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I'd learned 始{はじ}めに to mean "in the beginning" or "firstly" a while back, and recently I came across 初{はじ}めに to have the exact same meaning.

I looked it up on the dictionary, and the two actually appear as alternative spellings for the exact same entry, as opposed to two separate entries with similar meanings.

Is there any nuance to when one should be used over the other; for instance, does the nuance with regards to starting something as it relates to time vs starting a process, as explained in the first part of this answer apply here? Or are they completely interchangeable?

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I'd say it is more or less interchangeable though there are differences strictly speaking.

As the linked answer says, 初 means the ordinal first and 始 means the beginning. Note other usages: 始める and not 初める for to begin (there is reading 初{そ}める); 初めて and not 始めて for for the first time.

はじめに is usually 初めに because it is firstly (esp. if it is followed by 次に etc.). But at the same time, you are beginning something when you say firstly, so 始めに is not completely wrong. In a sense, they are as interchangeable as to begin with and firstly are. The distinction is particularly vague for はじめ. As mentioned above, using 始めて to mean for the first time is felt wrong more strongly.

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  • So the connotation is 初める -> be the first of an anticipated sequence of events; 始める -> initiate a long-running event? Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 13:04
  • @KarlKnechtel 初{そ}める is rarely used alone (in modern speech). It means for the first time in the time period under discussion. A typical example is [書初]{かきぞ}め, which means the first calligraphic writing (required to do as homework in winter vacation) in the year. As a verb, it is rare even in combination - one that comes top of my head is 見初める.
    – sundowner
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 1:05

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