Introduction to Kuzushiji

Reading kuzushiji

Kuzushiji (くずし字), meaning literary “deformed characters”, is a denomination that refers to the distorted shape of kanji and kana written by hand. In that sense, today’s Japanese handwriting can also be considered kuzushiji. However, this expression points mostly at handwritten or block-printed Japanese primary sources before the introduction and generalization of movable type printing and typography during the late 19th century. Learning kuzushiji is a matter of time. Getting used to identifying the different ways of writing a kanji character is no easy task and requires long training based on a process of trial and error. Nevertheless, it is comparatively easy to learn the basics of kuzushiji. The following exercises aim to introduce the student to these basics through the identification of hiragana written in kuzushiji. This knowledge can be particularly useful for reading brief comments and references in maps and similar primary sources from the Edo and early Meiji period.

As with any other writing system, the Japanese writing system underwent many changes over time. One of these changes was the unification and stabilization of the hiragana and katakana alphabet that started with the reform of the education system in 1900. It is a well-known fact that hiragana and katakana were developed from the phonetic use of specific kanji, but it is less known that before 1900 there were many ways of writing hiragana and katakana. For instance, the character used nowadays for the phonetic vowel ’a’ is あ. This character is a distortion, i.e. a kuzushiji, of the kanji , which was originally pronounced ’an’. However, 安 was not the only kanji used to express this sound. Other options were the kanji 阿, 愛 or even 悪. The same applies to almost any other hiragana character. For example, the vowel sound い is a derivation from the kanji 以, with other characters such as 伊, 移, 意 or 異 also used to represent this vowel sound. In the case of consonants, for example, る derives from the kanji 留, but 流, 累 or 類 were also used for the same phonetic purpose.
Alternative ways of writing hiragana that are not officially recognized today are called hentaigana (変体仮名), and they are ubiquitous in Edo period sources.

There are a few lists of hentaigana online. Here there are some examples for you to check while doing the following exercises.