A few hints to help understand Japanese classical literature

By | October 7, 2019

One of the perks of learning to read Japanese is that there is a huge body of diverse literature going back many hundreds of years. Furthermore, much of this is available to read for free on Aozora Bunko.

Once you get comfortable enough reading modern Japanese literature from the last few decades, you may decide to start trying to read some works that are a little older. Because of how public domain and copyright works in Japan, works on Aozora Bunko are typically from the 1940s or earlier. Since it depends on when the author passed away, the later works generally are from authors who (unfortunately) passed away at a young age.

Anyway, once you start reading such works, you’ll quickly find there is a learning curve because of the many expressions, words, and grammar forms that do not exist in modern Japanese. While I do not intend to give a comprehensive treatment, I’d like to give a few quick tips that will help you start understanding older Japanese texts with less frustration. The good news is that many of these are simple to map onto modern Japanese, hence are easy to understand and remember.

Before I get to details I wanted to mention one more thing. The farther you go back, the more the language changes and the steeper the learning curve will be. What is considered as “Japanese Classical Literature” comes from a range of time over 1000 years, and here I will be focusing more on things you will find in works around 1900 or a few centuries before that.

Obsolete Japanese Kana

In older texts you’ll see a set of kana that are rarely, if ever, used in modern Japanese. Here are some of the most common ones you’ll come across:

  • ゐ (hiragana), ヰ (katakana): These used to be pronounced “ウィ” (Wi), but you should read them now like the character “イ” .
    • Example: いゐ => いる(居る)
  • ゑ (hiragana), ヱ (katakana): These used to be pronounced “ウェ” (We), but you should read them now like the character “エ” .
    • Example: こゑ => こえ (声)

Each of these characters have their place on the hiragana or katakana charts in the “W” row (ワ行), though modern charts often omit them.

“Ha” Becomes “Wa”

You probably know that the character は is usually pronounced “ha”, except when it is used as the topic particle, in which case it is pronounced “wa”.

In older Japanese texts you can see cases where something written は should be treated like a わ.

Example: こはれる => こわれる (壊れる)

“He” becomes “E”

Similarly, in modern Japanese the “へ” character is usually pronounced “he”, but is pronounced “e” when used as a particle indicating the direction of an action (ex: 海へ行く).

In classical Japanese, sometimes the へ character should be treated like a え.

Example: おまへ => おまえ (second person pronoun)

“Hi” becomes “I” and “Fu” becomes “U”

In classical Japanese, sometimes the ひ character should be treated like a い.

Example: 思ひ => 思い

Similarly, sometimes ふ should be treated like a う.

Example: 云ふ => 云う (言う)

Small Tsu Becomes Big

In modern Japanese, a small “tsu” (like in かった) is used to represent a pause of one beat. However, in older Japanese you’ll commonly see this represented by a regular size “tsu” (つ).

Example: 私はいつたよ => 私はいったよ

Unusual Kanji Used for Common Words

In older Japanese you are more likely to see Kanji used for some words that are commonly written using hiragana in modern Japanese.


  • 兎に角 => とにかく
  • 尤も => もっとも
  • 此処 => ここ
  • 迄  => まで
  • お早う => おはよう

If your reading skill level is high enough, you may be able to start guessing what these are just from the context. Even if you can’t, it shouldn’t take too long to learn the most common ones.

Alternate Iteration Marks

In modern Japanese the “々” character is often used repeat the previous character (ex: 個々 = 個個).

In older Japanese, you can sometimes see “ゝ” used to repeat the previous hiragana character, and “ヽ” to repeat the previous katakana character (though to be honest I’ve rarely, if ever, seen the latter).

  • こゝろ => こころ
  • バナヽ => バナナ

You mat also see “/\” used (this is two character stuck together, not one) to represent repeating the last two characters.

  • カン/\ => カンカン

I remember one of the first times I starting trying to read a story on Aozora Bunko when I came across a story with a bunch of these and it really surprised me.

Literary Particle Combination をば

I wrote an article on this sometime ago here, but the quick summary is that をば is basically the same meaning as を but with more emphasis.

“~ou” words written as “~au”

You will often see words that would normally end in an “ou” sound instead use an “au” sound.


  • だろう => だろう
  • やう => よう
  • さう => そう
  • かう => こう

Uncommon Furigana / Katakana / Kanji Combinations

When writing compound words, in modern Japanese there is one common way of writing using a certain combination of kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Sometimes in older Japanese texts you will see different combinations that what you are used to.


  • 振込む => 振り込む (ふりこむ)
  • 突出る => 突き出る (つきでる)
  • 一しょ => 一緒 (いっしょ)
  • 突ッ込む => 突っ込む (つっこむ)
  • かの女 => 彼女   (かのじょ)

These can be especially annoying to look up since Japanese->English dictionaries may not have them. Worse case you may have to figure out what the first verb is and insert the character(s) yourself before doing a dictionary search.

Fortunately, it is not uncommon to have furigana reading hints that help with these uncommon readings.

“Nari” (なり)and “Keri” (けり)

Classical Japanese often contains the word なり which roughly means である (is, are).

  • 男なり => 男である  (男だ)

Adding けり to this indicates past tense (であった)

  • 男なりけり => 男であった (男だった)

A variation to this is なりにけり, which is similar to なりけり but has an extra feeling of emphasis

  • 夏なりけり => 夏であったなあ (夏だったなあ)

See this page for a more detailed explanation in Japanese and full sentences that show how to map classic Japanese using these words to modern language. This page has a good explanation of なりにけり in Japanese.

Differing Word Nuances

In classical Japanese you will sometimes see words that you think you are familiar with but have an expected nuance.

For example the word おまえ (omae) typically has a harsh nuance in modern Japanese, but in classical Japanese it can actually have the opposite feeling––a word you might say to someone of higher social standing.

Fortunately, while these nuance differences may be a bit confusing, you should still be able to follow the overall flow of the story.

Unusual First Person Pronouns

Modern Japanese already has more first person pronouns than English: わたし、あたし、おれ、ぼく, etc. Classical Japanese has many more that you may have never come across before.

Here are a few I’ve seen:

  • 拙者 (sessha): polite make first person pronoun often used by ninjas, samurai, or warriors. You can still hear used by Samurai in movies set in an older time period.
  • 妾 (warawa or watashi): polite first person pronoun often used by women in samurai families.
  • 我輩 (wagahai): first person pronoun famous for it’s usage in 我輩猫である (“I am a Cat”) by Natsume Souseki.
  • 某 (soregashi): first person pronoun that can have different nuances (arrogant or humble) depending on the period it is used.
  • 余 (ware or yo): first person pronoun. This kanji is still used in modern Japanese in places like 余り (amari), though that word is often written in hiragana only.

The Japanese wikipedia page of first person pronouns (一人称) is a great resource to see a comprehensive list with nuance details.

Closing Thoughts

This is just a short list where I’ve omitted many historical details, and there are many more interesting words and grammar forms you’ll find in older texts. But I hope it will help you lower the learning curve of classical Japanese a little. Happy reading!

If you would like to practice using some of these tips, you can check out the short work here by Chuya Nakahara (中原中也).

(Visited 908 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.