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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.
In 1867, American 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. He published a second edition in 1872 and a third edition in 1886, which introduced minor changes. The third edition's system had been adopted in the previous year by the R?maji-kai (?, "Romanization Club"), a group of Japanese and foreign scholars who promoted a replacement of the Japanese script with a romanized system.
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. Compared to Hepburn, Nihon-shiki is more systematic in its representation of the Japanese syllabary (kana), as each symbol corresponds to a phoneme. However, the notation requires further explanation for accurate pronunciation by non-Japanese speakers: for example, the syllables [?i] and [t?a], which are written as shi and cha in Hepburn, are rendered as si and tya in Nihon-shiki. After Nihon-shiki was presented to the R?maji-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.
After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the two factions resurfaced as the Romaji Hirome-kai (, "Society for the Spread of Romanization"), which supported Hepburn's style, and the Nihon no Romaji-sha (, "Romanization Society of Japan"), which supported Nihon-shiki. In 1908, Hepburn was revised by educator Kan? Jigor? and others of the Romaji Hirome-kai, which began calling it the Sh?sei Hebon-shiki (, "modified Hepburn system") or Hy?jun-shiki (, "standard system").
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. 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. On September 3, 1945, at the beginning of the occupation of Japan after World War II, Supreme Commander for the Allied PowersDouglas MacArthur issued a directive mandating the use of modified Hepburn by occupation forces. 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.
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) often considered authoritative (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 .
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 . 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, and is the most common variant of Hepburn romanization used today.
In Japan itself, there are some variants officially mandated for various uses:
Railway Standard (, Tetsud? Keiji Kijun Kitei), 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, 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 (?, Gaimush? Ryoken Kitei), a permissive standard, which explicitly allows the use of "non-Hepburn romaji" (, hi-Hebon-shiki r?maji) 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 ? as oh, oo or ou (Satoh, Satoo or Satou for ).
Details of the variants can be found below.
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 following differences are in addition to those in the second version:
? was written as sz.
? was written as tsz.
? and ? were written as du.
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. 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.
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:
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.
Toukyou - written using kana spelling: ? as ou or oo (depending on the kana). This is also known as w?puro style, as it reflects how text is entered into a Japanese word processor by using a keyboard with Roman characters. W?puro more accurately represents the way that ? is written in kana by differentiating between (as in (), Toukyou in w?puro) and (as in (), tooi in w?puro); 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 and Basic English Writers' Japanese-English Wordbook follow this style, and it is also used in the JSL form of romanization.
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, n + a and ?na, and n + ya and nya), but its hyphen usage is not clear.
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.
(?): annai - guide
(): Gunma - Gunma
(): kan'i - simple
(?): shin'y? - trust
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.
* -- 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.: (Mineruwa "Minerva", from Latin MINERVA [m?'n?rwa]); (Wuruk?nusu "Vulcan", from Latin VVLCANVS, Vulc?nus [w?l'ka:n?s]). The wa-type of foreign sounds (as in watt or white) is usually transcribed to ? (wa), while the wu-type (as in wood or woman) is usually to ? (u) or (?).
? -- ? 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.