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App designed to read cursive characters in old Japanese documents set for debut

This photo provided by Toppan Inc. shows a smartphone app that can decipher the cursive characters of Japanese ancient documents.

OSAKA -- A smartphone app that enables users to decipher ancient Japanese documents written mainly in cursive characters from the Edo period (1603-1867) has been developed by a Tokyo-based printing giant and others, and its trial version is scheduled to be released possibly by the end of this month.

    The app is expected to make it possible to easily read a certain level of the billions of ancient documents that are believed to be left unread.

    According to Toppan Inc., the developer of the app, if it becomes possible to read ancient documents left by people of any status at that time, research on history, culture, the economy, as well as prevention of disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis may develop. It is said that "less than 0.1% of Japanese people" can correctly read the cursive characters.

    There are many materials in the possession of public institutions that have not been deciphered, and even if they are brought to research institutions, the organizations do not have the capacity to handle them. As a result, valuable materials, such as letters and records, are lost as they are disposed of or damaged without being read.

    For this reason, Toppan has been researching deciphering technology since 2015, and has developed the app in collaboration with the Kyoto municipal history museum, the Tokyo-based public interest incorporated foundation Mitsui Bunko and other bodies.

    The app is equipped with dedicated artificial intelligence (AI) that has memorized deciphered ancient documents. It analyzes the cursive characters captured by the smartphone camera, converts them into printed characters, and displays them on its screen. For documents from the Edo period, the decipherment accuracy is said to be about 90%, and it is possible to tell what is written to some extent.

    Hiroshi Matsunaka, a historical researcher at the Kyoto museum who cooperated in the verification experiment of the app, said, "There are still challenges in terms of accuracy in deciphering texts," but he expects that the AI will improve its accuracy in a short period as it continues to learn more and more.

    He then said, "I hope that it will be a catalyst for the discovery of buried materials."

    The app operates as a pay-as-you-go service, but some functions can be used for free. The official version is scheduled to be released in March.

    (Japanese original by Hirofumi Nohara, Osaka Regional News Department)

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