When I first learned enough Japanese grammar and vocabulary to begin working through works of fiction, I began with modern novels, particularly those of well-known authors like Haruki Murakami and Yoshimoto Banana. While I have enjoyed many modern novels, over time I gradually moved onto spending more of my time on older Japanese short stories and novels.
This is not only because of the large body of free classic Japanese works available, but also because there is something to be said for works that have passed the test of time enough to be remembered, and were notable enough for someone to want to spend their time transcribing the entire story 50+ years after it was written.
Two years back I wrote an article focusing on a few hints to help lower the barrier to entry of classical Japanese literature, because to be honest these works can be a bit daunting to read if you don’t have some important background information. In that article I mentioned that older Japanese works use kanji characters that are no longer in common use in modern Japanese, and some words which are now written primarily in hiragana are sometimes written using kanji.
I gave a handful of examples, but after reading many more stories in the last two years I realized there are a large number of these, so I decided to write up a vocabulary list with more examples. Of course this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but it will give you a better idea of what to expect.
If you have a good foundation in grammar and enough experience reading modern Japanese literature, then you will often be able to guess what some of these older kanji mean in context––it’s a little bit like listening to a regional dialect and guessing what unfamiliar words mean. For example seeing “來” by itself may be a bit confusing, but if you come across the sentence “今日、先生が來なかった” you might catch on from context that this kanji actually means ”to come” and is replaced by 来 (which looks pretty similar) in modern Japanese. However, the cases where hiragana is replaced by kanji can be a little tricker since there is no visual similarity (for instance 此れ which means これ).
By the way, these older-style kanji are referred to as 旧字体 (kyuujitai), which literally means something like “old-style character form”. It’s interesting to note that even if you go pretty far back, particles––words that serve as grammatical glue similar to how prepositions in English work––are generally still written in hiragana (or rarely katakana), not kanij.
Once you read through these, you can use this text to practice because it uses many of these words. (If you want to check your understanding, I published my translation of that story in this book.)
In this list, after the kanji I have the pronunciation listed in parentheses, followed by the meaning. At the end in brackets I have the equivalent in modern Japanese, or one of the most common equivalents if there is multiple. I also should caution that you may still see a few of these in modern Japanese once in a while (like 沢山).
Because in practice kanji are often used either in groups, or with one or more hiragana characters, rather than giving a list of single kanji characters I will give full words that leverage one or more classical kanji (although in some cases, like like 一寸, common kanji(s) are used in a way that is no longer used that frequently in modern Japanese). But that means when I introduce an older kanji through a word, like 默る [damaru], you may see that kanji used in other words not listed here (like 暗默 which would mean 暗黙 [anmoku]).
- 六ヶ敷い (mutsukashii): difficult [modern Japanese usually uses “muzukashii”, 難しい]
- 五月蠅い（urusai): noisy, annoying [うるさい]
- 一寸 (chotto): a little [ちょっと]
- 兎に角 (tonikaku): anyway [とにかく]
- 軈て (yagate): soon, before long [やがて]
- 此れ (kore): this [これ]
- 此処 (koko): here [ここ]
- 其れ (sore): that [それ]
- 其処 (soko): there [そこ]
- 妾 (watashi): I (first person pronoun) [私]
- 沢山 (takusan): many [たくさん]
- 然し (shikashi): but [しかし]
- 然も (shikamo): moreover [しかも]
- 但し (tadashi): but [ただし]
- 尚更 (naosara): much more, all the more for [なおさら]
- 若しくは (moshikuwa): or [もしくは]
- 成程 (naruhodo): indeed [なるほど]
- 先程 (sakihodo): earlier [先ほど]
- 生憎 (ainiku): unfortunately [あいにく]
- 日附 (hiduke): date [日付]
- 位 (kurai): about, approximately [くらい]
- 國 (kuni): country [国]
- 拾 (juu): 10 [十]
- 文學 (bungaku): literature [文学]
- 云う (iu): to say [言う]
- 迄 (made): until [まで]
- 大變 (taihen): really, terrible, awful [大変]
- 氣持ち (kimochi): feelings [気持ち]
- 會う (au): to meet [会う]
- 寢床 (nedoko): bed [寝床 ]
- 來る (kuru): to come [来る]
- 戰爭 (sensou): war [戦争]
- 濟む (sumu): to be done, to be finished [済む]
- 聽く (kiku): to listen, to hear [聞く or 聴く]
- 晝 (hiru): noon [昼]
- 神樣（kamisama): God [神様]
- 亂暴 (ranbou): violent [乱暴]
- 醫者(isha): doctor [医者]
- 區(ku): ward [区]
- 圓 (en): Yen [円]
- 書齋 (shosai): study, library [書斎]
- 蒼い (aoi): blue [青い]
- 兩足 (ryouashi): both legs [両足]
- 苦勞 (hirou): fatigue [疲労]
- 味覺 (mikaku): sense of taste [味覚]
- 躯 (karada): body [身体]
- 廣い(hiroi): wide [広い]
- 惡い (warui): bad [悪い]
- 乘る (noru): to ride [乗る]
- 孤獨 (kodoku): lonely [孤独]
- 驛 (eki): station [駅]
- 默る (damaru): to be quiet [黙る]
- 遲い (osoi): late [遅い]
- 隱れる (kakureru): to hide [隠れる]
- 麥 (mugi): wheat [麦]
- 樂しい (tanoshii): fun [楽しい]
- 殘る (nokoru): to remain [残る]
- 蒲團 (futon): futon [布団]
- 雜誌 (zasshi): magazine [雑誌]
- 疊 (tatami): tatami flooring [畳]
For more vocabulary lists, see this page.
Thanks for the article, I was so happy I knew some of them. I could detect similarities in others with traditional/simplified chinese kanji (會 / 会).
Reading your article that has to do with changes or simplifications from kanji to hiragana, I couldn’t help thinking of the other way around where simple words are written with kanji. That’s insane. It could be a great post for your blog. The following examples came to my mind, they may help if you consider to write about it.