiliate of the transport ministry, the Japan Contractors Association of Traffic Signs and Lane Markings.

The handbook goes with the Hepburn rules, James Hepburn’s widely used system for Japanese-Roman character transcription.

The Hepburn system eschews the use of macrons when indicating long vowels, like that tricky “o” in “Muroji.” And it advocates that place names be spelled phonetically; the handbook uses the example of “Kyoto.”

Based on the handbook, Masayuki Matsuhira, the temple’s financial officer, says it is clear that the name should be spelled “Muroji.”

Not everyone is on the same page.

Akihiko Yonekawa, a Japanese language professor at Baika Women’s University, says that “Muroji” is not a proper phonetic spelling, so if that is the goal it should be spelled “Murooji.” According to the direct transcription of kana characters, it would be “Murouji,” but that does not comply with Hepburn’s principles. The professor notes that prohibiting macrons made the whole process more difficult.

West Japan Railway Co. agrees. Forgoing the Hepburn system, the railway firm uses macrons for names with long vowel sounds, like Kyoto.

Macrons were used in romanization for decades after World War II, but in 1986 the transport ministry prohibited them.

“We don’t know the details as to the change,” says a transport ministry official.

“But we presume that Roman characters with macrons were not used for many of the road signs in the past, and those officials in charge of the changes might have thought it would be difficult for foreigners to understand the Roman alphabet with added macrons, since there are no macrons in English.”

The textbooks I first studied used Yonekawa’s method, but then almost immediately switched to using Japanese characters so it didn’t really matter. Knowing what I know now about Japanese, I prefer to transcribe the sounds as they are represented in Japanese (rather than how they are pronounced), because that helps me remember how to “spell” them. (Sometimes there actually is a double お; a system that uses two ‘o’s for every long /o/ sound does not reflect this.)