Romanization of East Asian Scripts

Notes on Romanization of East Asian Scripts

Romanization (conversion to Latin script) of East Asian scripts can vary broadly by historical period and the linguistic background of the people doing the Romanizing.  Standard Romanizations systems were introduced at different times for Chinese, Japanese and Korean (CJK below).  Before standardization (and even to some extent after!) authors created their own equivalents of perceived pronunciations.

For libraries, holding to one standard Romanization system is rightly considered essential for generating complete and accurate searches.  

* For Chinese, the standard is Pinyin.  

* For Japanese, Hepburn.

* For Korean, McCune-Reischauer.  

In the textbooks used for your class, Chinese and Korean Romanizations will match library standards.  However, please note that the Romanization for Japanese in your textbook and the Garland Encyclopedia does not match the library standard (see below.)

Moreover, for Chinese studies materials in English, when encountering pre-1958 publications or materials from Taiwan, you may encounter spellings in the old Wade-Giles system (Peking for Beijing etc.)  {Note: the library will Romanize Chinese texts using Pinyin whenever and wherever they were published, but authors writing in English may select variant ways to Romanize in their texts.}

Korean is even more complicated, as the system libraries have taken as standard was updated by a new official standard by the Korean government in the year 2000.  Therefore, Korean writers working in English will use a different system from the library's and your textbook's standard (while American writers continue to favor McCune-Reischauer.)  Korean websites, which often have English versions, will use the new system as well.  See below for a convenient Romanization converter.   

Please note: the library system has been created so that records can be retrieved with or without diacritical markings (apostrophes, long vowels, accent marks etc.)  You do not need to worry about these when searching a Romanized CJK title. It can become an issue with some English language publications, however. 

Chinese Romanization

The Wade-Giles system was the standard for almost a century, from the late 1850s to 1958.  Thereafter Pinyin was introduced as the new standard by the PRC (although not taken up by Taiwan).  Older texts in English and English publications by Taiwanese authors will likely use Wade-Giles.

Examples: T'u shu kuantu shu guan;  Hsüeh hsiaoxue xiao;  Mao Tse-tungMao Zedong. 

Use this handy tool to convert Pinyin or Wade-Giles to its alternate.

This website introduces the conversion of Wade-Giles to Pinyin by syllable, if you wish to see the differences.


Japanese Romanization

The system of Romanization taken as standard by most authors, publishers, and libraries outside of Japan is the Hepburn system.  However, a number of recent textbooks (including Music in Japan and the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music) favor the Nihonshiki (Japan style) system.  In order to search terms from your textbook in the library catalog and online, you will need to convert a few of the sounds.  In particular, any three letter syllable with a y at center, but also the seven two-letter syllables on the list below (note: all end with “i” or “u”; all two letter syllables ending with “a,” “e”, and “o” are identical in both systems) will need to be converted to the sound following the arrow for searches.

Variant Two-Letter Syllables:

  • し: si →  shi                                                              Examples:
  • じ: zi →  ji                                                                 Syakuhati→ Shakuhachi
  • ち: ti → chi                                                               Syamsen→ Shamisen
  • ぢ: di → ji                                                                 Tudumi→ tsuzumi
  • つ: tu → tsu                                                              Busi→ Bushi
  • づ: du → zu                                                              Hayasi→Hayashi
  • ふ: hu → fu                                                              Mitiyuki→Michiyuki

Variant Three-Letter Syllables:

  • しゃ: sya → sha
  • しゅ: syu → shu
  • しょ: syo → sho
  • じゃ: zya → ja
  • じゅ: zyu → ju
  • じょ: zyo → jo
  • ちゃ: tya → cha
  • ちゅ: tyu → chu
  • ちょ: tyo → cho
  • ぢゃ: dya → ja
  • ぢゅ: dyu → ju
  • ぢょ: dyo → jo


* For pronunciation, the Hepburn system is the most intuitive for English language speakers (“chu” as in “chew food;” “Jo” as in “his name is Joe;” “chi” as in “chia seeds are healthy;” “shi” as in “she got an A+;” “fu” as in “tofu” etc.)  The Japanese system uses fixed consonant + vowels patterns without regard for actual pronunciation.

* For your catalog searches, you do not need to worry about long vowels (ō, ū).  The catalog system has been set up to bring back BOTH long and short vowels when a regular vowel is entered.  You do need to be careful about a few, older non-standard Romanizations, however, such as Noh (representing the long vowel by adding an "h") and the use of "m" before "b" or "p," later unified with "n" (shimbun/shinbun).  

Nineteenth and early twentieth century texts may have old Romanizations in keeping with Japanese early modern orthography, which was simplified in the modern period.  Examples include "kwaidan" for "kaidan" and "Yedo" for "Edo."

Korean Romanization

The McCune-Reischauer system, established in the late 1930s, was the first to gain broad acceptance, and continues to be used by libraries and US-based publishers today.  It has been updated by the Revised Romanization system of the South Korean government, however, which has gained favor on the internet, as it does away with diacritical marks.

Examples: Pan'kut→Pangut;  Kugŏŭi Romaja P'yogipŏp→Gugeoui Romaja Pyogibeop; 

Use this handy tool to convert between McCune-Reischauer and Revised Romanization systems.