prohibited macrons?

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

2 thoughts on “prohibited macrons?

  1. I think many official attempts at romanization throughout east Asia have bigger problems than macrons! Put another way, it doesn’t what goes on top if what’s below isn’t up to snuff.

  2. First, thanks for linking to my site, above.

    Second, I don’t really think this is a very heated argument (unlike the interesting battle over Korean Romanization). It’s more the result of Hepburn romanization having gradually died out, starting from Tokyo and working its way outwards. A lot of rural/suburban Japanese railway stations still have very old-style romanization (‘jya’ etc) which will gradually be supplanted as the the wave of ‘international’ signage spreads.

    Speaking of railway signs in Asia, one thing that I think is very interesting is the selection of glyph forms on Korean railway signs (specially near Seoul). Often, they’ll put the sign in large hangul characters and then they’ll provide kanji that are neither particularly Japanese, nor exactly traditional Chinese, nor quite Korean but a sort of middle ground — which thus serve as a way for all han character users to find their way around in an approximate sort of way.

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