In my inbox

I got the following email the other day. I thought it was interesting for a number of reasons and instead of replying, decided to share here instead.


You make a good grammar guide, but sadly few people will ever use it. It is foolish not to put the guide in romaji and have it help people that are tourists or beginners in Japanese. Japanese has all over 200 kana, with all the variations. A better approach is to have both the romaji and kana.

Not using romaji, which appears partially due to people being infected with Jim Breen’s madness, is doing more to hinder Japanese instruction than to help it. When a casual user needs to look up a word in Japanese or understand some pointers for speaking Japanese, hitting them over the head with kana and kanji is absurd. Even Google translate has a romanization option. Everybody looking to learn Japanese is not a full time student and many want to speak it and not learn kanji or kana. Furthermore, many Japanese know how to use romaji, because that is how they input Japanese on their keyboard or phones (before it is converted to kana or kanji).

I’m just letting you know, that not everybody agrees with Jim Breen’s ridiculous, elitist, and pompous anti-romaji crusade.

Feel free to discuss in the comments.

106 thoughts on “In my inbox

  1. I have to say that I disagree. Necessity is a good way to teach. If they can’t read, then they will learn how to. If they don’t want to, then they aren’t serious about studying. That’s how I learned kana a few years back.

  2. I like AJATT’s stance that it’s not a second language problem but an adult literacy problem.

    I don’t know if I could proudly going around exclaiming that I don’t want or need to read or write.

    I also think the kana could probably be knocked out in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure why you would need a grammar guide if you didn’t want to study even that much. If you just want more convenience during travel you should pick up a phrase book.

  3. I disagree.

    Even if you wanted to do romaji, which style would you adopt? There are at least two major schools of romaji stylization. And honestly, it’s not that difficult to learn kana. It’s like another alphabet, and if you REALLY have to look up something in Japanese chances are you’ve encountered kana at one point. Just take the time to learn it. Why stick to romaji when Japanese people don’t even use it?

    The current grammar guide is just fine. It’s aimed at STUDENTS of Japanese, not tourists. And in that respect, the guide is great as it takes the student off of romaji (and rightfully so).

  4. Agreed, with the other two commenters. It’s not like your grammar guide is the only one around, but since its angle is to teach Japanese as the Japanese learn it, with all the familiarity with the kana and grammar systems that this implies, then I don’t see why romaji should encroach upon this.

  5. An interesting problem, but not one I’d ever really thought about before. Besides basic travel conversation there aren’t that many reasons why someone with no knowledge of kana will need to know much about Japanese, let alone the specifics of Japanese grammar. If it’s a query from within the field of linguistics, there surely must be other places to find answers – writing all Japanese grammar in romaji is just a waste of space for most of the people reading it. For anyone who’s ever tried to read a book like Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia, or any of Kodansha’s other similar books which entirely do away with kana in favour of romaji will know that it’s not helpful at all for your language understanding to have everything written in romaji.

  6. If you can’t be bothered to learn kana, you probably lack the determination to to learn this language.

    Also, I seriously doubt Tae Kim’s guide was written for “tourists”. “Beginners in Japanese”? Absolutely. But the guide filters out the people who would never get far anyway, and that’s great.

  7. This is just stupid. The author of that message clearly doesn’t understand the target audience of the guide. It’s like he wants a culinary school to stop teaching how to make gourmet meals and start teaching how to microwave TV dinners, or at least add that to the curriculum.

  8. I agree with what previous commenters have written. 🙂
    If you are a tourist, you won’t look up whole grammar parts for your two-week trip, you’ll likely just buy a phrase book (Lonely Planet has a good one 😉 ). If you really want to learn Japanese, even if you’re just a beginner, you won’t get around actually learning the Kana alphabets if you really want to achieve something.
    I heard that at universities in Germany, students of the Japanese language are expected to learn the whole Kana alphabets within two or three days. It took me about a week or so, but I did it in my free time and not as a part of a regular Japanese course. At an evening school course that I attended a while later, it took the teacher several weeks to have the students learn all Kanji, but there was a huge age difference between the students and the course was only once a week. So all in all, it’s not that much of a deal to learn the Kana alphabets, especially compared to all the grammar rules and especially compared to all the Kanji. 😉

  9. Can someone here give some links or references to “Jim Breen’s ridiculous, elitist, and pompous anti-romaji crusade”? I had no idea he was so seriously against romaji. Or is the writer just exaggerating maybe. The WWWJDIC *does* have a romaji option after all.

    • Considering he said “You make a good grammar guide, but sadly few people will ever use it.”, I’m voting for exaggeration. I’m sure the only reason the writer knows about the guide in the first place is because of how popular it is.

  10. If a tourist doesn’t want to bother with at least kana, then I guess they should stick with a phrasebook and not attempt to creatively use some grammar they just looked up. It’s most probably going to end up wrong anyway :-).

  11. Well I can see both sides of the argument. I’ve been studying now for about six months after marrying a Japanese woman.

    Basically for me I need to learn some vocab fast so I can talk to her parents and other family members who don’t speak any English. For that Romanji is getting me up to speed. I’ve been using Berlitz “Essential Japanese” to get me speaking.

    I doubt very much if I will need to read Japanese however I am learning. I’ve memorised and can read the kana and I am now learning some kanji with the help of my “Japanese for Everyone” textbook and Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji.”

    So I can see both sides to this debate. If you just want to speak the language well and communicate with Japanese people verbally then Romanji is fine in my opinion and you shouldn’t be stigmatised for not knowing the written language.

    And though I don’t know about Jim Bream there is a elitist feel to some Japanese forums I have joined from those who can read/write Japanese and those who just want to speak it well and have no interest in reading – like Xone posted here say that students aren’t serious in learning the language or lack the determination unless they learn to read it. That get’s me mad. You can be very serious in learning to speak good Japanese without wanting to read it.

    And one final point: My wife qualified in Japan as a Japanese teacher to students of other languages and even she, in her professional opinion, says I don’t need to read as I’ll never need it, I just need to become fluent in speaking so she doesn’t have to keep acting as translator:) So you can do one without the other.

    • This is a genuine question not sarcasm. I’m curious about how you would go about learning how to speak a language without learning how to read/write the alphabet. How do you use dictionaries to study on your own?

      • Well as for me I’m using a good Romanji dictionary along side a furigana dictionary as I’ve learnt the kana but I feel the latter unnecessary if all you want to do is speak.

        Then of course there is my wife who I talk to constantly in Japanese unless there is a phrase or word I don’t know (in which case I ask her) and I also ask her about basic grammer points and she corrects my mistakes which is usually because I’ve used the wrong particle.

        We also have Japanese TV channels via satelitte which we watch more then the English channels, and I only listen to Japanese on my mp3 player.

        And finally there are my in-laws who we speak to (or at least I try) every week via Skype. So I suppose I’m learning like the migrant workers in Japan learn by totally immersing myself in the spoken word. In my wife’s home town there are many South American migrants who work in the factories. Despite some of them having lived in Japan for as many as 10 or 20 years, many cannot read/write Japanese but they can talk as well as a native.

        By the way I also use your grammer guide which I find very useful.

        • I’m sure you can learn spoken Japanese without learning the written language, but I feel like you’re severely handicapping yourself. Learning the kana/kanji takes some time, but it pays out big dividends. Any time you learn a language, reading, writing, speaking, and listening all complement each other. Sure, you can develop one without the others, but it’s like exercising one specific muscle group of your body without paying any attention to the others.

          • I completely agree, Blue Shoe. I had been studying Japanese for about a year before even trying to learn kanji. Before, all words were just arbitrary collections of noises. Now that I look up the kanji to every new word I learn (that is simply look up, not actively study), they’re easy to remember. For example, 意味 (imi)、注意 (chuui),意見 (iken)、見学(kengaku), are now all connected in my mind and make them that much easier to memorize due to being able to recognize their shared kanji.

            Andrew, it sounds like your way works for you, and that’s great, but you have to admit your advantage is pretty unique. Most foreign Japanese learners aren’t married to a Japanese person. Without someone to always have around to read signs, menus, and help communicate with Japanese people in a non-verbal way, not knowing Kanji is a huge problem.

      • Some friends learning Japanese are using romaji dictionaries on their mobile phones. (Japanese font support on mobiles in Europe is limited to iPhones I think!)

        Also some people I met are only learning Japanese in a social environment and are using Japanese people as their dictionary.

        But I doubt these type of people would read a grammar guide!

        • Oh I agree and I am learning to read Japanese starting with the kana. My only problem is that my wife wants me to start speaking ASAP so she doesn’t have to act as translator when I talk to her family :)) She’s even said “don’t bother reading, you’ll never need it, just learn to say stuff!”

          For myself I’m finding romanji a quicker method as my reading of hiragana is quite slow – though getting quicker. The Japanese for Everyone textbook is also quite deep and it takes me about a week or two to digest one chapter. I’ve tried Japanese for Busy People (kana edition) but it didn’t gell with me. hence the Berlitz Essential Japanese to get me speaking fast while I work on the main JfE text.

  12. If you want to know Japanese, then learning kana (and kanji) is practically a must.
    That’s a good way to distinguish wannabes and people who are just all talk.

  13. there are plenty of web site out there trying to teach Japanese but still using romaji. I’m not saying learning Japanese without romaji is necessarily a bad thing. Some people just want to learn a few words to impress there Japanese business partner they don’t really need the to learn the kana. But let face it, they don’t need to learn proper grammar so maybe this site is not for them. They should just buy a “learn Japanese in only 20 short lessons” book. on another hand if you are a serious Japanese student you will have to learn to read it. now lets say you just learned all the 48 hiragana and you know the rules to how to modify the reading, it doesn’t mean you can read them just as fast as English. you still need to practice them every day and how are you gonna do it if everytime you see a kana you have the romaji version right below? do you always ask to see the answers sheet before doing a practice exam?

  14. Language learning and romanization (not just japanese) are not compatible in my opinion. You grammar guide is like it must be, 0% romaji, that’s why is good. Thanks for it.

    And the person who sent you that email is an asshole.

  15. Not learning hiragana, and katakana early on just causes problems.It’s not like it takes that long to learn how to read them anyway.
    Besides, if somebody doesn’t want to learn their kana, they can go, and use something else. What they don’t realize is the fact that not having romaji in the grammar guide is one of it’s strongest assets.

  16. I don’t know who Jim Breen is, but most of the commenters on this thread sure sound a lot like the elitist cartoon sketched by the original emailer…

  17. What an idiot. If you can’t commit the small amount of time it takes to learn to read the Japanese alphabet, why bother mounting an attempt to learn the language at all?

    Just my reply to this casual user:

    >>Not using romaji, which appears partially due to people being infected with Jim Breen’s madness, is doing more to hinder Japanese instruction than to help it.

    In both my and others’ experience studying languages that do not use the roman alphabet, it is considered not only ‘a good idea’, but highly recommended and even vital to learn their system of writing. Children learn ABCs at the beginning of their language acquisition, and so will you. Especially in a language using complex characters like the Japanese kanji, it’s necessary to be able to read to properly understand. And if you can’t take the time to learn something as simple and as basic as kana, you need to give up on ever learning Japanese NOW. Because it only gets harder.

    >> Even Google translate has a romanization option.

    Google Translator is not for people studying Japanese. It’s for people that have absolutely no knowledge of it.

    >>Everybody looking to learn Japanese is not a full time student and many want to speak it and not learn kanji or kana.

    Let someone set the record straight in saying that it is not just grossly unrecommended but nigh near IMPOSSIBLE to “just speak” Japanese. In a language using only five vowels there are so many homophones it’s ridiculous and to even conceive the hope of gaining a level of fluency capable of communication without learning kana or even the basic kanji is insulting to those devoting their time to seriously learn the language.

    >>Furthermore, many Japanese know how to use romaji, because that is how they input Japanese on their keyboard or phones (before it is converted to kana or kanji)

    Uhm.. I’m not sure how many Japanese phones this person has been using, but I can guarantee that I have never see a Japanese phone with that input process. My own 携帯 -sorry, けいたい – oh sorry, keitai – uses the A, KA, SA method where you press TA for ta, press it again for chi, again for tsu, again for te, and again for to. If there is a romaji input method, I haven’t seen in on any of the myriad of keitai I’ve seen while living here.

    I myself use the romaji input method for my keyboard since I learned to type with the qwerty keyboard and think in roman-alphabet terms when spelling, even when spelling Japanese words. There IS a Japanese keyboard, however, and ALL of my Japanese friends use it. ALL of them. Perhaps there are those who use the romaji-input method, but I’ve never met them.

  18. I’m going to agree with the non-romaji stance. I was impatient at first but told outright to throw away romaji immediately. An hour a day of practice got me hiragana in a week, same again for katakana. Its not hard and really pushes the languages phonetical structures on you from the get go.

    For tourists on the other hand; trying to deal with grammar instead of set phrases over a short stay is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, Japan has an incredibly good phrasebook on the market. I talk of course not about the questionable and often erroneous copypasta Lonely Planet one but the ludicrously cutesy Japanese point-and-speak series which is specifically designed with funny pictures to engage the Japanese person you’re speaking to (but whilst extremely easy to get in country, is notoriously hard to acquire abroad).

  19. I learned hiragana and katakana about 20 years ago using Jim Heisig’s books. It took me one day each to master them. Similarly, when I studied Russian in college, the prof gave us but a single day to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Not that big a deal.

    As others have stated, anyone not willing to put in that minimal effort to learn the kana probably isn’t serious about learning Japanese anyway, so why bother abetting their laziness by giving them romaji?

  20. I disagree. Using romaji to teach Japanese is evil, and only leads to confusion and crap pronounciation down the road. Kana is the first thing every japanese language student needs to learn, even before tackling the most basic grammar.

  21. Why would you want to learn Japanese grammar if you can’t even read kana? It doesn’t make any sense. If you are willing to work hard and memorize the grammar, why won’t you work hard and learn the kana? And if you aren’t willing to learn the kana, then what about kanji?

    I think this is part of the “colloquial fetishism” madness of modern language education, emphasizing to the absurd the colloquial while ignoring and looking down on the written medium, which is after all the basic medium for most people to interact in most occasions with foreign languages and which is the basic medium of modern society to transmit information

  22. Romanji is such a inefficient way to writing the language, and to be quite frank, the Kana requires little effort to memorize. People just must first get over the stigma surrounding memorizing characters or “new alphabets”.

    • well, to be fair, kana is also a pretty inefficient way of writing the language. Reading and writing hiragana is becoming more a chore every day. ^^

      Video games aimed at wide audiences are especially bad about this. It seems like they switch to hiragana just to fill space sometimes.

  23. I would agree with the writer if I actually saw something difficult about learning kana, and if they actually knew how to put forward an argument.

  24. He MIGHT have a point for noobs. I think kana is easy to learn for most people, and the people reply to this are obviously biased. BUT I do believe that kana can be very intimidating and scary for someone with little-no experience with a language beyond english. That intimidation early on might turn them off the language. So I do think that perhaps for the 1st two lessons a romanji format might be helpful. That said, people scared away by the kana likely won’t get far anyways. But it is something to consider.

    • Do you know of personally know of anybody who were intimated by kana? If so, what do you think are some reasons why he/she would be intimidated?

      Maybe it would be more beneficial to dispel the preconceptions or misunderstandings that would cause one to be intimated by what most agree is fairly easy to learn?

      • In my opinion, I don’t think its intimidation but rather for some (a lot?) of self learners romanji offers instant gratification. When people start learning a language they want to be able to say things from day one, even little things like “good morning.” If you have a teacher or Japanese friends that’s not a problem but for those without they have to use books and learn vocab through reading.

        Spending even a week or so learning the kanas (btw its called a syllabary not alphabet) just to learn your few first words doesn’t offer the instant hit that romanji would.

        That’s why I like using the text book, “Japanese for Everyone.” Although it uses the kanas and introduces simple kanji from lesson one, for the first three chapters it also uses romanji alongside, giving people the instant hit while they learn the two syllabaries.

        • Using romaji in textbooks is why you have so many blockheaded gaijin fucks pronouncing things like doh-moe-airy-gattou-goh-zayy-mouse!! or however the hell they feel like pronouncing things on a certain day or such (Carry-ohh-key anyone?). Really, if people want to learn Japanese… learn the kana and learn proper pronunciation of the kana before you EVER learn Japanese words… it will help you a lot to avoid making a fool of yourselves and seeming like the “typical gaijin” parodied so often on Japanese television.

      • > Do you know of personally know of
        > anybody who were intimated by kana?

        Are you kidding? I’ve known people who were *terrified* of learning Greek, because it doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. Of course, after a few hours of class they find out the grammar is much *more* terrifying. After two or three semesters, they start to realize that the really HARD part of learning any phonetically-written language is keeping all the vocabulary straight. But at first? Yeah, people who have never learned a foreign writing system before are often intimidated by the prospect.

        This doesn’t mean they don’t need to learn it, though.

  25. I can understand why people may be intimidated by kanji at first (I know I was) and if you perhaps as a result of this approach kana with the same level of trepidation, I can understand perhaps why people may choose to put it off, especially when you read things like “Japanese has one of the most complicated writing systems in the world. In fact there are three different writing systems including over 2000 Chinese characters”. But, unlike kanji, I think it needs to be emphasised how easy it really is to learn kana.

    The accusations of elitism really made me bristle. If you only need to communicate survival Japanese verbally, you do not need this grammar guide. If you want to learn Japanese properly, you need to be able to read it. To perhaps turn the issue around, how do people feel about native speakers of Japanese attempting to learn English (or any other language) through katakana-only resources?

    • To answer that final question: The use of katakana-only resources for English, or even using these resources for their first year of English classes, is the number one reason that the English language instruction program in Japan is not a huge success (the second reason would be students indifference towards the language, which vies for the first depending on the school). It sets up the wrong foundation for pronunciation, tone and spelling. It accounts for most of the spelling mistakes and virtually all of the pronunciation mistakes made by my students (I work at two high schools in Japan, one high level and one technical school).

      A brief example: I have seen textbooks that place katakana over every word, which from what I hear isn’t uncommon during their introductory period(these books were the ones that most of the students had been exposed to in Junior high, not the books in use in my classes). To give you just a single, galling example from this book: Written above every instance of the word ‘get’ is ゲットウ, which (I realize after writing this that most of you know) when spoken sounds like ghetto, with an extra long O.

      Another example: A pronunciation handbook that my school used to employ teaches that V and B are the same sound made the same exact way, because that is the easiest way to express it in kana. Then, confusingly, there is a diagram that shows how you form your mouth for V and F: they are grouped together because ‘they are the same sound.’ That is annoying because now it mixes F up with V, when it is already mixed up with H according to their syllabary. They also learn that D and J are the same sound and both are expressed as デ. I will admit that this is an extremely bad case, but this book was used during the formative stages for many of my students at one of my schools. This isn’t including the ubiquitous problems, such as being taught that TH sounds like ザ or ゼ. In one of my classes, I spend three full weeks trying to get my students to say ‘The’ correctly. I do this almost the moment they become enrolled in my school: It take time to fix the mistaken notion that TH=Z, which was the way they were taught in the first place.

      Now, imagine teaching someone the foundation of a language like this for just one year: They learn 400 of the most common words in a target language, but they have no idea how to pronounce them correctly, or write them correctly, and because they learn them first, these problems will then stick with them for the rest of their time studying the language (which is mandatory for 6 years for most students). They also become comfortable hearing words incorrectly from their teachers, and when they are presented with natural English of any sort, they cannot make heads or tails of it, because it doesn’t sound like Japanese.

      • Actually, you do form your mouth exactly the same way to make f and v. The difference is that f is unvoiced, and v is voiced, same as the difference between p and b, or between t and d. If Japanese had these sounds, the v kana would be dakutenized versions of the f kana.

        Grouping v with b is wrong, though. I understand why it happens, and it’s not an uncommon mapping when crossing language boundaries. It is not a coincidence that the Cyrillic letter for v looks like a Latin capital B, for instance. (The Cyrillic b looks more like a lowercase b.) But it’s definitely not the same sound in English, and telling students otherwise is clearly a bad idea.

        And I agree about the use of katakana to teach English. It’s a mistake, for approximately the same reasons that use of romaji to teach Japanese to English speakers is a mistake.

    • > I can understand why people may be intimidated by kanji at first

      Oh, kanji are a whole nother ball of wax from kana. You can learn all the kana in a couple of weeks. No big deal. It’s like learning an alphabet. Okay, so it’s more like learning two alphabets, each of which is about twice the size of a normal alphabet. Still, it’s very achievable.

      Kanji are going to take rather longer. I’m still intimidated by kanji, and I’ve been at it a while. I’ve got over 400 active kanji cards in my SRS. That’s 400 kanji for which I know (well, at least theoretically know, if I don’t forget) meanings and readings, and I’m basically just getting started. I’m only recently finally STARTING to get to the point where, a small percentage of the time, when I run across a new word, I already know the characters used to write it. Usually not. I guess I still need to learn a few bazillion more of the things. That’s going to take, like, a while. I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to learn them all. Learning kanji is legitimately intimidating.

      But the kana are not like that. People who are intimidated by kana can get over it relatively quickly if they try, because in fact they’re not that bad. Once you stop whining and start *studying*, the problem melts away.

  26. Perhaps the original poster is using the wrong method to learn kana. Computer drill programs like kanatest (on Linux) are a great help. Remember being drilled on your times tables at school – it’s not the most romantic method of studying but it certainly works.
    Further, I’m trying to use Tae Kim’s guide in addition to a real text book and other online resources like blogs where some people actually take the trouble to write out kanji. I feel that learning kana is the least I can do…

  27. I’ve been using your Japanese guide as a reference since I began studying years ago, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone that actually wants to *learn* Japanese.There are so many other places on the net to go if you just want to ‘casually’ pick up some Japanese.

  28. This guy is trolling hard.

    Kana can be learned in a few days. If you forget the odd one now and again, you look it up.

    As a matter of fact, I would say that learning katakana will take you farther as a tourist in Japan (say when reading menus) than any phrase book.

  29. Kana can be learned in a few days. Well, at least I did, sure you make a few mistakes after that, but that is language learning.

    Personally romanji really threw my pronunciation at first and even now I’m surprised at how often I unconciously read an english vowel combination when helping a friend learning via romanji. In those situation I try to convince them that romanji really isn’t the way to go but each to their own. Personally I see little reason to port the guide. People need to prune how good a website is from a quick glance, and romanji is like a flashing neon sign saying “people who don’t want to try, are looking for a silver bullet, or only want a couple of basic phrases”.

    > As a matter of fact, I would say that learning katakana will take you farther as a tourist in Japan (say when reading menus) than any phrase book.

    Too true, and the number of stations with the station names far more prominently in kana than in romanji (if it’s there) shouldn’t be ignored either. Just for the sole purpose of recognising a town on a map, I’m glad I put some effort into kanji before I left, even if I couldn’t use them for communication.

  30. For someone that was able to learn Kana in about a week with flashcards, it isn’t hard if you are even somewhat interested in learning Japanese.

    If you go to a grammar guide for Japanese, it would make sense to learn Kana. If you just want to learn how to say something, then look somewhere else. I don’t know why you would use this guide if you weren’t a student of Japanese. It isn’t useful if you don’t have some background already. It might be useful as a resource early on, but it becomes very useful when you know more and just forget a point or two out of disuse.

  31. A quote from one of your other pages.
    ‘I think it’s ridiculous when Japanese teachers don’t teach their students kanji or when somebody says that you don’t need to learn it. Yeah, you don’t have to learn it if you don’t mind being illiterate.’ 🙂


  32. I think that if someone is genuinely interested in learning a language in which reading and writing is so different from the native language (not like spanish, italian, portuguese, etc) would make the effort, and -in fact- would force themselves to read and learn from it by coming to places like this.
    I think you have a great thing going on here, keep up the good job! 🙂

  33. Learning Kana is such a basic step. It only takes a week or two to get it down if you’re really dedicated to it. In contrast I’ve been continually frustrated by romaji which has no real “standard” in how to properly represent the Japanese language in English writing. So many different systems exist, and if you’re not familiar with them all and their subtleties you’re likely to be misled.

    Seriously… anyone who isn’t willing to learn the two basic sets of Hiragana and Katakana in order to learn Japanese… they don’t deserve to be learning Japanese in the first place! If they can’t commit themselves to that basic step in language education… how will they be able to learn true pronounceable of Japanese words based around this kana system? How will they fare with Kanji which is essential for literate adults living in Japan? Really… do they want to learn a language or do they want something in their own language that they can “play” with… simply acting as if they’re learning a foreign tongue (for ego’s sake or whatever stupid reason they’d do something like that for)!

    • Thinking about it further… really… are we to be convinced that Japanese people unwilling to learn their ABCs to represent English words should be given a pass as well? What about people from countries who speak Arabic who want to understand English words without learning the alphabet? Really… if you’re going to learn a language… you need to learn the basic characters used to express that language. Kanji is a more complicated asides with Japanese… but people who bitch about the two kana systems… those people need to learn those systems or realize the vanity of their supposed “Japanese studies”.

  34. Hmm…it seems to me that anyone who has studied enough Japanese to know who Jim Breen is, should 1) be fully aware that your guide is the most oft quoted Japanese Grammar on the interweb, and 2) should realize how essential learning kana is for correct pronunciation. I don’t see how that is elitist, it is just a fact. Sure, romaji might give you the “feeling” that you are learning to speak from the beginning, as one commenter has mentioned, but you aren’t really speaking because you aren’t pronouncing it correctly (unless you have a Japanese wife correcting your pronunciation, in which case you probably don’t need the romaji to begin with). If our English vowels really matched up with the Japanese vowels, Romaji would be alright for beginners. But they don’t, and all Romaji will do is lead to poor pronunciation, while learning kana from the start makes learning proper pronunciation really easy. Also, if someone really has zero interest in learning to read Japanese, and just wants to speak, why use a book or website to learn it? Why not just get one of the many aural systems such as pimsleur, which will do exactly what such a person seems to want? But, personally, finally breaking down and working through RtK1 has already done so much to improve my ability to learn, and I’m only around 700 kanji. It adds one more sticky place in my mind for a word when I learn it, and makes it that much easier to recall. The more literate in Japanese I become, the faster I can learn how to speak and listen. Further, once I get comfortable with reading simple text like manga, light novels, etc., I can’t think of a funner and more interesting way to study unless I was to meet some hot Japanese chick…that might be funner than reading comics, but until that happens, give me literacy or give me death!

  35. Why not just include a romajikana table on one of the introductory pages so the half wits can refer to it and maybe pick up the kana as they go along by osmoses.
    Seriously though, if you can’t even bother to learn the kana, then you can’t even pretend to say your learning Japanese. What you you say to a Japanese person who was learning English via Kana?? You’d say ‘God damn I don’t have a clue what you’re trying to say…? ‘you’re angry? no? ‘you rubu mi rotsu’??, you sound like an idiot!… read this instead… oh you can’t ? riiight.’
    You should expect the same scorn if you don’t even respect yourself enough to attempt even the most basic parts of the language.

  36. ps: “if elitist means that I’m not the dumbest person in the room, then yes, I’m elitist.”

  37. Which side you take is entirely dependent on what your goals are.

    If your aim is to teach English speakers Japanese GRAMMAR and vocabulary (the core language), then romaji is the way to go. Making English speakers to learn an SOV grammar with all the vocab plus forcing them to learn it with the most complicated orthography in the world, is overkill, and can only hamper learning.

    However, if your goal is to teach people to read Japanese (and NOT to speak and be able to listen), like for manga, games, and websites, which may or may not be the goal of most of your readers, then the Guide as it is, is fine for this purpose.

    • P.S.
      I forgot to mention, using kana only doesn’t help with anything. You might as well use romaji then. If you want good pronunciation (from text only), use the IPA.

      tl;dr Use romaji for grammar. Use kanji+kana for reading.

  38. It is my considered opinion that the use of romaji makes Japanese much *harder* to learn, not easier. Especially for the beginner.

    Use of the most popular romaji systems (the ones that don’t mark long vowels or distinguish which n is which) introduces unnecessary ambiguity. As if Japanese doesn’t already have ten times as many homophones than any language has a right to! Do you really want to make that several times worse?

    More importantly, romaji makes it MUCH harder to learn correct pronunciation. Even if you use one of the systems that marks held vowels, romaji still totally obscures the syllable structure. Digraphs like きょ are often broken into two syllables by romaji users. Some of us also have an unfortunate tendency, when reading romaji, to apply English phonetics to the vowels, out of long habit. And so on. The long and short of it is, if you don’t know Japanese phonetics, romaji actively mislead you and cause you to mispronounce the language so badly it’s basically unrecognizable.

    Also, for native English speakers, romaji encourages severe mispronunciation of certain letters, most importantly the flap consonant, which is represented as “r” (for reasons that have nothing to do with how the English language uses that letter). Reading the flap as r makes some of the digraphs (e.g., りょ) totally unpronounceable (the tongue physically can’t be in two places at once), leading the speaker to break them into two syllables out of necessity, even if he theoretically knows better.

    In short, with romaji you end up speaking broken, twisted, nearly incomprensible Japanese. When Japanese people use katakana to learn “English”, we call the results “Engrish” and make fun of them, because it’s ridiculous. That’s not English. Well, that goes both ways. Using romaji to learn Japanese causes the same problem.

    If you’re going to actually learn Japanese, even just spoken Japanese that you have no intention of ever reading or writing, you HAVE to learn Japanese phonetics, and furthermore it’s the *first* thing you have to learn.

    This is inescapable. You can’t learn words if you can’t pronounce them. You HAVE to learn to pronounce the sounds of the language. Otherwise, you can just forget all about learning foreign languages. This is true for any language that has different sounds from your native language. For English speakers, that definitely includes Japanese.

    It is *theoretically* possible to learn Japanese phonetics with some of the more elaborate romaji systems (the ones with diacritics to distinguish things like held vowels and syllabic n), but you have to *unlearn* all your long-standing habits from English phonetics. It’s much EASIER to just learn the kana and use that. MUCH easier.

    • I don’t agree that rōmaji leads to bad pronunciation. When you learn any language you have to learn the sounds of the language, whether you use kana or rōmaji. I don’t think anybody could be so stupid to pronounce “sake” as in English (/seik/) after the first class. Of course i mean rōmaji with long vowels properly marked. Sometimes rōmaji is slightly better than kana because in romaji we write “haha wa”, “gōu” while in kana it would be “ははは” and “ごうう”.

      On the other hand, i don’t think japanese should be taught in rōmaji. It’s just not the way the language looks like in the real world. I cannot understand why that guy thinks kana is difficult. Maybe he has not even started learning it, so he thinks kana is as difficult as kanji…

      • (my last reply was for Jonadab)

        marcus, I see what your saying, but think about it a different way: with kana we are given the opportunity to completely separate Japanese pronunciation from English. This means there will be no confusion which leads to fewer mistakes.

  39. I’m sorry, but didn’t anyone realize how funny and absolutely ‘elitist’ the writer of the mail himself/herself was? He/she actually demanded that the REST of Japanese-language learners dumb themselves down to using romaji, just so that the writer himself/herself can catch up. (Talk about being lazy, then forcing everyone else to be as lazy as you are.)

    I worked hard to be good at Japanese, so I found the email very offensive. My snarkiness follows:


    1. “You make a good grammar guide, but sadly few people will ever use it.”

    Yeah, and I’m sure _you_ can judge because Tae Kim gives you access to his site metrics and referring addresses.

    2. “It is foolish not to put the guide in romaji and have it help people that are tourists or beginners in Japanese.”

    There are phrases, guidebooks and travel books for that, you dumbass. Unless you yourself have gone out of your way to write a grammar guide on a foreign language and shared it with everyone for free, shut up. Don’t call people foolish, when you can’t even speak a word of Japanese yet.

    3. “Japanese has all over 200 kana, with all the variations.”

    Really? Over 200? I thought it was OVER 9000.

    4. “Not using romaji, which appears partially due to people being infected with Jim Breen’s madness, is doing more to hinder Japanese instruction than to help it.”

    Oh yes, the learned Jim Breen’s preference for using NATIVE Japanese alphabet is an infectious virus, to stop you from learning Japanese. What the hell do you base your claims on, anyway? What’s with the weasel words? “People”? Who?

    5. “When a casual user needs to look up a word in Japanese or understand some pointers for speaking Japanese, hitting them over the head with kana and kanji is absurd. Even Google translate has a romanization option.”

    Absurd? Then do use Google Translate for everything, idiot.

    6. “Everybody looking to learn Japanese is not a full time student and many want to speak it and not learn kanji or kana.”

    If you want the basics, and you’re not interested in learning Japanese, you do know that there are billions of other Japanese-language-for-newbies/dummies guide out there, right? You don’t have to force yourself through helpful, thorough grammar guides that you don’t seem to have the intelligence or perseverance for.

    7. “Furthermore, many Japanese know how to use romaji, because that is how they input Japanese on their keyboard or phones (before it is converted to kana or kanji).”

    Your comparison isn’t even valid. The Japanese hit the keyboard in romaji because it’s a phonetic transcription of the kana they use; but they’re definitely not READING romaji.

    8. “I’m just letting you know, that not everybody agrees with Jim Breen’s ridiculous, elitist, and pompous anti-romaji crusade.”

    By ‘not everybody’, you’re referring to just yourself, right? And do know that “not everybody agrees with YOUR ridiculous, elitist, and pompous anti-kana crusade”, so please stop exaggerating.

    Since when was Jim Breen elitist or pompous? You should actually be thanking him for helping to create a very useful, highly-frequented Japanese lexical corpus, which is something you’ll never do, you know.

  40. So is there actually any basis to Jim Breen being some sort of well known anti-romaji crusader, or am I safe to assume that this guy is just making stuff up?

  41. I can well imagine breen has come down against romaji, but I don’t think anymore so than anyone else who knows how to say more than “temee” and “baka desu”…

  42. I’m going to go for a bigger picture here.

    I don’t see how the language can make sense If you don’t learn KANJI, the langauge is so incredibly lacking in allowable sound combinations that you have a unique linguistically situation where you have rather intense amount of words with the same sounds used in similar contexts

    In English (basell(bat) and vampire(bat) are generally not used in similar situations)

    whereas 公園 公演 講演 口演 好演 ・  彗星 水星 certainly are. I know I’ve seen situations in speech where someone has used double 訓読み readings of what is normally 音読み words to make the context clear.

    Trying to learn to watch the news without knowing Kanji would be a rather amazingly feat.

    • > In English (basell(bat) and vampire(bat) are
      > generally not used in similar situations)

      And that’s why you, as a native speaker, were able to think of that example. But a non-native speaker would be more likely to come up with an example like “back” (meaning not front) and “back” (meaning where you came from). We have hundreds of these in English, maybe even thousands. (Granted, Japanese has more. A lot more.)

  43. Well, though the initial poster’s point is kinda silly (this site is after all grammar from a japanese point of view), I agree that there seem to be a lot of elitist snobs here.

    Some facts:
    Romaji is not japanese written with English letters. It’s japanese written with the Latin alphabet. And how the Latin alphabet is pronounced varies from language to language. Romaji causes bad pronunciation only because the people using it are ignorant, not because of some inherent quality or “unjapaneseness” in romaji.

    Think it’s any better for people to learn kana via a table that explains the pronunciation with romaji? Won’t you just get a bunch of people who not only pronounce their kana just as badly, but also are liable to sometimes confuse kana while reading, and thus may end up with outright errors in their speech? If you don’t learn the kana the right way, you’re no better off. And kana is inherently difficult to read (read up on majuscules vs minuscules (which have ascenders and descenders)), not only to those learning it, but to Japanese people as well. I’d liken it to READINGENGLISHWITHCAPITALLETTERSANDNOSPACESBETWEENTHEWORDS. Fun, isn’t it. Some people would rather not have to struggle with reading blocks of kana until they actually have a fair vocabulary and can understand some of the words they read. This also provides some degree of protection from errors caused by confusing one kana with another.

    Personally, I’ve known kana for years (though haven’t learned japanese seriously for very long), and know over 600 kanji (a la Heisig). But I still cringe when I have to read pure kana (dispite having read quite a lot for practice), and on top of that don’t understand a word (at least with the kana/kanji combination it’s easy to separate words, and you can make a guess towards the meaning from the kanji used). Kana without kanji is just as bad as romaji, though for other reasons. Learn to pronounce romaji correctly, and you should have no problems, and it shouldn’t slow you down much in your studies either. No matter which route you take, the problem is not whether you choose kana or romaji, but whether you choose to undertake the 2000+ kanji needed to read stuff. Without those you’re illiterate no matter how well you know your kana.

    • I agree that it’s a struggle to learn only hiragana, but I don’t think anyone is suggesting we do that. Like you alluded, using furigana solves that problem.

      Why should anyone learn to pronounce romaji the Japanese way? The only time Japanese words are ever written in romaji in real life is for names of cities on signs…

      • Good point, but there is an answer – because learning how a handful of consonants, about four?, and one vowel, “u,” (that you already know how to read and write, and where their cognitive, unvoiced reading, and their writing is a concept separate from pronunciation, which is the case for multilingual students such as myself, looking to learn Japanese as a third, fourth, fifth or more language) vary from their typical English reading – or of whatever reading you tend to give them most, supposing multiple language skills – IS A TON EASIER than learning the kana, and no better nor worse in terms of refining one’s gaijin accent. In fact, it is not the familiarity with the Roman alphabet that complicates Japanese pronunciation, it is the familiarity with (and over-reliance on) English phonemes that needs to be corrected, and use of kana does not necessarily aid in this.

        HOWEVER… TK’s is THE guide that convinced me that I need to fully memorize kana, and start learning kanji before attempting to learn Japanese at any significant level of competence. And how did it do that? Well, I was browsing a topic I am becoming quite familiar with, the distinction between the topic particle and the subject particle. And it suddenly dawned on me: it is much easier to explain the differences between -wa and -ga (however you want to romanize them) with kanji and kana than with romaji, simply because the kana stands out from among the kanji! And particles are likely the most (or at least among the most) difficult thing to learn in Japanese if you do not already speak an SOV language with particles… So, in other words, in order to learn grammar – which I may remind you is primarily the domain of the written word – kana and kanji are indeed fundamental. I would not bother with learning sentence structure or particle use without kana and kanji, if I could start over.

        Verdict: Japanese writing system, not useful for ‘proper pronunciation’, but useful for efficacious grammar learning, and conveying cultural undertones of language through the symbolism of kana and kanji.

  44. Romanji is poison to those who are learning Japanese seriously. I am self taught, and from the beginning have never used romanji as a learning tool.

    I can read manga, newspapers, books and websites just fine, and i was reading subtitles following the same speed as the audio in shows after about 10 months of study, I feel strongly that diving into the kana pool early helped towards this.

    If romanji was entered into this guide, I personally feel it would ruin it.

    just my opinion, I’m not going to be one of those that force the whole “I AM RIGHT, YOU ARE WRONG” thing on people…

    p.s. to the person that sent this email…

    If you are a “tourist” and just want to learn some quick Japanese….why bother with grammar? just learn survival phrases…

    If your new, then you have even more reason to dive into kana and forget about romanji

  45. I really really love this grammar guide! I think the writer of the email did not really understand the purpose of this guide, particularly because it did not suit his learning style and needs. I do not want to say that romaji is bad or good. Personally, it has helped me lots when I type in Japanese. I do admit that there are times when I hate it, particularly when I don’t know if ō means ou or oo or just a ー (ex.: dōri & yōkoso & rōmaji). Other than typing, I never use it. I think romaji is just a comfort zone for some people and I don’t think it necessarily means that they are dumb and not serious about learning the language. I believe those who do start off with romaji will eventually graduate to using kana later on once they’ve figured out what their learning style is.

    I will have to say that even after so many years of studying Japanese (although I’ve taken long breaks from it), I still HATE katakana. It takes me forever to read it or to spell it if I don’t know how it’s spelled. I much prefer hiragana for everything. I love using kanji but sometimes I’m not sure when it’s natural to use kanji or hiragana (i.e.: 時 and とき or 事 and こと). I think that it would be helpful if furigana was used in this guide. That way people who don’t know the kanji can at least look it up in the dictionary.

    I do really love this guide! I’m gonna go back to the causative-passive page to mope about how much I can’t understand it & try to figure it out! Good night! 🙂

  46. I couldn’t agree more with Tae Kim’s correspondent. While you are at it, could you also transcribe it in the Cyrillic alphabet. The Latin alphabet has over 52 characters, with all the lowercase and uppercase variations. The madness of this anti-Cyrillic crusade is quite damaging to speakers of Russian who shouldn’t have to learn a whole new Latin alphabet just to consult your guide.

  47. It is hilarious, how the writer of the eMail says about “not everyone” is doing that or that.
    Who have seen that Tae Kim’s Guide called like “Simple Japanese Grammar for everyone” or “Japanese Grammar for Idiots”?
    There are people, like me, who actually appreciate Tae Kim’s effort and contribution to a community in exactly that form how he did it.
    And… it is not for everyone…
    Big thank to Tae Kim.

    P.S. Appreciate the efforts of the person who has written the eMail to express his opinion. But his/her efforts are too small and actually contributed only in a way showing how much support Tae Kim’s Guide has from the community.

    P.P.S. @Alex, Lol at Kanji in Cyrillic alphabet 😉 (I am Russian speaker)

  48. I haven’t read any comments yet and only a small portion of the site, but pointing this out here since I didn’t see an email link 🙁 For ‘Finding Kanji the smart way’, you might want to add the four-corners lookup at as another way to find complex kanji, and Tagaini Jisho is a nice and easy way to get stroke orders using dictionary and stroke order information provided by other projects.

    I think that learning with kana provides a more natural comprehension of pronunciation and word recognition. Romaji would not provide the correct speed of eye movement for texts with kanji interspaced with kana, and long stretches of kana could not be recognized by their visual shape alone without focusing the eyes on each kana. There is likely also an extreme handicap at learning new words using romaji without a connection to previously learned kanji.

  49. I personally find reading Japanese in romaji very difficult, and I doubt that is purely from lack of practice. One problem I run into, when helping some friends who are unfortunately studying in romaji, is not being able to tell if a word is foreign or not. It’s like “Hoteru? Uh… 火照る? Oh! ホテル! Why didn’t you just say so?” Why deal with that added confusion if you don’t have to?

    • Agreed Joe. Sometimes I feel like katakana words form practically an entirely different syllablary due to a common tendancy by natives to speak the individual characters a touch slower than their equivalents in Japanese words. Yes, even those that aren’t stuffed full of “ー”s. Different characters, different pronounciation, why’d you ever consider treating them equally?

      I’d actually love to hear Tae Kim’s thoughts on that, and incidently, whether he feels the same occurs in Korean given its uniform writing scheme (do the Koreans even recognise what is and isn’t a loanword? I know children typically don’t learn that with English).

      • An educated English speaker can often tell you what language an English word came from, just by looking at the relationship between the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. For instance, a word like “bidet” obviously came from French (and was introduced to English some time after the renaissance); whereas, a word like “anthropogenic” obviously came from Greek. (A Latin-derived word would have a similar syllable structure, but it wouldn’t have a th sound in it.) Heck, you can probably guess what language “mostaciolli” comes from as well.

        I would guess that Koreans can probably tell the difference between loan words from European languages versus ones from Chinese and other Asian languages, by similar mechanisms.

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