Photo/Illutration The Asahi Shimbun

The Edo Period (1603-1867) was in its final decade when American physician and Christian missionary James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911)--better known in Japan by his chosen Japanized surname of “Hebon”--landed in Yokohama in October 1859 after a long voyage.

The first Japanese phrases he picked up upon arrival were “abunai” (Watch out!), “kora” (Hey, you) and “shikataganai” (Oh well, too bad), according to the book “Hebon, by Michio Takaya (1891-1994).

During his 33-year residency in Japan, the American doctor steadily mastered the language and published a Japanese-English dictionary that became the standard reference work for many foreigners studying Japanese.

Through his work of compiling dictionaries, he adopted a system for the romanization of Japanese words that became widely known as the Hepburn romanization system, or “Hebon-shiki.”

Confusion exists in Japan because there are two romanization systems being used, a recent survey by the Cultural Affairs Agency confirmed.

The Hepburn system, which romanizes Japanese words as closely as possible to how they sound, is used on public road signs around the nation.

I thought its use was quite extensive, but I was wrong. Apparently, a surprisingly large number of people are using the “kunrei” system for romanization, which was adopted by the government before World War II and is still taught today in elementary school Japanese language classes.

A city in Kanagawa Prefecture is written as Atsugi under the Hepburn system, but it is “Atugi” under the kunrei system, which is deemed the “correct” way by about 40 percent of the people surveyed by the Cultural Affairs Agency.

The survey also found that “matcha” is also spelled as “mattya” or in other ways. 

The Council for Cultural Affairs has reportedly started discussing how best to reduce the confusion.

The romanization of any language is no easy matter. With Chinese, for example, the system in China differs somewhat from that in Taiwan and varied transliterations exist in South Korea.

But when considering the convenience of foreigners visiting Japan, I would go with the thinking of Dr. Hepburn that transliterations should match how the words sound.

His surname is the same as that of actress Audrey Hepburn of “Roman Holiday” fame, but he called himself Hebon because of his strong belief that it should be closer to how his name sounded to Japanese ears.

His commitment was clear from the two kanji characters he used for signing his name. Together, they meant “plain text.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.