There are several generally similar yet sometimes conflicting standards for this Japanese-to-``English'' transliteration. Sometimes romaji refers to the specific transliteration following one of the standards, and sometimes romaji is used sloppily to refer to the general rough-and-tumble make-it-look-English (or German, or whatnot) representation.
Note that the common English versions of many Japanese words are not ``proper'' romaji. For example, the name of the capital city of Japan can be properly written in a number of ways, such as ``Toukyou'' and ``Tôkyô'', but is never (properly) written as ``Tokyo''. ``Tokyo'' is an English word. ``Toukyou'' is a representation of a Japanese word. There is a huge difference. Much of the difference, however, is mitigated by the fuzzy search used by this server.
Now that I've explained that, I can confess to lying in the first paragraph. ``Romaji'' is an English word. The romaji for ローマ字 is really ``roomaji''.
This server handles most commonly occurring romaji. There is
more detailed information about this server's romaji,
including uncommon characters or romaji transliterations.
Kanji is both the English word, and the romaji for the Japanese
``漢字'', which is generally translated
as ``Chinese Character''. The Japanese writing system is composed of two
different types of characters, kana and kanji. A normally educated
Japanese might be able to write 1,500 to 2,000 different characters, and
able to recognize even more in context.
Unlike the letters of English (or German or whatnot) which have meaning only when combined into words, any individual kanji imparts both pronunciation (the kanji's reading) and meaning. For example, in 漢字 itself, the second character generally means character. You'll notice it's also used in ローマ字, romaji.
Here's a note about some
popular kanji dictionaries for English speakers.
Here's one about kanji radicals.
The word kana refers to the two phonetic scripts of Japanese,
and katakana. Combined with kanji, they compose the Japanese writing
system. Unlike kanji, which impart meaning as well as sound, kana
generally impart only sound (and are used to compose words and phrases much
like letters are used in English).
Hiragana is the script used when writing most native Japanese words. Katakana is generally used when writing words which have been imported from other languages, and can also be used instead of kanji or hiragana for emphasis (katakana can be thought of as being similar to italics).
Often, a word is composed of both kanji and kana, and in this case the kana is called okurigana (literally ``the kana that goes with (a word)'').
Since a kanji's reading might not be know by the reader, kanji are often
augmented with tiny kana written along side (or above) to indicate the reading.
Kana used in this way is called furigana.
Kanji imparts both meaning and pronunciation to a word or phrase.
The pronunciation that a particular character imparts is known as its
``reading'' (in Japanese, yomikata).
Most characters have a small set of possible readings,
and any word or phrase has a reading.
Sometimes the same word can have multiple readings, with each version having different meanings or nuances. For example, 見物 can be pronounced either kenbutu (meaning ``sightseeing'') or mimono (meaning ``spectacle; an amazing sight'').
Even the word for Japan,
can be pronounced two ways: nihon
The latter tends to have a more nationalistic connotation.
Why have kanji at all?
When first exposed to kanji and what is obviously a more complex writing
system than most, an obvious question is why have kanji at all. Well,
kanji makes things easier to read. Really.
Let's look at what in some people's romaji would look like:
Sort of an extreme example, but with so few syllables in the language (there are more vowel syllables in English than all syllables in Japanese), reading kana-only (or, heaven forbid, romaji) is tough!
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