Studying centuries-old Japanese literature is an exercise in deciphering handwriting. Until the 1600s, most literature was handwritten, and in later years, books printed on woodblocks still imitated the style of handwritten calligraphy.
The new Hentaigana App is attempting to make that exercise less challenging, by teaching Japanese-as-a-second-language scholars how to decipher complex calligraphy. Created by scholars at UCLA and Toyko’s Waseda University, the education app, available for free for iOS and Android, is designed to give students access to the reading tools scholars in Japan already learn. Being able to read premodern variations on Japanese characters is essential to reading texts like The Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago, in their original form.
The Japanese language has 47 syllables, and in premodern calligraphy, each could be written six or seven different ways, with 137 variants on these syllables. The Hentaigana App only covers the basics of reading premodern script, but ideally, it grant access to works that have never been transcribed into type, including diaries and letters from hundreds of years ago.
If the app proves successful as a teaching tool, similar apps might also be extended to other languages, like ancient Greek or Hebrew, to help students learn how to reach classic scrolls and stone inscriptions.