How to Read Classical Japanese

Motivation For Learning

I would like to share my discoveries after taking my first dive into learning 古文(kobun), or Classical Japanese. I’m not going to cover too many technical details, because those are readily available online or in book form, but after reading this, you will hopefully be able to come up with a plan for getting started if you are interested in diving in as well. If you are already experienced, feel free to leave some comments about mistakes or misconceptions I may have.

I put off learning kobun for a long time because I wanted to focus my efforts on modern Japanese, which I considered more relevant, since it is used by people to communicate every day. It’s the same reason I was never too interested in Latin. However, I kept noticing things, even in modern Japanese, that didn’t make sense with any of the grammar that I had learned in school. For example, I knew what あるまじき means, but I didn’t know what kind of grammar construct is being used. I just accepted it as a set phrase.

The thing that really pushed me to get started was seeing that any time Endo Shusaku or Miura Ayako quote from the Bible, they use a version that contains kobun grammar. I’m not sure why they do that since there are good translations available in modern Japanese, such as the 新改訳聖書, but that is the way it’s done.

Reading their books, it seems like the reader is expected to have a working knowledge of kobun grammar. It turns out that all Japanese people learn kobun in school, and it’s also required for college entrance exams. I think it is reasonable enough for Endo and Miura to have expected their readers to have some knowledge of kobun, and that was enough of a reason to convince me it was finally time to put in the effort.

Learning Resources

Besides frequent Google searches and reading through an  article on about kobun, I decided to buy two resources to get started.

I may have been able to get away with free online resources such as the article or Kafka Fuura‘s guide, but I wanted to learn kobun in Japanese. The problem was that I had no idea how to understand descriptions of grammar in Japanese. When I learned Japanese in school, grammar was taught in a different way.

For example, let’s take the phrase 使って and look at the Japanese grammar student and English speaking Japanese learner ways of analyzing this. In a Japanese foreign language class, where English is the base language, you learn the te form. You replace the う with って to make the te form for verbs ending in う such as 使う. You can add other things to it to build larger phrases, such as 使っている、使ってください、使ってはいけない etc.

In kokugo (the Japanese word for studying Japanese) class , there is no such thing as the “te form”. Te is a postpositional particle(終助詞)which can be attached after (actually below, since Japanese is read top to bottom) a verb conjugated to the continuous form (連用形). The continuous form of 使う followed by て would be つかいて. In words where there is an “i” sound before the the te, it can be changed to a small tsu because of the sound change to double consonant rule(促音便), so 使いて would transform to 使って.  It’s the same result, but a very different way of thinking about it.

I think that the way Japanese is taught to English speakers works well. There are already a lot of people who get bogged down by Kanji and quit studying Japanese. Throwing in the Japanese style grammar, which seems more technical, would probably scare even more people away. However, looking back, I think I should have re-learned grammar in Japanese at the same time I stopped using a Japanese to English dictionary and switched to only using a Japanese to Japanese dictionary to look up words. The big advantage to learning the Japanese style grammar is that the mysterious parts of the dictionary that say things like “動バ下一” or “連用形に接続する” are suddenly comprehensible.

You would be at a great advantage in learning Classical Japanese if you already new the way grammar is described, but I didn’t know any of this until I started trying to learn kobun grammar using this book: 望月光の古文教室 ー 古典文法編. I’ll call Mochizuki Kou’s book “Classical Japanese Classroom” from here on in this article.

This book is targeted at students trying to pass the 古文 sections of college entrance exams, who didn’t really get it the first time through in high school. Because of this target audience, it explains things clearly enough that even a student who is not solid on modern Japanese grammar can understand. Also, because of the intended audience, there are many pointers on what kind of problems the test makers are likely to put on the tests. Even though this content is not applicable to a non-Japanese student of kobun who just wants to learn to read kobun from scratch, I didn’t find it to be too distracting.

The book is very well organized. Basically, there are two pages of charts in the back that show you how to decode classical Japanese grammar. The body of the book slowly walks you through how to use the charts, and the charts have page numbers on each item so you can quickly find the verbose explanations in the body of the book. For auxiliary verbs with lots of meanings, it gives you tips on which meaning to choose in what situation when trying to decode a sentence. Also, since kobun materials exist for a span of about 1000 years, the book gives some insight into the changes in grammar over time.

After reading the book straight through, I felt very confident using the charts. The book tells you to memorize a lot of stuff, but I didn’t memorize anything, because fortunately I won’t be subjected to any tests!

In addition to the grammar book, I got an iPhone app for the the 旺文社全古語辞典. It has been well worth it for me. I prefer to look things up in an app without ads when I can, and the app works a lot faster than a browser when looking up words on my phone.

At first I thought I would be using the charts in the back of Classical Japanese Classroom a lot, but it turns out the dictionary app shows the conjugations for each verb. For example, the entry for 言ふ has the following information: {は・ひ・ふ・ふ・へ・へ}. This is the conjugation for the forms 未然、連用、終止、連体、已然、and 命令 in order. There is no need to look up the 下二段活用 in the chart, because the information is all right there.

Getting Started

After finishing Mochizuki’s Classical Japanese Classroom, which only took a few weeks at a slow pace, I started trying to decode the first bit of 竹取物語, which is the story about Kaguya Hime or the Story of the Moon Princess from the 10th century. I found that this is the first example of Classical Japanese literature that is presented to students in Japan, so I thought it would be a great place to start. I could decode a lot using my grammar book, my dictionary app, and a parallel modern Japanese translation. I also found that sometimes I needed to search for things in Google. One trick I found was to search for 品詞分解 along with a phrase to see if someone has written about how it is broken up into verbs, auxiliary verbs, and particles.

Reading 竹取物語 right after learning the grammar rules is still very hard, even with all of the support resources, and I definitely have to just skip some sentences because I just can’t decode them. Also, it may take me an hour to get all the way through a page worth of text depending on the content. It’s basically like picking up a new language, so I hope that it will get easier with some more practice.

An Example

I would like to end with one example. Reading a book by Endo Shusaku, I ran into the following quote from the Bible:

幸いなるかな 心貧しき人 天国は彼等のものなればなり

幸いなるかな 泣く人 彼等は慰めらるべければなり

I would like to break it down using what I’ve learned so far

幸いなるかな心貧しき人 天国は彼等のものなればなり

幸いなるかな泣く人 彼等は慰めらるべければなり

幸い is an adjective that means blessed, and it would usually have a ひ instead of い. I tried to find out which Japanese translation of the Bible this was by comparing it to the translations on this site. I think it looks closest to the New Taisho Translation 大正改訳, but that’s not it. In the end, I could not figure out what translation this is, but I’m guessing it was done in the last hundred years or so. I think that’s why they use the modern kana for ひ.

なりis an auxillary verb(助動詞) for assertion, similar to です、in modern Japanese. However, when it conjugated as なる, it is in the attributive form (連体形). This means it can be followed by a noun, and in this case it is implicitly followed by a pronoun representing a person who is blessed.

かな can be used at the end of a phrase in modern Japanese to express wondering about something, but it this case the かな particle (終助詞) is like an exclamation (詠嘆), or ーだなあ in modern Japanese.


幸いなるかな 泣く人 彼等は慰めらるべければなり

First off, I think that there is a subject marker like が omitted between 心 (spirit) and 貧し (poor). It seems like these kind of markers are more terse in classical grammar.

In a 古語辞典 the reading for 貧し is まどし, but I’m guessing this may be read まずし, since さいわい is used instead of さいはひ. Another clue making me think this may be the modern adjective is that the definition for貧しい in 大辞林 has a 文 with a square around it followed by “シク まづ・し”. This shows me that even though it is not part of the classical vocabulary, it can be used with classical grammar as a shiku adjective. It seems like this translation of the Bible is using modern vocabulary and classical grammar. If anyone knows a better way to explain this, then please let me know.

幸いなるかな 心貧しき人 天国は彼等のものなればなり

幸いなるかな 泣く人 彼等は慰めらるべければなり

I’ll skip 天国は彼等のもの and 泣く人 because I think these phrases can be interpreted pretty much the same as in modern Japanese.

なればなりis a bit tricky because whenever I see ば I think of a conditional sentence (if). Xになれば in modern Japanese would mean something like “If X becomes…”. In this case the なる is in the realis form (已然系), and when the ば particle follows this form, it means the equivalent of ので in modern japanese (“because” put at the end of a sentence). なり is kind of like adding ですwithout the politeness implications, so it doesn’t add any meaning as far as I can tell besides ending the thought. That makes this section mean something like “Because the Kingdom of God will become theirs”.

幸いなるかな 心貧しき人 天国は彼等のものなればなり

幸いなるかな 泣く人 彼等は慰めらるべければなり

The final section uses the verb 慰む. In my 古語 dictionary it is a 四段活用, which would mean it is in relias form (已然系) in this phrase. The auxillary verb らる, which makes the verb passive(受け身)connects to the imperfect form (未然系), so that doesn’t work out. Instead, I found that in the 慰める entry, after the square 文, in my modern Japanese dictionary the same verb uses 下二段活用. In that case the verb in this phrase would be in the imperfect form (未然系). Again it appears that the translation is using modern vocabulary with classical grammar.

べけれ is the relias form of the auxiliary verb べし, so adding ば is equivalent to the modern ので again. べし can have a whole lot of meanings, and in this case I’m guessing that it is potential (可能) for “because they are able to be comforted”.

As you may have guessed, this passage is part of the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount from the book of Matthew.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:3-4

If you know modern Japanese, you may be able to get the gist of this kind of quote even without any knowledge of Classical Japanese Grammar, but as you can see, you may make some wrong guesses about the meanings of grammar patterns. I think the book by Mochizuki and a 古語辞典, either as an app or online, are a great place to start.

3 thoughts on “How to Read Classical Japanese”

  1. I have this small black wooden thing I found when I was a kid. I never knew what it said and I have been trying to learn what it says or what it even is. I was wondering if you could help me figure it out.

    1. Sounds interesting. Do you think it is in Classical Japanese? I’ll look at it if you have a link to a photo.

      If it’s in cursive, or kuzushiji, I may be out of luck.

  2. This post helped me with picking up resources to learning classical Japanese and also encouraged me to learn it.

    I have bought a physical edition of 旺文社’s 古語 dictionary and 望月光’s grammar book. I am currently patiently waiting for them to arrive. I will use Haruo Shirane’s “classical Japanese reader and essential dictionary” as my main reading material.

    I am curious as to know if you still continue to learn classical Japanese and wether you have any more resources you’d like to share.

    Keep it up

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