Romanization or Why I hate X, Ys and Zs
I’m going to go ahead and start this off with two hypotheses: Blue is blue and green is green, and also, Japanese romanization is a linguistic orphan, whose only real strength is conciseness, and (to a lesser extent) interoperability.
So let’s talk about romanization first.
The Jesuits back in the 1600s, more specifically a Japanese Catholic priest or group of priests, were responsible for the first iteration of romanization, which was created for interoperability with their Western printing presses. They spread the word of God and his romanization of the Japanese language until Japan eventually closed itself off from foreign intervention. It wasn’t until a man named Hepburn popularized another romanization system in the late 1800s, which eventually came to be known as Hepburn romanization, that it came back into use. Now it’s unclear to me, just how the next series of events transpired, as I’m not a scholar studying romanization, but according to my digging, Hepburn popularized Japanese romanization proposed by the Society for the Romanization of the Japanese Alphabet (社団法人日本ローマ字会). Shortly thereafter, a Japanese physicist, Aikitsu Tanakadate, created his own variation of romanized script– Nihon-shiki (日本式ローマ字). His intention was to completely replace kana and kanji with the roman alphabet, in order to make Japan more competitive with the Western world. Had he succeeded, he would have at the very least heralded great change, for better or worse, to the Japanese language. After that, in the 1900s, the Japanese cabinet declared Kunrei-shiki (訓令式ローマ字) as the unified standard, which was based on Nihon-shiki, probably because it is more “regular” and thus more logical to the Japanese who are used to the logical progression of kana along phonetic lines and columns. While this is not something I’ve ever really understood very well, learning kana in phonetic groups can aid one when it comes time to conjugate verbs, apparently. Kunrei-shiki was abolished by the Allied occupational forces, and then later reinstated by the Japanese cabinet. A modernized version of the Hepburn system is used for the majority of official documents and public works (road signs, place names, etc.) in Japan today.
Now, on Twitter, @Tomoakiyama notes that Japanese psychologically assign the さしすせそ line of hiragana to sa-si-su-se-so and za-zi-zu-ze-zo respectively in romaji. This is an unfortunate consequence of bureaucracy. Japanese children learn Kunrei-shiki romanization in elementary school in order to write their names and practice the alphabet. However, when they graduate and go on to junior high school, they spend their first month in English classes trying to unlearn Kunrei-shiki so that they can write their names according to the Hepburn romanization that’s outlined in their junior high textbooks.
Kunrei-shiki “makes sense” to Japanese people in that it remains regular down the phoneme lines. The sa-si-su-se-so line is easy to write because all you have to do is change the vowel, however, unfortunately it isn’t very accurate. In my opinion, the ultimate goal of any system of romanization should be to map the roman alphabet to corresponding Japanese sounds in the way that allows a reader to render the sounds accurately. Thus, it makes sense that sa represents the sound さ in Japanese– it is the phonetic equivalent. Su, se, and so furthermore adhere to this rule. This happy go lucky world falls apart at the “siems” so to speak, as “si” doesn’t correspond to the Japanese sound for し, which is most certainly “shi”.
Now here’s where I’m going to lay a few things out.
First of all, the only reason “si” psychologically appeals to Japanese people is because they learn it first. If you taught your children at home than an apple was an orange, and vice versa, they’d be confused and upset to find out the opposite at school. Similarly, if you spent most of your early life memorizing kana from a chart that had the first kana in each line redacted or omitted, you’d find yourself crippled and confused when the time came to correct your mistake.
Second, teachers who teach romanization, and, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate too, that this includes most Japanese people in general, don’t understand the concept of phonics (in relation to say, Hangul or the Roman alphabet). In Japanese, kana represent one sound and one sound alone. In the cases where the spoken sound changes or diverges, so does the kana. In English, “ki” can be “ki as in kit” or “ki as in kite.” Letters are like tinker-toys. You put them together and you create a larger whole (say a robot) that dictates the way the different parts of the whole sound (suddenly, those connected bits become arms and legs, and are labeled and perceived differently than they were before the whole came into view), whereas Japanese kana are like predefined computer variables, no matter where they appear, they have the same value, always. This leads to the situation where teachers teach romanization from a chart. They tell their students, who are tiny and have absolutely no exposure to anything comparable, that “si” corresponds to し and that’s that. I think that most Japanese children internalize “si” as a unit, much like they do し in Japanese, and that if you were to ask them whether, say, two consonants sitting together, say, “sk” were a valid construction, they’d almost surely respond in the negative. (And they’d be correct, as far as the romanization of their own language is concerned.)
Really, the blame here lies upon the Japanese government’s wishy-washy policies regarding official romanization and in fact, highlights how apathetic Japanese people are about creating ONE MORE writing system for a language that already has two more than most.
Now that I’ve reached the end of this diatribe, I have one other thing to say, and that is that Japanese culture fosters a lot of memes that gain noteriety specifically because they are Japanese and supposedly indicative of Japanese philosophy, even though when you really sit down and think about it, they’re really more stupid than anything. Failure to come to terms with one, single, worthwhile way of romanizing the Japanese language is just one example of this fervent desire to do it the Japanese way, irrespective of practicality. Two other examples I can think of off the top of my head involve color: namely, the color of the sun and traffic lights.
Scientifically, the sun is closer to white than yellow, but when viewed through the atmosphere, the scattered wavelengths of light appear to be yellow– most of the time. As the sun sets, this scattering becomes more pronounced and the sun can take on a red, orange, or even purple hue as it sinks beneath the horizon and colors the surrounding sky. I’m not sure how I was first introduced to the color of the sun, but I surmise that I just looked up in the sky one day and make that deduction on my own. In Japan, however, children are told, over and over again, until it permeates their very being, that the sun is, in fact, red. Ask any Japanese person what color the sun is, and aside from a few scientists who know better, they will tell you that it’s red. This comes from the flag and traditional Japanese tradition. The Rising Sun, the symbol of the Japanese empire, is red, and thus, culturally, the sun is red. The same red they paint their postboxes with. In the same vein, green lights in Japan are blue. Japanese people will tell you that blue (青) can mean either green or blue, but while a green traffic light can be called blue, a blue sky can’t be referred to as being green (緑). There are a number of traffic lights, some blue and others green, that tell you to “GO.” There are some green and some blue lights in both Japan and America. I’ll even go as far as to say that colloquially, Americans might refer to the “go-light” as a “green light,” when discussing lights that tell you it is legal (and safe) to go. However, the color green does not and will not ever equal the color blue. If you were to show an American a Japanese traffic signal that had a blue (rather than green) signal in it and then ask them what color the light was, the American would tell you it was blue. Whereas, if you were to show a Japanese person an American traffic signal that had a typical green bulb in it and ask them what color the corresponding light was, the Japanese person would invariably tell you it was blue.
This allegiance to specific cultural memes in spite of the ultimate truth to the contrary being both easy to grasp and widely understood, is too responsible for the notion that [psychologically “si” is closer to し than “shi” is], even though the truth is simply that the government mandates that “si” is taught to kids before “shi” is taught to them and that their teachers, teachers who have been teaching “si” before “shi” for who knows how many years, don’t really understand the difference anyway, because, aside from romanization’s function in the modern QWERTY keyboard, its usefulness on road signs, it’s role in helping to compact J-E and E-J dictionaries, romaji as a replacement for kanji or kana in written documents is all but useless to both Japanese people and Japanese language learners alike.
Note: Tomo notes that you can type “zi” on a computer keyboard and get じ and while this is absolutely true, I think this is less about linguistics and more about the QWERTY keyboard and corresponding IME software being flexible enough to accommodate everyone, Kunrei and Hepburn enthusiasts alike.