This is an issue many Japanese learners come up against, particularly if they live outside Japan. After all, If you are not in the country, it seems difficult to justify the huge amount of time that learning Japanese characters seems to require.
So what are the problems in using Romaji (Roman letters, like the characters you are reading right now) for studying Japanese:
1. Mother-Tongue Conflict
The associations your brain will create between Japanese words written in Romaji and English words (or those of your mother tongue) greatly increases the risk of mispronunciation. Japanese symbols will have none of these associations for you. The very fact that they are completely alien helps you to start your language learning experience from a blank sheet. Your chances of being able to gain the correct pronunciation soar.
2. Show Me The Romaji
Your textbook may be in Romaji, but you will be very hard-pressed to find any real examples in Japan. Of course, you can see a fair amount of reasonably understandable English, but not Romaji. And watch what happens when write some Japanese in Romaji and show it to your native speaker friend: They have a really hard time deciphering it, because Japanese people just don't it.
3. Today's Crutch Becomes Tomorrow's Burden
If you decide to continue your studies in Japanese, you will eventually need to start to grapple with the characters themselves anyway. In my opinion, it is harder to leave the crutch of Romaji behind than it is to bite the character bullet at the beginning of your studies.
As you can see, there are serious problems with using Romaji when you start to learn Japanese. So what is my advice to learners? Well, it really depends on your motivation and needs:
1. The Serious Student
This could be a person who is going to be living in Japan for a period of time, whether as a teacher or a businessperson, or someone who travels regularly to Japan for meetings.
If you are in this group, you should first master hiragana and katakana before you even start with any other aspect of the language. Then, when you do begin, you can dive right into a "proper" Japanese textbook.
Hiragana and katakana are not at all difficult to learn. I learned them part-time in a couple of weeks. Even kanji can be learned fairly rapidly by a motivated and well-organized student with the right tools.
2. The Hobbyist
Perhaps you don't have a burning need to learn Japanese. You are doing it for pleasure, or because you are planning on visiting Japan.
If this is you, then your options are more varied. However, even in your situation, I would not suggest starting with a Romaji textbook. Instead, I would recommend you begin with the spoken language. If you are wondering how you can do this if you are not in Japan, check out the Pimsleur method. Sure, it is a little expensive even second-hand. The point is that you will be able to speak and understand enough for a short trip. Once you have completed the course, you can then decide whether you wish to stop there, or continue studying in a more serious manner - in which case you then follow the Serious Student method I mentioned before.
Learning to speak and listen will keep your language-learning fun, whilst not undermining any future serious study by getting you used to the Romaji crutch.
So whatever your motivations are and whatever your needs, if you can avoid the Romaji crutch, you will pick up the language better and be well-placed to make rapid progress in the future.
About the Author
Stephen Munday lives in Japan and is the creator of http://www.japanese-name-translation.com/ where you can download images of over 2,200 names in kanji or get a romantic calligraphy gift.
This article is ? Stephen Munday 2005. Permission is given to reproduce this article in whole with the URLs correctly hyperlinked.