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'Ti' or 'chi'? Educators call to unify romanization styles in Japan


Educators in Japan are calling for unification of the country's two main styles of romanization, saying that teaching children both styles is confusing.

    The call comes as Japan plans to teach romanization not only in Japanese language classes but also in English under a draft revision to the government-set curriculum guidelines, which is due to come into effect in the 2020 academic year.

    Japan uses two main romanization systems to transliterate Japanese: Hepburn, which includes such spellings as "chi," and Kunrei-shiki, which spells the same syllable "ti."

    Romanized characters, or "romaji" in Japanese, are supposed to be taught in Japanese lessons in the third year of elementary school. Students learn to read and write them, and they are also applied in information and communications technology education, when typing. In English, which will be turned into an official subject for fifth- and sixth-year elementary school students from fiscal 2020, students will also learn romanized syllables consisting of one consonant and one vowel, to help them understand differences between Japanese and English.

    Currently, Kunrei-shiki romanization is taught at schools. But in society, names, geographical locations and other information are commonly rendered in the Hepburn style. Passports also use the Hepburn style. Some children become confused over which system to use, and quite a few teachers worry about how to teach the two systems.

    At a national education research meeting of the Japan Teachers' Union in the city of Niigata in February, some elementary and junior high school teachers asked when they should teach the Hepburn system, or complained that teaching the children another system confused them. A female teacher at a junior high school in Hyogo Prefecture remarked, "There are two styles -- Kunrei-shiki and the Hepburn system -- so children get confused. We should unify the system to teach one type at school."

    A representative of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology responded, "Unless there is a special reason, Kunrei-shiki, as designated by Cabinet notice, is taught."

    Michiko Muroi, a professor at Seisen Jogakuin College specializing in English education who is familiar with the teaching of romanized characters, stressed the advantages of Kunrei-shiki romanization, saying, "The majority of Japanese syllables can be expressed in two characters -- one vowel and one consonant -- and it's easy to read and write." She added, however, "It's possible the system could become mixed up with the Hepburn system, which matches the sound of the Japanese language. And with Kunrei-shiki, it's easy from non-Japanese to mispronounce the words, and so we need to instruct students to write their names and place names in the Hepburn system. They should learn the system through fun exercises such as creating their own business cards."

    Romanization of Japanese dates centuries. A Portuguese system was introduced in the 16th century, and a Dutch style took form in the 18th century, but neither caught on. The English-style Hepburn system was created by James Hepburn, an American missionary who came to Japan toward the end of the Tokugawa era, and it became widely known. To unify the various styles of romanization, the former Ministry of Education in the early Showa period compiled the Kunrei-shiki system which presents most syllables in two characters. A Cabinet notice in 1954 designated Kunrei-shiki as the correct style of romanization, but allowed the Hepburn system to be used as well.

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