Why You Should Never Learn Japanese with Romaji

Unseen Japan
6 min readFeb 22, 2024

Some argue that beginners to the Japanese language can skip the writing system and just use romaji. Here’s why that’s never a good idea.

Picture: 水乃みのる / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

By Jay Allen

Are you starting to learn Japanese? Are you wondering whether you should learn with romaji (Roman characters) to help simplify getting started?

Well, I’m here to tell you: don’t. You should never learn Japanese with romaji — and here’s why.

The Japanese writing wall

Picture: Ystudio / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Look, I won’t deny it. For Western speakers, learning Japanese is a tall wall to climb. The writing system is often the hardest part of the scramble. With close to 2,000 standard kanji (ideographic characters) and two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, there’s a lot for a newbie to pick up.

Given this, it’s no surprise we’re all scrambling for shortcuts. For example, some learners use systems such as Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji to slam as many of the characters into their heads as they can in big gulps. (I’m not a fan but to each their own.)

For most people, the first part of the journey is learning the syllabaries. Hiragana in Japanese is used for everything from regular words to verb and adjectival inflections. Meanwhile, katakana, which is used primarily for loan words and emphasis, enables English speakers to pick up a lot of words that have crossed over into the Japanese lexicon. (Just beware of the “false friends” between Japanese and English.)

Why romaji is no shortcut

But…what if you didn’t have to learn even the kana? What if you didn’t have to learn any Japanese writing at all?

Recently, I came across an article by DC Palter that argued that both kana and romaji were decent choices for Japanese learners. In particular, the author argued that “light” learners — people who just wanna speak a little — could skip kanji and kana entirely and study strictly in romaji. Some textbooks, such as the first book of Japanese for Busy People (note: affiliate link), take this approach.

--

--