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For other meanings, see Hepburn (disambiguation).

The Hepburn romanization system (Japanese: ヘボン式 Hebon-shiki) was devised by Reverend James Curtis Hepburn to transcribe the sounds of the Japanese language into the Roman alphabet for his Japanese–English dictionary, published in 1867. This system was subsequently revised and called Shūsei Hebon-shiki (修正ヘボン式). This revised version is sometimes also referred to as Hyōjun-shiki (標準式) (standard style).

The original and revised variants of Hepburn remain by far the most popular methods of transcription of Japanese. It gives the best indication to an English speaker of how the word is pronounced in modern Japanese. Native Japanese speakers familiar with the Roman alphabet through the study of English tend to find Hepburn more comfortable than the official Monbushō system.


Legal status

Hepburn is based on English phonology, not Japanese, and as such has faced some opposition in Japan. In particular, a September 21, 1937 cabinet ordinance proclaimed an alternative system now commonly known as Kunrei to be Japan's official romanization for all purposes, but this was overturned by the SCAP during the Occupation of Japan. The (slightly revised) ordinance was reissued in 1954.

In 1972, a revised version of Hepburn was codified as ANSI standard Z39.11-1972. It was proposed in 1989 as a draft for ISO 3602, but rejected in favor of Kunrei. The Z39.11-1972 standard was consequently deprecated on October 6, 1994.

However, despite its lack of de jure status, Hepburn remains the de facto standard. In Japan, almost all official signs (street signs, warnings, notices, etc) are romanized in Hepburn. JR and all the other transportation systems (buses, subways, other train systems, aeroplanes, etc) use Hepburn. Signs and notices in city offices and police stations use Hepburn. Signs at shrines, temples and attractions use Hepburn. Newspapers and TV use Hepburn. Cities and prefectures use Hepburn. Publications by the Japanese Foreign Ministry use Hepburn. Official tourism information put out by the government uses Hepburn, as do all guidebooks, local and foreign, on Japan. Students of Japanese as a foreign language often learn Hepburn.

Standard variants of Hepburn romanization

There are three standard variants of Hepburn romanization.

  • The first is traditional Hepburn, which renders long vowels and syllabic n in a variety of ways.
  • The second is revised Hepburn, a revised version of traditional Hepburn, in which the rendering of syllabic n as m before certain consonants is no longer used. This is the most common form of Japanese romanization used today, and is used by the Library of Congress. (Revised Hepburn may be referred to as modified Hepburn.)
  • The third is modified Hepburn, which builds on revised Hepburn to further modify traditional Hepburn. This version is consistent in its treatment of long vowels and syllable n. It has been adopted by some major dictionaries (e.g. the Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary published by Oxford University Press), but is still mainly the preserve of linguists. (The term modified Hepburn may be used to refer to revised Hepburn.)

Details of these variants can be found below.

Features of Hepburn romanization

The main feature of Hepburn is that its spelling is based on English phonology. More technically, where syllables constructed systematically according to the Japanese syllabary contain the "unstable" consonant for the modern spoken language, the orthography is changed to something that, as an English speaker would pronounce it, better matches the real sound, for example し is written shi not *si.


  • When he へ is used as a particle it is written e.
  • When ha は is used as a particle it is written wa.
  • When wo を is used as a particle it is written o.

Long vowels

In traditional and revised Hepburn:

  • The long vowels o and u are indicated by a macron, e.g. long o is written ō.
  • In words of Japanese or Chinese origin, the long vowel e is written ei.
  • In words of Japanese or Chinese origin, the long vowel i is written ii.
  • In words of foreign origin, all long vowels are indicated by macrons.

In modified Hepburn:

  • All long vowels are indicated by doubling the vowel, e.g. long o is written oo.
    • The combination ei is reserved for cases where the two vowels are pronounced as distinct sounds, e.g. in the word supein, meaning 'Spain'.

Syllabic n

In traditional Hepburn:

  • Syllabic n (ん) is written as n before consonants, but as n' (with an apostrophe) before vowels and y. It is written as m before other labial consonants, i.e. b, m, and p.

In revised Hepburn:

  • The rendering m before labial consonants is not used, being replaced with n. It is still written n' before vowels and y.

In modified Hepburn:

  • Syllabic n is always written as n with a macron, such as is used to indicate long vowels in traditional Hepburn. (This can be achieved on word processors through the use of various specialized fonts, e.g. Times Gandhari.) This renders the use of apostrophes unnecessary.

Double consonants

  • Double (or 'geminate') consonants are marked by doubling the consonant following the っ, except for shssh, chtch.


Variations of the Hepburn system indicate the long vowels ō and ū as follows:

  • Tōkyō: indicated with macrons. This follows the rules of the traditional and revised Hepburn systems, and is considered to be standard.
  • Tky: indicated with circumflexes. Circumflexes are often used when a word processor does not allow macrons. With the spread of Unicode, this is becoming rare.
  • Tokyo: not indicated at all. This is common for Japanese words that have been adopted into English.
  • Tohkyoh: indicated with an "h". This is sometimes known as "passport Hepburn", as the Japanese Foreign Ministry has authorized (but not required) this usage in passports. [1]
  • Toukyou: written using hiragana spelling: ō as ou and ū as uu. This is sometimes called wāpuro style, as this is how text is entered into a Japanese word processor (do purosessā) using a keyboard with Roman characters.
  • Tookyoo: written by doubling the long vowels. This follows the rules of the modified Hepburn system, but is also common when writing words of foreign origin without reference to any particular system, i.e. paatii for パーティー ("party") instead of pātī.

Some linguists object to Hepburn, as it does not transcribe Japanese phonetic structures, inflections, or conjugations properly. Supporters argue that Hepburn is not intended as a linguistic tool, and that IPA should be used in such contexts instead.

Hepburn romanization charts

For hiragana

a i u e o (ya) (yu) (yo)
ka ki ku ke ko きゃ kya きゅ kyu きょ kyo
sa shi su se so しゃ sha しゅ shu しょ sho
ta chi tsu te to ちゃ cha ちゅ chu ちょ cho
na ni nu ne no にゃ nya にゅ nyu にょ nyo
ha hi fu he ho ひゃ hya ひゅ hyu ひょ hyo
ma mi mu me mo みゃ mya みゅ myu みょ myo
ya yu yo
ra ri ru re ro りゃ rya りゅ ryu りょ ryo
わ wa ゐ wi ゑ we を wo
ga gi gu ge go ぎゃ gya ぎゅ gyu ぎょ gyo
za ji zu ze zo じゃ ja じゅ ju じょ jo
da ji zu de do
ba bi bu be bo びゃ bya びゅ byu びょ byo
pa pi pu pe po ぴゃ pya ぴゅ pyu ぴょ pyo

The characters in red are obsolete in modern Japanese.

For standard katakana

ア a イ i ウ u エ e オ o
カ ka キ ki ク ku ケ ke コ ko キャ kya キュ kyu キョ kyo
サ sa シ shi ス su セ se ソ so シャ sha シュ shu ショ sho
タ ta チ chi ツ tsu テ te ト to チャ cha チュ chu チョ cho
ナ na ニ ni ヌ nu ネ ne ノ no ニャ nya ニュ nyu ニョ nyo
ハ ha ヒ hi フ fu ヘ he ホ ho ヒャ hya ヒュ hyu ヒョ hyo
マ ma ミ mi ム mu メ me モ mo ミャ mya ミュ myu ミョ myo
ヤ ya ユ yu ヨ yo
ラ ra リ ri ル ru レ re ロ ro リャ rya リュ ryu リョ ryo
ワ wa ヰ wi ヱ we ヲ wo
ン n
ガ ga ギ gi グ gu ゲ ge ゴ go ギャ gya ギュ gyu ギョ gyo
ザ za ジ ji ズ zu ゼ ze ゾ zo ジャ ja ジュ ju ジョ jo
ダ da ヂ ji ヅ zu デ de ド do
バ ba ビ bi ブ bu ベ be ボ bo ビャ bya ビュ byu ビョ byo
パ pa ピ pi プ pu ペ pe ポ po ピャ pya ピュ pyu ピョ pyo

The characters in red are obsolete in modern Japanese.

For extended katakana

These are used mainly to represent the sounds in words in other languages. Most of these are not formally standardized and some are very rarely used.

イェ ye
ウィ wi ウェ we ウォ wo
ヴァ va ヴィ vi ヴ vu ヴェ ve ヴォ vo
シェ she
ジェ je
チェ che
ティ ti トゥ tu
テュ tyu
ディ di ドゥ du
デュ dyu
ツァ tsa ツィ tsi ツェ tse ツォ tso
ファ fa フィ fi フェ fe フォ fo
フュ fyu

Last updated: 08-30-2005 02:20:37
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12