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The Rōmaji movement in Japan


The alphabet (rōmaji) has never been considered a serious contender for the national script in Japan, although at several points since the country's modern period began in 1868 supporters have made a case for its adoption on varying grounds, most notably those of education, democracy and office automation. Although such advocates have included influential scholars and bureaucrats, their combined intellectual gravitas has never been sufficient to allow their arguments for romanisation to outweigh the strong cultural traditions and ideologies of writing centred on the existing three-script writing system. Even today, in the face of pressures imposed by modern keyboard technology, discussion of the issue is not on the national agenda. This article considers the place of romanisation in Japan today and offers a short history of the rōmaji movement since the late nineteenth century.

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1 Kess, J. and Miyamoto, T., The Japanese Mental Lexicon: Psycholinguistic Studies of Kana and Kanji Processing (Amsterdam, 1999), p. 113.

2 Inoue, F., ‘Econolinguistic aspects of multilingual signs in Japan’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176 (2005), p. 165.

3 Seargeant, P., ‘Globalisation and reconfigured English in Japan’, World Englishs 24 (3) (2005), p. 316.

4 Hyde, B., ‘Japan's emblematic English’, English Today 18 (3) (2002), p. 13.

5 Unger, J. M., ‘Functional digraphia in Japan as revealed in consumer product preferences’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150 (2001), pp. 141152.

6 Kess and Miyamoto, The Japanese Mental Lexicon, pp. 111–112.

7 Unger, J. M., Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading between the Lines (New York, 1996), pp. 125126.

8 Brown, R. A., ‘Chinese character education in Japan and South Korea’, Language and Communication 10 (4) (1990), pp. 299309.

9 He had been lampooned without mercy for the many mistakes he made in reading kanji during his term of office.

10 Agency for Cultural Affairs (2002), Heisei 13 Nendo “Kokugo ni kansuru Seron Chōsa”, online at (accessed 12 February 2009).

11 GOO Research (2007), “Kanjiryoku” nado ni kansuru Chōsa, online at (accessed 8 August 2007).

12 Unger, Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan, p. 53.

13 Ibid., p. 25.

14 See, for example, Dore, R. P., Education in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley, 1965).

15 Twine, N., Language and the Modern State: the Reform of Written Japanese (London, 1991), p. 225.

16 Ibid., pp. 237–238.

17 Yamamoto, M., Kindai Buntai Hassei no Shiteki Kenkyū, second edition (Tokyo, 1982).

18 Nitobe, I., Lectures on Japan: An Outline of the Development of the Japanese People and their Culture (Tokyo, 1936), p. 297.

19 Twine, Language and the Modern State, pp. 241–244.

20 Andō, M., ‘Kanji no seigen to kokugo no sonchō’ (1922), in Andō, M., Gengo Seisaku Ronkō (Tokyo, 1976), pp. 296303.

21 Gottlieb, N., Kanji Politics: Language Policy and Japanese Script (London, 1995), p. 61.

22 Kitta, H., Nippon no Rōmazi-undō (Tokyo, 1992).

23 See Gottlieb, N., Word-processing Technology in Japan: Kanji and the Keyboard (Surrey, 2000).

24 Kitta, Nippon no Rōmazi-undō.

25 See Gottlieb, Kanji Politics, for a discussion of these activities.

26 United States Education Mission to Japan, Report of the United States Education Mission to Japan (Washington DC, 1946), p. 22.

27 De Francis, J., ‘Japanese language reform: politics and phonetics’, Far Eastern Quarterly 16 (19) (1947), p. 220.

28 Trainor, J. C., Educational Reform in Occupied Japan: Trainor's Memoir (Tokyo, 1983).

29 Hall, R. K., Education for a New Japan (New Haven, 1949), p. 294.

30 For details, see Unger, Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan, and Wray, H., ‘Nationalism, cultural imperialism, and language reform in Occupied Japan’, in Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, ed. Starrs, R. (New York, 2001), pp. 253290.

31 Saitō, K., ‘Taipuraitaa Arekore 1–6’, Rōmazi Sekai 595 (1989), p. 23.

32 Muramatsu, S., ‘Wapuro no fukyū wa rōmazi undō ni kōki’, Rōmazi Sekai 588 (1985), p. 52.

33 Hannas, W. C., Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (Honolulu, 1997).

34 World Association of Newspapers (2005) World's 100 Largest Newspapers, online at (accessed 18 March 2009).

35 Yamada, H., ‘Ōsugiru kanji/kango ni dō kotaeru ka’, Gakujutsu Jōhō Sentaa Kiyō 6 (1994), pp. 156.

36 Unger, J. M., The Fifth Generation Fallacy: Why Japan is betting its Future on Artificial Intelligence (New York, 1987).

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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