Lately a few people have inquired as to what in the good goddamn I think I'm doing posting about pre-Meiji Japanese writing as if it were legible. I don't usually post about this sort of thing, but since my own journey down this particular rabbit hole was complete serendipity, I figure that by passing on the information I might also free myself of its eldritch weight. You know, by transferring it to you. It's like The Ring except you have to sit down with a dictionary and puzzle over the curse for like half an hour before it can take effect.

So this was a couple of years ago now. I was trawling the discount shelves at the Junkudō home base in Ikebukuro when I came across this book: Genten de tanoshimu Edo no sekai — Edo no bungaku kara ukiyo-e/nishiki-e made 原典で楽しむ江戸の世界—江戸の文学から浮世絵・錦絵まで ("Enjoying die Edowelt through primary texts: from Edo literature to ukiyo-e/nishiki-e"), edited by Asano Akira 浅野晃 and Katō Mitsuo 加藤光男. There's nothing so astonishing about this book. It's just a collection of short extracts from famous books, presented in facsimile with a printed version of the text alongside and notes and mini-essays providing context along the way. But as I flicked through it, I realized: I could learn to read this stuff. And then I thought: If I were to devote hour upon hour to it, sacrificing entire evenings to the decipherment of marginal scrawls, with no way of even telling if I had arrived at the correct answer.

So it was from Genten de tanoshimu plus two more books I picked up almost at random on the way to the register, Kuzushi-ji sokushūchō: kindai hen くずし字速習帳 近代編 ("Speed-learning cursive exercise book: Modern texts"), ed. Munakata Kazushige 宗像和重 and Kanechiku Nobuyuki 兼築信行, and Murayama Garyū 村山臥龍's Sōsho no kuzushikata 草書のくずし方 ("The encursion of grass script"), that I learned that there is method to the madness of olden-times Japanese orthography.

It really doesn't take that long before things begin to clear up. There's more than one way to write most of the kana syllabary, but not an infinite number of ways. There's probably only three or four times as many hentaigana characters in regular use as there are modern kana, and given that you have to learn like 2000 kanji to read a newspaper in this country, a couple hundred extra kana aren't that much of a burden. As for the kanji themselves, it really doesn't take long before you start getting an almost mystical feel for the minute differences that distinguish ninben from sanzui. Except when they're indistinguishable, of course. Then you're just screwed. (Oh, or when the rest of the kanji is illegible. Or if it's a really common kanji like 日 or 出, which are always the hardest to get at first.)

To these books I added Kodama Kōta 児玉幸多's Kuzushi-ji kaidoku jiten: Kijō-ban くずし字解読時点:机上版 (Dictionary of cursive character decipherment: on-desk edition), which has proved invaluable, and I believe it was a commenter here who hipped me up to the University of Tokyo's electronic cursive character dictionary database (電子くずし字字典DB), which is mostly useful for confirming theories: "Okay, I'm pretty sure this is a 憑, but could it really be written like that? Let's find out..."

The final piece in the puzzle is texts to practice on, and here Waseda has you covered. There's all kinds of crazy stuff in this database, from stuff that everyone knows (Bashō, Ukiyoburo) to stuff that no-one knows (can't list it because I don't know it). And the greatest thing about it is that if you go deep enough, a print version of what you are reading may not even exist. You may be one of only a couple dozen people to have read the book in a century.

And it may contain fart jokes that you can use in your blog.

Popularity factor: 9


If you are interested in learning to read komonjo and other manuscripts in their original forms, then I would strongly recommend dedicating time to the fine Kashiwa Shobō series for a firm foundation:



Too late, my foundation is already a morass of eccentric autodidacticism! But there may be hope for me yet, and these do look very useful, thanks. Did you use them when learning? (Where did you learn?)

Leonardo Boiko:

Talk about eccentric autodidacticism. Anyone who can read cursive kana and sōsho earns my unbounded admiration, and I take it from his bio that Matt can also understand Old English, as in the cool language I was afraid to try because I thought it would detour from my Japanese studies. But what is truly impressive is: how does he manage to learn all that and keep current with the latest reddit/4chan memes⁇

> an almost mystical feel

Earlier I mentioned a review of “A Reader of Handwritten Japanese”, an English textbook on reading modern (er, 1984-modern) Japanese handwriting. An excerp from the review:

> Aside from providing the aids mentioned above, and additional appendices listing some variants forms of kana and kanji, O’Neill has no special method for teaching the reading of script, other than reassuring the reader that “the eye will gradually learn to take in groups of written signs in an impressionistic way”. Strangely, this does indeed take place.

By the way, for people living abroad like me: it’s not difficult to find Edo-period woodblock-print books on ebay, many of them surprisingly cheap. I’m still not convinced you can simply buy a piece of history, even after scoring these ~1883 tea ceremony manuals (two volumes of 茶式湖月抄 for less than $30 the pair!).


How serendipitous that you should post this now! I was fortunate to learn manuscript with a teacher in my undergrad, but some people in my grad program are interested in learning. I foolishly said I would help them, but had no idea what kind of texts to turn to - and here are some great suggestions! I'm very intrigued by the electronic cursive character dictionary as well. I'd never heard of that until now.


you are a delight and a wonder!

though now i feel decidedly unleet for doing this the wussy way, with a copy of '寺子屋式古文書手習い', some tracing paper and a felt-tip pen.

Leonardo Boiko:

Interesting choice. I've come to favor gel-based rollerballs over felt-tip, but you have to write in a small size (it’s just perfect for 原稿用紙 though). If I find something like a 古文手習い I think I’ll just use the brush :)

Speaking of which, I wish I could find one of those fudepen with actual brush hairs! Around here I can only find the simpler, felt-tip–like variety.


SM: I'm not sure if that's the wussy way so much as the effective way (and Kindaichi-approved!)

Leo: To be honest, my Old English has gotten rusty as my FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU has improved.

"the eye will gradually learn to take in groups of written signs in an impressionistic way" -- Yeah, I figure this is the equivalent of learning to recognize words in the Roman alphabet by shape instead of processing each individual letter. And the old handwriting facilitates this because it's much less a series of squares and more a flowing, rhythmic sequence of different parts.

KDoore: I've no doubt that Kindaichi's suggestions are better pedagogically, to be honest, but I hope this post does help somehow as well.


Leo, I seem to remember that Muji sells fudepens with brush hairs, but I may be wrong. They do sometimes sell them in their branches in other countries-- simply called 'calligraphy pens'. Or if the site doesn't terrify you, Jlist has a selection...


Also fun for starters are these two short books by the same Kanechiku Nobuyuki Matt mentioned: 一週間で読めるくずし字 伊勢物語 and its pair 一週間で読めるくずし字 古今集・新古今集.

Another thing that I found really helpful was books that had facsimiles of the original manuscripts on the same page as the transcripts. Even better, there are a lot of these available in paperback for a cool 1500 yen or so. Shintensha's 新典社 Eiin Kōchū Koten Sōsho 影印校注古典叢書 is one series with several dozen of them. Kasama Shoin 笠間書院 also offers a series of cheap reprints of classic manuscripts: 笠間文庫―影印シリーズ. There are no transcripts, but all the texts are easily available for comparison online, and the thrill of struggling through the Kokinshū in Teika's own hand more than compensates.

My thanks to Matt especially and everyone else for their contributions: many of these books I was completely unaware of.

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