Featured image of post An interesting use of ryakuji 㐧 on the road in Tokyo

An interesting use of ryakuji 㐧 on the road in Tokyo

I was driving south on Kaigan-doori (海岸通り) in Minato-ku, Tokyo earlier today and was about to make a right turn onto Dai-ichi Keihin (第一京浜, a.k.a. National Route 15, connecting Tokyo and Yokohama) when I noticed the road markings directing cars to Dai-ichi Keihin had Dai-ichi Keihin written as 㐧一京浜 instead of 第一京浜. Of course, I couldn’t stop to take a photo, but I went on Google Maps later and found the markings using Street View:

Ryakuji (略字) are simplifications of kanji in the Japanese language, typically used in handwriting. 㐧 is used as a ryakuji for 第. Due to the advent of computers and typing, coming across ryakuji is not common in daily life, so it was a pleasnt surprise to see 㐧 today. What’s even more surprising is that this was not handwritten and was used in a rather formal context where 第 was certainly an option. The motivation to use ryakuji in handwriting is likely to save time and may have something to do with personal preference, so the decision to use ryakuji in a more formal context for something that’s meant to be read by many people is somewhat unexpected.

So what was the motivation behind using 㐧 here? Maybe it was for potentially improving readability; the strokes in 㐧 are certainly less dense. On the other hand, using this ryakuji when people are more used to seeing the full form of the character may also make it harder to read the road marking quickly. Ryakuji are not part of jōyō kanji list, and as people have less and less exposure to handwritten Japanese, it’s possible that the amount of people who can recognize this character is decreasing. It’s also a character that most foreigners studying Japanese would not learn. Some unfamiliar with Japanese or with ryakuji may even mistake 㐧 for 才 (sai) or オ (Katakana o), neither of which are related to 第.

I think I’ve seen 㐧 used in a similarly formal setting (printed on some road sign) once before, but it’s certainly rare. A quick search on Twitter brings up several more examples:

Now how do OCR (optical character recognition) systems deal with this character? I did a quick test with two images from these Tweets using Google Lens

For one of these photos, Google Lens mistakes for 㐧 for 才 (sai), as I expected:

However, Google Lens recognizes the character as 第 in another photo:

It’s interesting that Google Lens transcribes this as 第 instead of 㐧. Perhaps it has been trained to recognize 㐧 as 第 and does not actually map the visual shape of 㐧 to the separate Unicode character 㐧.

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