A Beginner’s Guide to Inputting Historical Kana: Installing a Font for “Hentaigana”

There are several ways to render historical kana (commonly known as variant kana or hentaigana 変体仮名) in our writing or online. Traditionally photography, scanning and screencapping have been popular. Users simply capture images of cursive or variant script and include those images within their physical or digital publication or resource. This is the method used in Hentaigana o shiraberu 変体仮名を調べる (an example of which can be seen below), but has also been extensively used in printed publications.

Some examples of historical kana taken from primary sources used for the sound a.

Since 2017, 286 historical kana have been included in the Unicode Standard through the Kana Supplement and Kana Extended-A blocks meaning that users are now able to more easily input and represent historical kana on their computers and in the publications or resources that they create. This does not allow users to input or display different levels of cursivity or capture differences in handwriting, but it provides a starting point for representing historical kana in modern media. To give an example of this limitation, the kana a 𛀄 (a あ in modern Japanese) from the jibo 字母 a 阿 can only be rendered as a 𛀄, whereas the same character is displayed in five different versions in Hentaigana o shiraberu (see the second row in the above image) and many more in primary sources. In other words, much is lost through the standardization of historical kana for our modern needs – we cannot represent these characters in the same way that they feature in primary sources with different styles and levels of cursivity, but we can represent them without recourse to the more laborious methods of photography, scanning and screencapping.

How do those with little knowledge of the computers go about inputting historical kana into their computer? Perhaps jargon like “Unicode Standard” has already made this seem like an arduous task. Today I am going to provide a short and simple guide to getting your computer to input and display historical kana.

Most computers don’t recognize historical kana by default. If you visit the Wikipedia page for Hentaigana you can check if your computer is displays these characters. If you see something like the image below your computer isn’t displaying the characters correctly, so what do you do?

When a computer isn’t displaying historical kana.

All you need to do is download a font that supports historical kana. There are several, but I use BabelStone Han developed by Andrew West. Scroll to the Download section of the BabelStone Han page on the BabelStone website and download the BabelStoneHan.zip or BabelStoneHan.ttf files as pictured.

The Download section of the BabelStone Han page.

I do not know if the process differs for PC users, but for those on Mac all you need to do is double click on the downloaded file (unzip it if needed) and then click on “Install Font.”

Installing the font.

Now you will be able to see historical kana on webpages and input it into applications such as Microsoft Word.

Historical kana displayed correctly on Wikipedia.

In order to input historical kana into Word or other applications you need to select the BabelStone Han font within the application. For most users it will then be sufficient to copy and paste the historical kana that they need from Kana Supplement and Kana Extended-A block charts online such as the one on the aforementioned Wikipedia page. You can also copy-paste these characters into your browser or other locations.

That’s all there is to it. Enjoy!

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