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James Curtis Hepburn, originator of Hepburn romanization

Hepburn romanization (Japanese: ヘボン式ローマ字, Hepburn: Hebon-shiki rōmaji)[a] is the most widely-used system of romanization for the Japanese language. Originally published in 1867 by American missionary James Curtis Hepburn as the standard in the first edition of his Japanese–English dictionary, the system is distinct from other romanization methods in its use of English orthography to phonetically transcribe sounds: for example, the syllable [ɕi] is written as shi and [tɕa] is written as cha, reflecting their spellings in English (compare to si and tya in the more-systematic Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki systems).

In 1886, Hepburn published the third edition of his dictionary, codifying a revised version of the system that is known today as "traditional Hepburn". A version with additional revisions, known as "modified Hepburn", was published in 1908.

Although Kunrei-shiki romanization is the style favored by the Japanese government, Hepburn remains the most popular method of Japanese romanization. It is learned by most foreign students of the language, and is used within Japan for romanizing personal names, locations, and other information, such as train tables and road signs. Because the system's orthography is based on English phonology instead of a systematic transcription of the Japanese syllabary, individuals who only speak English or a Romance language will generally be more accurate when pronouncing unfamiliar words romanized in the Hepburn style compared to other systems.[1]


In 1867, American Presbyterian missionary doctor James Curtis Hepburn published the first Japanese–English dictionary, in which he introduced a new system for the romanization of Japanese into Latin script.[2] He published a second edition in 1872 and a third edition in 1886, which introduced minor changes.[3] The third edition's system had been adopted in the previous year by the Rōmaji-kai (羅馬字会, "Romanization Club"), a group of Japanese and foreign scholars who promoted a replacement of the Japanese script with a romanized system.[4]

Hepburn romanization, loosely based on the conventions of English orthography (spelling), stood in opposition to Nihon-shiki romanization, which had been developed in Japan in 1881 as a script replacement.[4] Compared to Hepburn, Nihon-shiki is more systematic in its representation of the Japanese syllabary (kana), as each symbol corresponds to a phoneme.[5] However, the notation requires further explanation for accurate pronunciation by non-Japanese speakers: for example, the syllables [ɕi] and [tɕa], which are written as shi and cha in Hepburn, are rendered as si and tya in Nihon-shiki.[4] After Nihon-shiki was presented to the Rōmaji-kai in 1886, a dispute began between the supporters of the two systems, which resulted in a standstill and an eventual halt to the organization's activities in 1892.[6]

After the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), the two factions resurfaced as the Romaji Hirome-kai (ローマ字ひろめ会, "Society for the Spread of Romanization"), which supported Hepburn's style, and the Nihon no Romaji-sha (日本のローマ字社, "Romanization Society of Japan"), which supported Nihon-shiki.[6] In 1908, Hepburn was revised by educator Kanō Jigorō and others of the Romaji Hirome-kai, which began calling it the Shūsei Hebon-shiki (修正ヘボン式, "modified Hepburn system") or Hyōjun-shiki (標準式, "standard system").[4]

In 1930, a Special Romanization Study Commission, headed by the Minister of Education, was appointed by the government to devise a standardized form of romanization.[5] The Commission eventually decided on a slightly modified "compromise" version of Nihon-shiki, which was chosen for official use by cabinet ordinance on September 21, 1937; this system is known today as Kunrei-shiki romanization.[5] On September 3, 1945, at the beginning of the occupation of Japan after World War II, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur issued a directive mandating the use of modified Hepburn by occupation forces.[7] The directive had no legal force, however, and a revised version of Kunrei-shiki was reissued by cabinet ordinance on December 9, 1954, after the end of occupation.[8]

Although it lacks de jure status, Hepburn remains the de facto standard for some applications in Japan. As of 1977, many government organizations used Hepburn, including the Ministry of International Trade and Industry; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires the use of Hepburn on passports, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport requires its use on transport signs, including road signs and railway station signs.[9] Hepburn is also used by private organizations, including The Japan Times and the Japan Travel Bureau.[10]

American National Standard System for the Romanization of Japanese (ANSI Z39.11-1972), based on modified Hepburn, was approved in 1971 and published in 1972 by the American National Standards Institute.[11] In 1989, it was proposed for International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard 3602, but was rejected in favor of Kunrei-shiki.[citation needed] ANSI Z39.11-1972 was deprecated as a standard in 1994.[11]


Former Japan National Railways-style board of Toyooka Station. Between the two adjacent stations, "GEMBUDŌ" follows the Hepburn romanization system, but "KOKUHU" follows the Nihon-shiki/Kunrei-shiki romanization system.

There are many variants of the Hepburn romanization. The two most common styles are as follows:

  • Traditional Hepburn, as defined in various editions of Hepburn's dictionary, with the third edition (1886)[12] often considered authoritative[13] (although changes in kana usage must be accounted for). It is characterized by the rendering of syllabic n as m before the consonants b, m and p: for example, Shimbashi for 新橋.
  • Modified Hepburn, also known as Revised Hepburn, in which (among other changes) the rendering of syllabic n as m before certain consonants is no longer used: Shinbashi for 新橋. The version of the system published in the third (1954) and later editions of Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary are often considered authoritative; it was adopted in 1989 by the Library of Congress as one of its ALA-LC romanizations,[11] and is the most common variant of Hepburn romanization used today.[14]

In Japan itself, there are some variants officially mandated for various uses:

  • Railway Standard (鉄道掲示基準規程, Tetsudō Keiji Kijun Kitei),[15] which mostly follows Modified Hepburn, except syllabic n is rendered as in Traditional. Japan Railways and other major railways use it for station names.
  • Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Standard,[16] how to spell Roman letters (Hepburn style) of road signs, which follows Modified Hepburn. It is used for road signs.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs Passport Standard (外務省旅券規定, Gaimushō Ryoken Kitei),[17] a permissive standard, which explicitly allows the use of "non-Hepburn romaji" (非ヘボン式ローマ字, hi-Hebon-shiki rōmaji) in personal names, notably for passports. In particular, it renders the syllabic n as m before b, m and p, and romanizes the long vowel ō as oh, oo or ou (Satoh, Satoo or Satou for 佐藤).

Details of the variants can be found below.

Obsolete variants[edit]

The romanizations set out in the first and second versions of Hepburn's dictionary are primarily of historical interest. Notable differences from the third and later versions include:


The main feature of Hepburn is that its orthography is based on English phonology. More technically, when syllables that are constructed systematically according to the Japanese syllabary contain an "unstable" consonant in the modern spoken language, the orthography is changed to something that better matches the real sound as an English-speaker would pronounce it. For example, is written shi not si.

Some linguists such as Harold E. Palmer, Daniel Jones and Otto Jespersen object to Hepburn since the pronunciation-based spellings can obscure the systematic origins of Japanese phonetic structures, inflections, and conjugations.[19] Supporters of Hepburn[who?] argue that it is not intended as a linguistic tool, and that individuals who only speak English or a Romance language will generally be more accurate when pronouncing unfamiliar words romanized in the Hepburn style compared to other systems.[1]

Long vowels[edit]

In Hepburn, vowel combinations that form a long sound are usually indicated with a macron ( ¯ ). Other adjacent vowels, such as those separated by a morpheme boundary, are written separately:

All other vowel combinations are always written separately:

  • E + I: (せい) (ふく) – {sei} + {fuku} – seifuku 'uniform'
  • U + I: (かる) – {karu} + {i} – karui 'light (in weight)'
  • O + I: (おい) – {oi} – oi 'nephew'


In foreign loanwords, long vowels followed by a chōonpu (ー) are indicated with macrons:

  • セーラー: se + (ー) + ra + (ー) = sērā 'sailor'
  • タクシー: ta + ku + shi + (ー) = takushī 'taxi'
  • コンクール: ko + n + ku + (ー) + ru = konkūru 'competition'
  • バレーボール: ba + re + (ー) + bo + (ー) + ru = barēbōru 'volleyball'
  • ソール: so + (ー) + ru = sōru 'sole (of a shoe, etc.)'

Adjacent vowels in loanwords are written separately:

  • バレエ: ba + re + ebaree 'ballet'
  • ミイラ: mi + i + ramiira 'mummy'
  • ソウル: so + u + rusouru 'soul', 'Seoul'


There are many variations on the Hepburn system for indicating long vowels with a macron. For example, 東京 (とうきょう) is properly romanized as Tōkyō, but can also be written as:

  • Tokyo – not indicated at all. Common for Japanese words that have been adopted into English, and the de facto convention for Hepburn used in signs and other English-language information around Japan.
  • Tôkyô – indicated with circumflex accents, as in the alternative Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki romanizations. They are often used when macrons are unavailable or difficult to input, due to their visual similarity.[22][23]
  • Tohkyoh – indicated with an h (only applies after o). This is sometimes known as "passport Hepburn", as the Japanese Foreign Ministry has authorized (but not required) it in passports.[24][25][26]
  • Toukyou – written using kana spelling: ō as ou or oo (depending on the kana). This is also known as wāpuro style, as it reflects how text is entered into a Japanese word processor by using a keyboard with Roman characters. Wāpuro more accurately represents the way that ō is written in kana by differentiating between おう (as in とうきょう (東京), Toukyou in wāpuro) and おお (as in とおい (遠い), tooi in wāpuro); however, it fails to differentiate between long vowels and vowels separated by a morpheme boundary.
  • Tookyoo – written by doubling the long vowels. Some dictionaries such as the Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary[27] and Basic English Writers' Japanese-English Wordbook follow this style, and it is also used in the JSL form of romanization.


In traditional and modified:

  • When is used as a particle, it is written wa.

In traditional Hepburn:

  • When is used as a particle, Hepburn originally recommended ye.[20] This spelling is obsolete, and it is commonly written as e (Romaji-Hirome-Kai, 1974[28]).
  • When is used as a particle, it is written wo.[20]

In modified Hepburn:[21]

  • When is used as a particle, it is written e.
  • When is used as a particle, it is written o.

Syllabic n[edit]

In traditional Hepburn:[20]

Syllabic n () is written as n before consonants, but as m before labial consonants: b, m, and p. It is sometimes written as n- (with a hyphen) before vowels and y (to avoid confusion between, for example, んあ n + a and na, and んや n + ya and にゃ nya), but its hyphen usage is not clear.
  • 案内(あんない): annai – guide
  • 群馬(ぐんま): Gumma – Gunma
  • 簡易(かんい): kan-i – simple
  • 信用(しんよう): shin-yō – trust

In modified Hepburn:[21]

The rendering m before labial consonants is not used and is replaced with n. It is written n' (with an apostrophe) before vowels and y.
  • 案内(あんない): annai – guide
  • 群馬(ぐんま): Gunma – Gunma
  • 簡易(かんい): kan'i – simple
  • 信用(しんよう): shin'yō – trust

Long consonants[edit]

Elongated (or "geminate") consonant sounds are marked by doubling the consonant following a sokuon, ; for consonants that are digraphs in Hepburn (sh, ch, ts), only the first consonant of the set is doubled, except for ch, which is replaced by tch.[20][21]

  • 結果(けっか): kekka – result
  • さっさと: sassato – quickly
  • ずっと: zutto – all the time
  • 切符(きっぷ): kippu – ticket
  • 雑誌(ざっし): zasshi – magazine
  • 一緒(いっしょ): issho – together
  • こっち: kotchi (not kocchi) – this way
  • 抹茶(まっちゃ): matcha (not maccha) – matcha
  • 三つ(みっつ): mittsu – three

Romanization charts[edit]

  • Each entry contains hiragana, katakana, and Hepburn romanization, in that order.
  • † — The characters in red are rare historical characters and are obsolete in modern Japanese.[29][30] In modern Hepburn romanization, they are often undefined.[21]
  • ‡ — The characters in blue are rarely used outside of their status as a particle in modern Japanese,[22] and romanization follows the rules above.

Extended katakana[edit]

These combinations are used mainly to represent the sounds in words in other languages.

Digraphs with orange backgrounds are the general ones used for loanwords or foreign places or names, and those with blue backgrounds are used for more accurate transliterations of foreign sounds, both suggested by the Cabinet of Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.[31] Katakana combinations with beige backgrounds are suggested by the American National Standards Institute[32] and the British Standards Institution as possible uses.[33] Ones with purple backgrounds appear on the 1974 version of the Hyōjun-shiki formatting.[28]

  • * — The use of in these two cases to represent w is rare in modern Japanese except for Internet slang and transcription of the Latin sound [w] into katakana. E.g.: ミネルウァ (Mineruwa "Minerva", from Latin MINERVA [mɪˈnɛrwa]); ウゥルカーヌス (Wurukānusu "Vulcan", from Latin VVLCANVS, Vulcānus [lˈkaːnʊs]). The wa-type of foreign sounds (as in watt or white) is usually transcribed to ワ (wa), while the wu-type (as in wood or woman) is usually to ウ (u) or ウー (ū).
  • ⁑ — has a rarely-used hiragana form in that is also vu in Hepburn romanization systems.
  • ⁂ — The characters in green are obsolete in modern Japanese and very rarely used.[29][30]

See also[edit]

  • List of ISO romanizations


  1. ^ lit. "Hepburn-style Roman letters"
  1. ^ a b Hadamitzky, Wolfgang; Spahn, Mark (October 2005). "Romanization systems". Wolfgang Hadamitzky: Japan-related Textbooks, Dictionaries, and Reference Works. Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  2. ^ Sant, John Van; Mauch, Peter; Sugita, Yoneyuki (January 29, 2007). Historical Dictionary of United States-Japan Relations. Scarecrow Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-8108-6462-7.
  3. ^ Nishiyama, Kunio; Kishimoto, Hideki; Aldridge, Edith, eds. (December 15, 2018). Topics in Theoretical Asian Linguistics: Studies in Honor of John B. Whitman. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 292. ISBN 978-90-272-6329-2.
  4. ^ a b c d Seeley, Christopher (April 1, 2000). A History of Writing in Japan. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 139–140. ISBN 978-0-8248-2217-0.
  5. ^ a b c Unger, J. Marshall (August 1, 1996). Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. Oxford University Press. pp. 53–55. ISBN 978-0-19-510166-9.
  6. ^ a b Hannas, William C. (June 1, 1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-8248-1892-0.
  7. ^ Unger, J. Marshall (August 1, 1996). Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. Oxford University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-19-510166-9.
  8. ^ Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Volume 6. Kodansha. 1983. p. 336. ISBN 978-0-87011-626-1.
  9. ^ Visconti, Jacqueline (September 24, 2018). Handbook of Communication in the Legal Sphere. De Gruyter. p. 454. ISBN 978-1-61451-466-4.
  10. ^ Kent, Allen; Lancour, Harold; Daily, Jay E., eds. (May 1, 1977). Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science: Volume 21. CRC Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-8247-2021-6.
  11. ^ a b c Kudo, Yoko (January 28, 2011). "Modified Hepburn Romanization System in Japanese Language Cataloging: Where to Look, What to Follow" (pdf). Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. 49 (2): 97–120. doi:10.1080/01639374.2011.536751. S2CID 62560768.
  12. ^ 和英語林集成第三版 [Digital 'Japanese English Forest Collection']. Meiji Gakuin University Library (in Japanese). Meiji Gakuin University. March 2010 [2006]. Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  13. ^ "明治学院大学図書館 - 『和英語林集成』デジタルアーカイブス". Retrieved 2012-06-29.
  14. ^ "UHM Library : Japan Collection Online Resources". 2005-10-06. Retrieved 2012-06-29.
  15. ^ "鉄道掲示基準規程". Archived from the original on 2012-03-01. Retrieved 2012-07-13.
  16. ^ 道路標識のローマ字(ヘボン式) の綴り方 [How to spell Roman letters (Hepburn style) of road signs]. Kictec (in Japanese). Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  17. ^ "パスポートセンター ヘボン式ローマ字表 : 神奈川県". Archived from the original on 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-07-13.
  18. ^ James Curtis Hepburn (1872). A Japanese-English And English-Japanese Dictionary (2nd ed.). American Presbyterian mission press. pp. 286–290. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
  19. ^ 松浦四郎 (October 1992). "104年かかった標準化". 標準化と品質菅理 -Standardization and Quality Control. Japanese Standards Association. 45: 92–93.
  20. ^ a b c d e James Curtis Hepburn (1886). A Japanese-English And English-Japanese Dictionary (Third ed.). Z. P Maruyama & Co. Retrieved April 12, 2011.
  21. ^ a b c d e Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (Fourth ed.). Kenkyūsha. 1974.
  22. ^ a b Fujino Katsuji (1909). ローマ字手引き [RÔMAJI TEBIKI] (in Japanese). Rômaji-Hirome-kai.
  23. ^ Cabinet of Japan (December 9, 1954). 昭和29年内閣告示第1号 ローマ字のつづり方 [Japanese Cabinet Order No.1 in 1954 - How to write Romanization] (in Japanese). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Archived from the original on May 29, 2013. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  24. ^ Bureau of Citizens and Culture Affairs of Tokyo. "PASSPORT_ヘボン式ローマ字綴方表" [Table of Spelling in Hepburn Romanization] (in Japanese). Archived from the original on December 5, 2011. Retrieved December 13, 2011.
  25. ^ Consulate-General of Japan in San Francisco. ヘボン式ローマ字綴方表 [Table of Spelling in Hepburn Romanization] (PDF) (in Japanese). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 13, 2012. Retrieved December 13, 2011.
  26. ^ Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit. "Example of Application Form for Passport" (PDF) (in Japanese). Retrieved December 13, 2011.
  27. ^ Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary. "Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary (9780198607489): Shigeru Takebayashi, Kazuhiko Nagai: Books". Retrieved 2012-06-29.
  28. ^ a b "標準式ローマ字つづり―引用". Retrieved 2016-02-27.[self-published source]
  29. ^ a b Cabinet of Japan (November 16, 1946). 昭和21年内閣告示第33号 「現代かなづかい」 [Japanese Cabinet Order No.33 in 1946 - Modern kana usage] (in Japanese). Archived from the original on October 6, 2001. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  30. ^ a b Cabinet of Japan (July 1, 1986). 昭和61年内閣告示第1号 「現代仮名遣い」 [Japanese Cabinet Order No.1 in 1986 - Modern kana usage] (in Japanese). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Archived from the original on May 24, 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  31. ^ Cabinet of Japan. "平成3年6月28日内閣告示第2号:外来語の表記" [Japanese cabinet order No.2 (June 28, 1991):The notation of loanword]. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Archived from the original on January 6, 2019. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  32. ^ "米国規格(ANSI Z39.11-1972)―要約". Retrieved 2016-02-27.[self-published source]
  33. ^ "英国規格(BS 4812 : 1972)―要約". Retrieved 2016-02-27.[self-published source]

External links[edit]

  • Preface of first edition of Hepburn's original dictionary, explaining romanization
  • Preface of third edition of Hepburn's original dictionary, explaining romanization