So it's a common issue that words transliterated from a non-latin alphabet towards latin alphabet will depend on which language using the latin alphabet they're translated into.

  • Arabic example : The profet's name is Muhammad in English and Mahomet in French.
  • Cyrillic (Russian) example : Tshaikovsky in English, Tschajkowski in German, Czajkowski in Polish, Tchaïkowsky in French.
  • Chinese example : Mao Zedong was known as Mao Tsé-Toung in French.

For japanese however, it seems extremely rare that transliteration does not follow stricly the Hepburn system, designed towards english pronunciation.

For example, when transliterating from Japanese to French

  • The city Hiroshima should be romanized "Hirochima"
  • The island of Hokkaido should be romanized "Hokkaïdo"
  • "Wasabi" should be romanized "Wassabi"

But nevertheless, the English romanizations are used everywhere, leading to wrong pronunciation. If this was the case for all non-latin scripted languages I'd understand that the global impact of English language is predominant over correct French pronunciation. However what I don't understand is why this is the case only for Japanese and not for Arabic nor Russian.

  • Somewhat related: How are English spellings determined for words from eastern languages. "Always" is not exactly correct. The Hepburn system is one among many; it's currently popular, but it wasn't the first and it isn't the only one used today Jan 11, 2018 at 15:53
  • Are you asking why (if it's actually true) that an English based transliteration is used for other languages?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 11, 2018 at 22:48
  • @curiousdannii Exactly.
    – Bregalad
    Jan 12, 2018 at 7:11
  • 'Hiroshima' should be 'Hilochima' in French. Another word that would require a lot of modifications is 'samoulaï'. Apr 6, 2019 at 7:57

1 Answer 1


The goal of the Hepburn system is to provide a more or less regular, unified system for writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet. Though superficially similar to English, it doesn't have to follow the particular rules of a specific language.

This is most visible regarding the vowel system. Japanese vowels あ, い, う, え, お are spelled a, i, u, e, o in Hepburn; long vowels are spelled aa/ā, ii, ū, ee/ē, ō; えい and おう are spelled ei and ō. In English, the closest vowels are those in the words bat, bit, put, bet, bot; bar, bee, boo, bay, go. In French, it would be a, i, ou, é, o, with the tréma used as in French. Neither English nor French spelling works for Japanese vowels.

In most languages written with the Roman alphabet, they use Hepburn to spell Japanese words because they are spelling Japanese words, not loanwords of Japanese origin. There is a difference. In English, many words of Japanese origin are simple transliterations based on Hepburn (without macrons), though some have a more-or-less English-like spelling. Examples: bokeh, noh, tycoon, moxa (moxibustion), skosh, rickshaw. In Spanish, 東京 is written Tokio, and 屏風 has been loaned as biombo. Even in French there are such loanwords with French-like spelling: Aïnou, atémi, daïkon, daïmio, taïcoun.

There's a choice to be made, between a standard romanization system that reflects the phonology of the source language (such as Hepburn for Japanese or Pinyin for Chinese) and a customary romanization system that adapts foreign words to the spelling system of the target language (which is what you're proposing).

The latter is more prevalent between European languages (and also Arabic whose speakers are geographically and culturally close to Europe), possibly because of an earlier tradition of literary exchange that favored the development of customary systems.

Those traditions didn't exist between Europe and the languages of East Asia, because geographical distance and isolation made cultural exchange difficult, so each book used ad-hoc romanization systems that didn't become widely adopted until rather recently, when global commerce created a need for standardized romanization systems.

  • 3
    I don't know if I agree that the similarity is really that superficial given that the Hepburn system was designed by an American and first used in a Japanese–English dictionary. The use of "sh", "ch" and "j" in Hepburn are noticeable areas where it seems fairly clear the system was originally oriented towards an English-speaking audience. (Pinyin seems less oriented towards English speakers, although it does borrow some from English orthography.) I agree that Hepburn has become a kind of international standard, but the question seems to be asking when that widespread adoption occured, and why. Jan 11, 2018 at 23:33
  • Kunrei-shiki is the "more or less regular, unified system for writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet" and is the one the government likes to push; it is generally only used by the Japanese themselves. Hepburn is tailored to English sounds; but still closer to other European languages than kunrei is, I believe. Jul 7, 2022 at 6:49

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