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A translation of a unique 17th-century compendium of samurai heraldry, annotated with the symbolism and stories behind the banners.
A translation of a unique 17th-century compendium of samurai heraldry, annotated with the symbolism and stories behind the banners.
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Oodles and Oodles of Variant Kanji

Posted by Xavid (Creator)

Less than a week left, and we're tantalizingly close to $10,000!  Who will bring us over the top?

Meanwhile, I'd like to tell you about an amazingly spiffy resource I just found.  But first, backstory!

I talked last post about the process of reading O-umajirushi.  I mentioned that some of the kanji have changed form since the publication of O-umajirushi.  While relatively few of the kanji in O-umajirushi are so different from modern kanji as to make them hard to recognize, many do have slight differences.  Before modern spelling reform, and later computers, increasingly standardized kanji, kanji variations were common; in fact, some kanji in O-umajirushi have significantly different variations in different parts of the text!  One example is the kanji 松 ("matsu", pine tree), frequently used in the name of the Matsudaira clan.  Here are two adjacent Matsudaira entries, the one on the left using the modern form 松 and the one on the right using an archaic form similar to 枩.

While some of these historical variants are available in Unicode Japanese fonts, many of the variants are too obscure and disused to have been included exactly as they appear in O-umajirushi.  The matsu on the right in this example, while close to 枩, does not match exactly.  However, I would like to give both the precise historic and modern forms of the Japanese text in my transcription.  Given the 13,000+ kanji, finding a complete enough source for historical variants that would cover all the ones used in O-umajirushi seemed implausible; the few "variant kanji" fonts I found only covered a small portion of the characters I was looking for.  Then I found GlyphWiki.

GlyphWiki is a compendium of kanji and kanji variants.  In the wiki tradition, it allows anyone to contribute new characters and makes all contributed characters available to use freely.  And it is amazingly comprehensive: it contains over 300,000 glyphs, over twenty times the number of kanji used in modern Japanese.  It has a convenient search function for finding glyphs based on stroke direction.  And last but not least, it makes these characters available to download in font form, making them easy to use in a document.  GlyphWiki is great: it has kanji forms like the ones in O-umajirushi that I've been unable to find anywhere else.  But even GlyphWiki doesn't have all the kanji forms I need.  Or, shall I say, it didn't.  One other amazing GlyphWiki feature is a convenient kanji editor that lets you make kanji by combining other kanji, partial kanji (called "radicals"), and individual strokes.  Using this, I've added new kanji forms from O-umajirushi to GlyphWiki, giving me clean glyphs to use in my text.  For example, I put together this more precise "matsu":

I'm so excited about these historical forms, I'm adding an appendix that will collect the historical kanji forms used in O-umajirushi along with their modern equivalents.  So if you ever want to write Japanese like it's 1639, you'll have a convenient go-to reference.

As for my current status?  I've completed the first pass of the translation of volume 2 (though it still needs biographical references, device explanations, and other annotations) and I've got a good start on volume 3.  The transcription and translation are definitely coming faster now.  Part of that's practice, and part of that is tools like GlyphWiki.

Join me next time, when I tell you why O-umajirushi wasn't actually called O-umajirushi.

Chris Olsen, Ian Williams, and 4 more people like this update.


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