April 19, 2012
The road to romaji
In chapter 23 of Serpent of Time, Ryô wonders about the "characters on the signposts along the road written in an unknown script." That would be romaji, or literally, Japanese written with "Roman characters."
Marco Polo arrived in China around 1275. "Japan" evolved from the Chinese pronunciation of "Nippon." But Europeans didn't set foot in Japan until the Portuguese established a successful arms trade in 1543 (smack dab in the middle of a civil war).
The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier reached Japan in 1549. The Jesuits initially made significant strides thanks in large part to the warlord Oda Nobunaga, who was fascinated by all things European and got on very badly with the Buddhists.
Japan's Catholic community fared much worse under Nobunaga's successor, and were eventually outlawed by the Tokugawa shoguns (for reasons more political than theological). Very limited trading rights were thereafter granted to the Protestant Dutch.
Until the 19th century, anything of European origins (especially medicine) was called "Dutch learning" (rangaku). The men sent out to meet Commodore Perry's black ships spoke Dutch, which required a Japanese-Dutch-English intermediary.
Dutch was clearly on the way out, and bilingual English speakers like John Manjiro (whose adventurous life belongs squarely in the "you couldn't make it up" category) became the shogunate's chief translators.
The most common system of romaji used today, known as "Hepburn," was first formulated in the 1880s by James Curtis Hepburn, a doctor and lexicographer.
The "official" romaji system is Kunrei-shiki, though even the Japanese government prefers Hepburn, which conforms very closely to the most common phonemes associated with the Latin alphabet (unlike Chinese pinyin, for example).
Kunrei-shiki is useful for linguists who want to exactly represent how inflections and conjugations are expressed in the underlying kana. Unfortunately, it's
needlessly confusing to everybody else.