Signs leading to a temple in Japan’s Nara Prefecture feature a variety of romanizations. Inconsistent romanization is hardly newsworthy in itself, this being common in East Asia. But things get a little more interesting as the article progresses.
Akihiko Yonekawa, a Japanese language professor at Baika Women’s University, says that “Muroji” is not a proper phonetic spelling, so if that is the goal it should be spelled “Murooji.” According to the direct transcription of kana characters, it would be “Murouji,” but that does not comply with Hepburn’s principles. The professor notes that prohibiting macrons made the whole process more difficult.
West Japan Railway Co. agrees. Forgoing the Hepburn system, the railway firm uses macrons for names with long vowel sounds, like Kyoto.
Macrons were used in romanization for decades after World War II, but in 1986 the transport ministry prohibited them.
“We don’t know the details as to the change,” says a transport ministry official.
“But we presume that Roman characters with macrons were not used for many of the road signs in the past, and those officials in charge of the changes might have thought it would be difficult for foreigners to understand the Roman alphabet with added macrons, since there are no macrons in English.”
As far as Yonekawa is concerned, the problem comes down to indifference. “Japanese people stick to how kanji are used appropriately, but they show little interest in other types of characters,” he says with a sigh.
Difficult for foreigners to understand the Roman alphabet with added macrons? Perhaps what the official means is that without macrons even the most ignorant foreigners can imagine that they know how to pronounce Japanese correctly. But with them they might have cause to doubt. Is that really such a bad thing?
source: Long vowels spell confusion for temple, International Herald Tribune & Asahi Shimbum, March 7,2006