The Kuzushiji Project: Developing a Mobile Learning Application for Reading Early Modern Japanese Books

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Yuta Hashimoto

    Kyoto University

  2. 2. Yoichi Likura

    University of Osaka

  3. 3. Yukio Hisada

    University of Osaka

  4. 4. SungKook Kang

    University of Osaka

  5. 5. Tomoyo Arisawa

    University of Osaka

  6. 6. Akihiro Okajima

    University of Osaka

  7. 7. Tsutomu Yada

    University of Osaka

  8. 8. Goyama Rintaro

    University of Osaka

  9. 9. Daniel K-B

    University of Osaka

Work text
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It frequently happens in the modern history that a certain cultural skill that used to be shared in a community or society is lost in the process of modernization. Over the last century, Japanese people have lost the basic skills to read kuzushiji, classical calligraphic renderings of Japanese characters (see Fig. 1). Since Japanese society ceased to use kuzushiji for publication after the Meiji Period (1868-), most Japanese today except trained experts are unable to read books printed with kuzushiji only 150 years ago.
However, from 2008 a group of scholars of Japanese literature have started calling attention to the need for providing younger generation with the tools to access their own past (Nakano, 2011 and Moretti, 2014). The kuzushiji project, which started in 2015, is an attempt to build a mobile learning application that provides resources and trainings for reading kuzushijiOur project blog: We call the app the KuLA (kuzushiji learning application). It is a public humanities project, as well as an interdisciplinary project of Japanese Literature and Digital Humanities scholars. In this paper, we will briefly describe the features, workflows, and implementation of the KuLA.

Fig. A comparison of a kuzushiji and modern Japanese type font. Both represents the same character 前, "front" in English

Features of KuLA
Learning kuzushiji is essentially similar with learning a foreign language. What you need for learning it are as followings: 1) the basic knowledge about kuzushiji, especially of character shapes, 2) decent amount of exercises of reading actual texts, and 3) good mentors and fellows who will teach and motivate you.
For the reasons above the KuLA consists of the following three modules:

Characters module, where the user will learn the basic knowledge about
kuzushiji, especially about character shapes. The user can browse the list of
kuzushiji characters and jump to the detail page of each character (see Fig. 2).

Reading module, where the user will read actual texts written with
kuzushiji for exercises. The user can also check their transcribed texts (see Fig. 3).

Communication module, where the user will communicate with others via the network. This module will, for instance, enable the user to ask others how to read a specific
kuzushiji characters by sharing photos taken by the user (See Fig. 4).

Fig. The character module

Fig. The reading module

Fig. The community module

Workflow and Implementation
In order to create the teaching materials bundled with the KuLA we needed a lot of actual images of kuzushiji. For collecting them efficiently we developed a Chrome extension which enables to capture arbitrary image regions from the digital collection of pre-modern books provided by the National Institute of Japanese Literature The images captured by the extension will be automatically uploaded to an web app built with Ruby on Rails. In this way we have gathered so far about 3,000 images of kuzushiji characters You can see the list of kuzushiji images we have collected in the following link:
The mobile app was built with Ionic, a HTML5 mobile framework based on Apache Cordova and AngularJS frameworks. The use of HTML5 technology makes it possible to generate the distributions both for iOS and Android from a single source code. As the backend of the mobile clients we used, which provides basic server-side features such as user authentication and data storage.

Conclusion and Future Directions
KuLA was released both on Google Play and on App Store for free on 18 Feburary 2016. It has been downloaded more than 5,000 times in two weeks after the launch. The average review scores are 4.5/5.0 in AppStore (total 15 reviews), and 4.9/5.0 in Google Play (total 29 reviews). From these numbers we may say that our design strategy for building KuLA was successful.
We believe that it is a duty of humanities scholars to build the tools to access the past knowledge for further generations. And what makes Digital Humanities special in this regard among other humanities discipline is that it can directly provide those tools with the public with the help of digital media such as mobile devices.


Nakano, M. (2011). Wahon No Susume. Iwanami Shoten.

Moretti, L. (2014). Reading hentaigana and kuzushiji Manual.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO