Generally, I try to focus on fiction works in both my reading and translation of Japanese. It’s not that I don’t enjoy non-fiction, it’s just that I have limited time and fiction is usually more relaxing and interesting for me.
However, I recently had an opportunity to read through the book 「脳が若返る！大人の古典・名文暗唱ドリル」 compiled by 篠原菊紀 (Kikunori Shinohara), and it was a very eye-opening experience.
First, I’ll give my rough, nonliteral translation of the title: (See the end of this article for a few notes on the title)
“Revive your brain! Recitation drills of classic literature”
As you can guess from the title, this book contains “recitation drills” of classic Japanese literature of various forms for the purpose of keeping your brain fresh (and improving your health). Specifically, the book states the drills in this book help against forgetfulness (もの忘れ) and dementia (認知症).
The literature is broken up into three categories: 随筆・紀行文 (essays/travel journals), 物語 (longer prose works), and 詩歌 (poetry). It contains excerpts of over 20 classics, including a few you may be familiar with, for example 平家物語 (The Tale of Heike), 枕草子 (The Pillow Book), 竹取物語 (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), and of course 羅生門 (Rashomon).
The book is structured so that for each work there is a single page excerpt. The more difficult works include a modern-day interpretation (called 超訳, an interesting word I wrote an article about recently). Not having too much experience with Japanese works more than a century old, I found these very helpful, though there was two or three that didn’t have an interpretation that I could have used.
Each excerpt is followed by a brief discussion about the author (作者紹介), the work itself (作品紹介), and some information to help appreciate the work better (鑑賞ポイント). Listed on the same pages are the drills, which include reading comprehension tests (読解力テスト), visualization tests (イメージ力テスト）and a dictation tests (書き取りテスト). To clarify a little, the intended purpose of this book is to read each excerpt enough times to memorize it and then answer the drills (which often involves writing down certain characters from the passage). To be honest, I only memorized one of the excerpts and read through a few of the drill questions. But, with enough time and concentration (and some review of writing kanji), I think could eventually do them all. By the way, if you are having trouble understanding the excerpts, I recommend looking at the visualization tests since they show pictures of the flow of events (though you have to put them in order).
The excerpt I memorized was 春暁 (shungyou) by 孟浩然 (moukouzen), a Chinese poet who lived from 689-740. You can see the original Chinese text here, along with a classic Japanese translation and a modern Japanese interpretation. While many of the other works excerpted in this book are by Japanese authors, I wasn’t too surprised to see a Chinese author here due to the close historical ties between Japan and China. The reason I chose this poem to memorize was simply it was the shortest one in the book, and relatively easy to understand. While I typically am not one for memorization, I must it say it is very satisfying to be able to repeat even a short poem. I just hope I don’t forget it too soon (:
It goes without saying that this book is very advanced, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they were a native speaker or had at least 3-5 years of serious Japanese study. I got to see some things I don’t normally come across, like Furigana used with Hiragana, for example the word おおく is written as おほく, but with a small ”お” furigana on the second letter. Also, there was some classic grammar and words I had rarely come across, like ありけり and なむ. At times it was frustrating when I felt like I was reading a completely different language, but other times it felt invigorating to see a new side of Japanese. This gave me a good taste of classic Japanese grammar and I think with enough practice I could learn to read it as well as modern language.
One minor annoyance of this book is that it was hard to fully understand or appreciate many of the works with just the small excerpts given, though in a few cases the entire work was represented (or the next few lines were given in the explanation section). But given the age of these works, I think you can find the majority in the public domain, and many are likely available in English translation (though I didn’t do a comprehensive validation of either of these things). So I think the book serves as a good sampler for these works of literature, and for the works you enjoyed you can continue reading them on your own
In between the main categories are a few articles, generally focusing on things like diet and exercise. These emphasize that recitation drills alone will not have nearly as much an effect on health as a combination of drills plus a proper diet and appropriate exercise. By the way, the person who compiled the book (Kikunori Shinohara) is actually a neurologist and a college professor, and this lends some credence to the book.
Overall, this was a pretty fun and worthwhile read, with the difficulty of the excerpts offset by the explanations and fact the excerpts themselves were quite short. A good sample of Japanese literature was presented, spanning many centuries, especially given that the book is only around 80 pages. For those with advanced knowledge of (modern day) Japanese, you can probably go through these relatively quickly and learn a great deal in the process.
I purchased the book at the Kinokuniya (紀伊國屋) Japanese bookstore in Beaverton, Portland, but you can also get the book on Amazon Japan here. Note that while I am calling this a “book”, the size and soft cover binding makes it look more like a magazine.
* A few translation notes about the title:
- The first part is literally closer to “Take years off your brain!”
- The “classic literature” part is comprised of “古典” (classic literature) plus “名文” (a more generic word for ‘good writing’). These are prefixed by “大人” (adult), presumably because children learn similar things in school, but these are the ones that adults will enjoy more than the ones learned in school.