There are at least four different ways of romanizing Japanese words (that is, writing them using the Roman alphabet instead of the Japanese alphabets), and the fact that different textbooks and dictionaries use different methods of romanization, and sometimes even invent their own systems, causes some confusion as to how Japanese is actually pronounced. The Japanese themselves tend to mix different systems, even with words in the same sentence. This can be very confusing.

There seem to be two different types of romanization systems: those that try to approximate the pronunciation and those that try to imitate the Japanese phonetic syllabaries (kana) for consistency and ease of conjugation.

The systems most frequently encountered are JSL, Shin-kunrei-shiki, Hepburn, and Nippon-shiki. The system most familiar to Westerners is probably the Hepburn system, a proununciation-based system. To get an idea of the differences between the four systems, here are the various romanizations of the word for "romanization":

JSL roomazi
Shin-kunrei-shiki rômazi
Hepburn rõmaji
(note: that tilde is supposed to be a straight line, but I don't think HTML can produce that character)
Nippon-shiki rõmadi

Like I said, the most common systems are JSL and Hepburn, which are unfortunately the two with the least in common. For example:

Ohayõ gozaimasu. Watashi wa Jîbasu to moshimasu, soshite nõdo o kakitai desu yo. (Hepburn)
Ohayoo gozaimasu. Watasi wa Jiibasu to mosimasu, sosite noodo o kakitai desu yo.(JSL)
Good morning. I'm Jeeves, and I like to write nodes!

Because JSL emphasizes consistency and corresponds directly to the native Japanese phonology, it tends to ignore the actual sound of a phoneme in favor of a consistent way of representing it:

  • "si" is pronounced "shi"
  • "zyoo" is pronounced "jõ"
  • "syoo" is pronounced "shõ";
  • "tu" is prounced "tsu"
...and so forth. Those odd representations of simple sounds make it slightly easier to manipulate the words down the line, but require the student to learn how to read JSL itself.

An advantage of JSL is that it doesn't require special symbols -- long vowels are simply written as a double vowel, like ã --> aa. The major disadvantage is that the average foreigner has no idea how exactly to prounounce a word like "zyugyoo", which would be rendered "jugyõ" (class) using Hepburn.

When I write about Japanese for fellow Westerners to read, I usually use Hepburn, but with the vowel system of JSL to avoid special symbols. So if you see "deshoo", remember that the double "o" is pronounced "oh" rather than "ooh".

Non-vowel differences between JSL and Hepburn are summarized below:

JSL	Hepburn
sya	sha
si	shi
syu	shu
syo	sho
zya	ja
zi	ji
zyu	ju
zyo	jo
tya	cha
ti	chi
tyu	chu
tyo	cho
tu	tsu
hu	fu

Note, however, that the Japanese syllable "hu" or "fu" is actually pronounced somewhere between the two, like blowing out a candle or something. It's tricky.

To get around the problems of romanization, I advise simply learning the syllabaries (katakana and hiragana) and writing all your Japanese in its native script. This makes learning the language easier and causes no pronunciation or rendering confusion. Unfortuately, I don't believe that Japanese characters are supported by E2, so romanziation is our only option here.