Learning how to read cursive Japanese script (or alternatively cursive Chinese script) is one of the most difficult tasks that I have faced as a scholar of East Asian history. Even now it is a skill that I and even many native Japanese speakers struggle with. Most primary sources composed prior to the Meiji period (1868-1912) were hand-written. Some of these sources were written and printed in regular script (J. Kaisho 楷書), however, many more were written and printed in cursive scripts. Perhaps the below image, displaying regular script (left) and one form of cursive script (right) helps to illustrate the major changes that Chinese characters (C. Hànzì 漢字, J. Kanji 漢字) undergo when written in cursive form, a style which ultimately reduces the number of brush strokes with which a character is written.
Learning Japanese in the palm of your hand
In recent years, the burden of learning how to read cursive Japanese characters has been reduced through an increased availability of resources and study materials in both traditional (monographic) and digital formats. Amongst these resources are two free apps. Over the past three years, I have used both apps sporadically to aid in my learning of cursive characters alongside more traditional study materials. During fieldwork that I undertook in Japan in 2015 and 2016, I would regularly use these apps on train and bus journeys. I have also used them less regularly during evening strolls, breaks at work, and as a pre-bedtime activity. Since, both apps allow for either short bursts of study or lengthier study periods they are suitable for both long journeys (so long as your phone battery lasts) and filling an empty two to three minutes in your schedule. In my personal experience, however, I have found them most useful for self-testing and studying in short bursts.
The Hentaigana App
The first app was developed by the University of California, the Yanai Initiative, and Waseda University and is called The Hentaigana App. The app has two primary features; a flashcard mode and a search function. The flashcard mode presents the user with cursive characters which when tapped reveal the character in regular script along with the hiragana 平仮名 (one of the Japanese syllabaries) that it represents. When you remember a character, you swipe it to the left, and if you require further practice you swipe it to the right. In another menu, you may select the sort characters that you will see in flashcard mode based on their modern hiragana counterparts. The search function allows the user to view cursive characters based on their modern hiragana counterparts, and provides multiple versions of the characters in different cursive styles. There are numerous extra features found through the menu, which include Tsuzukigaki Mode where you can see characters within the context of a sentence and Sources mode which allows you to view the primary sources written in cursive characters. The app receives regular updates. Its interface is in English, which leaves me somewhat bemused as presumably those seeking to learn how to read cursive Japanese script have a strong grounding in the Japanese language. The app has one major limitation that must be noted, namely that (as its name suggests) it deals only with hentaigana 変体仮名 (the variant characters used historically to represent parts of the modern hiragana syllabary). At the time of writing this article its database holds some 326 characters, which is quite large given that only 286 hentaigana characters exist in unicode script. It also has 147 jibo 字母 characters (characters from which hentaigana derived). Another potential issue for some users, is that the app provides no motivation to practice. The developers could easily add a rewards system within the flashcard mode akin to those featured on other language learning apps such as Duolingo, which may help to keep users motivated. The app provides a useful introduction to cursive Japanese, and as it can be accessed on phone or tablet provides a quick and simple means to practice reading cursive script. Despite this, the focus on hentaiganawill leave most users wanting more following their completion of the app’s flashcard mode. More details about the app can be found here: http://alcvps.cdh.ucla.edu/support/. The app is available on both the Apple Store and Google Play.
Kuzushiji Gakushū Shien Apuri KuLA
The second app was developed by Yuta Hashimoto and Osaka University academic Yoichi Iikura. It is entitled Kuzushiji Gakushū Shien Apuri KuLA くずし字学習支援アプリKuLA (E. Cursive Character Study Support App KuLA) with the English title Kuzushiji Learning Application. The app’s interface is in Japanese. Its menu contains an information page on using the app and an introduction to the basics of studying cursive characters. It also has a search feature. The main body of the app consists of fourteen categories through which one can view different cursive characters. Five of these categories contain hentaigana with a database of 103 characters. The remaining nine categories contain non-hentaigana, Chinese characters with a database of 158 characters. After selecting a category, you can view individual characters for the purpose of study or test your knowledge of each category with short quizzes. Perhaps the most useful feature of this app is that when you select a character to view, you are provided with examples of the character in the form of photographs taken from real historical texts in multiple handwritten styles. Furthermore, by swiping left you can view photographs of the cursive characters as components of compound words. Sadly the app has not received any updates since 2016 so those wanting to access a larger database may be left desiring more. Like The Hentaigana App, the Kuzushiji Learning Application provides a useful introduction to cursive Japanese. In my opinion, the additional features of the Kuzushiji Learning Application such as the ability to view characters within the context of compound words gives it a slight advantage on its competition. Similar features exist in The Hentaigana App, however, the Kuzushiji Learning Application allows its users to access these features when viewing the character that they are studying rather than burying them within a separate and easily forgotten corner of the app beneath the settings menu. Despite this, I would argue that using both apps in tandem provides the user with the best experience and study opportunities. The Kuzushiji Learning Application is available in the iTunes Store.