Tofugu» Learn Japanese A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gaming To Learn Japanese Tue, 19 Aug 2014 16:00:47 +0000 Teaching yourself Japanese isn’t easy, and let’s face it, it takes a large amount of time, effort, and dedication to make noticeable progress. After coming home from a long day of school or work, sometimes the last thing you want to do is sit down at a desk with another textbook. Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to just play some video games?

There are games out there designed to teach you Japanese. Most of those games only offer the basics of grammar and vocabulary, but they certainly aren’t the only games out there that can supplement your studying. Some of your favorite video games may hold within them the ability to become a teaching tool and can become a legitimately fun way to study.

Back in 2011 we made a list of the Top 5 Nintendo DS Games for Learning Japanese. A lot has changed since then, and some great new games have come out that you can use to your advantage. Most of these games are available in the US!

Games Made to Teach You


First, I’d like to mention My Japanese Coach, a Japanese learning game released for the Nintendo DS in 2008. If you’re not familiar with the My Coach series, they are a bunch of self-learning and self-help games that range from learning languages to losing weight. There is even one that’s supposed to help you quit smoking.

The game starts off with a placement test, but don’t be fooled, this is definitely a game for beginners. It will teach you the basics: hiragana, kana, starting grammar, etc, but it only has about 100 lessons total and hasn’t really been updated since it’s release.

One of the major problems with this game is that some of the kanji require you to use the wrong stroke order to pass them. When the lead programmer’s response to this was, “With thousands of characters in the dictionary, there were bound to be some incorrect strokes that would get overlooked,” instead of suggesting a patch correcting the problem, they’ve chosen to ignore it. So, I can’t recommend it for advanced, or even intermediate members. And while stroke order mistakes may seem like a trivial matter, using correct stroke order is extremely important if you’re serious about learning Japanese. (You’ll have a horrible time using a traditional or electronic dictionary if you get them wrong.)

Otherwise, if you’re willing to double check the information you’re getting, this can be a decent way to start out. If you like word searches, matching, and multiple choice games, this may be a fun way to get you into Japanese, but can you really call this a game?

My Japanese Coach may call itself a game, but what I listed above can’t really be considered gameplay. Instead of more examples like this, the following are real games that you can play to learn but ALSO enjoy for the games that they are.

Listen While You Play


Change the language settings! You may not know this but a lot of the games you’re already playing may have Japanese language options. Depending on the game, players can change the spoken language into Japanese with English subtitles, or even better, Japanese with Japanese subtitles. This is possible for quite a few modern JRPGs (for the non-game savvy: Japanese Role Playing Games).

One of the best examples of this is Ni No Kuni, which came out in the US in 2013 for the Playstation 3, and was developed by Studio Ghibli. You may know them from such classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and any of the other awesome movies they’ve been churning out since the 1980s.


This whimsical and highly entertaining game offers English and Japanese voice tracks as well as English subtitles. (The only downside being the English subtitles are for the English version – but you can take advantage of that.) So while you’re enjoying this epic and colorful adventure with Oliver, Drippy the Lord of the Fairies, and all of their friends, you can also be brushing up on your Japanese skills. One of the best things about using this game in particular for study is that it is absolutely bursting with puns. Character, town, and creature names, not to mention good old jokes, are all chock-full of these eye-roll worthy play on words. They can really help you learn what’s malleable in the Japanese language. Not to mention there are fairy-tale references all over the place.

This may sound daunting, but don’t worry, these aren’t cryptic Japanese idioms like 猿も木から落ちる / Even monkeys fall from trees. No, it’s actually much easier than that. In the first area of the new world that Oliver is thrust into, the town is called Ding Dong Dell (ゴロネール王国) and the king is a giant cat names King Tom Tildrum XIV (ニャンダール), otherwise known as His Meowjesty, who speaks to himself in the third person.

Just reading the English names should give you an idea, but when you listen to the Japanese voice track you can hear what the Japanese equivalent to these puns are. It makes you think, helps you put things together, and really makes you laugh. Instead of just reading literal translations, you are able to see the connections the localization team was able to make. The game is seriously dialogue heavy too, meaning there is plenty of material available to you. This kind of studying is pretty hard to find in a book or in a classroom, but it can really open up your mind, so take the plunge!

Just don’t blame me when the game breaks your heart.

Similar Games: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (2014), Xenoblade Chronicles (2012). The Japanese Version of Persona 4 (2008) is also a great game for learning more natural Japanese but requires a Japanese game and a Japanese console.

Reading With The Nintendo 3DS


Games that are not all about listening, but more about reading and doing things, can have the written language changed to Japanese as well. After all, we all have our favorite silent protagonists. One of these games that is still fairly new is Animal Crossing: New Leaf / とびだせ どうぶつの森, which came out in Japan in 2012 and America in 2013.


This is a cute, and honestly, terribly addictive game that, if you buy the Japanese version for the Japanese Nintendo 3DS, can be a really great study tool. This is a laid back type of game in which you are suddenly tasked into being the mayor of a town. You interact with the animals that inhabit it, catch fish, bugs, and sea creatures, and do your best to improve the town until it’s the best it can be! (Which is really whatever you want it to be.) For those familiar with previous versions of the game, this latest installment has everything you love and more!

The great thing about using this game to learn Japanese is that it isn’t difficult. You play when you want, learn at your own pace, and take away from it what you put in. All of the bugs and fish you can catch are real creatures, this means you’ll be learning the actual Japanese names for them. You can also bring them to the museum where you can read a short description of each creature you catch.

The real benefit to playing this game in Japanese is the conversations you have with the animals in your town. Different animals have different personality types ranging from cranky, to snooty, to lazy, to uchi. That’s right, uchi, which is commonly translated as “big sister-type” in English, because that’s how they treat you, like they’re you’re older sister.

Like Ni No Kuni, ACNL has puns. These can be a bit more difficult because you don’t have any English subtitles, but they are still fairly simple.

For example, when you catch a nibble fish, you read this:


In Japanese a nibble fish is known as a “doctor fish” so this reads:

I caught a doctor fish!
A river esthetician!

This isn’t the same joke that’s made in English because, well, it just wouldn’t make any sense. In fact most of the jokes are different based on which language you’re playing in. So even if you’re familiar with the English version of the game, you’ll be able to have a fairly new experience in Japanese, and you’ll have to figure out the puns for yourself.

Similar games: Pokemon X & Y (2013), Bravely Default (2014). *These two games have Japanese language options in the NA versions, so you won’t need to worry about a Japanese game or 3DS for them.

PC Games Exist Too


Photo by Webhamster

If you don’t have any new consoles, or you simply don’t feel like spending money, you can always hop on your computer and play Slime Forest Adventure. There are three different versions of this JRPG style game available and the demo version is absolutely free.

First, let me warn you, the art is pretty abysmal and there is no sound. However, this game does lend itself to the simple RPG style of fight monsters > save princess. You won’t be playing a variation on flash cards and calling it a game.


In the game you fight through different areas, defeating slime monsters by typing in the readings of the hiragana, katakana, or kanji on the slimes. It’s simple, useful, and did I mention free? Of course you can choose to pay for an upgrade to the Gradeschool Kanji version or the Common Use Kanji version. Both of these offer sidequests and more vocabulary and kanji.

For those of you who aren’t fooled by the games that use matching and word searches (those aren’t real games!), this could be something to try.

Dating Sims for Your iPhone


No modern game list would be complete without mentioning at least one phone app. Moe Academy is a dating sim-type gaming app available for free in the itunes app store. Though, a quick word of warning, this is very much a dating sim, so if you aren’t already a fan of those, you probably won’t like this game. It’s pretty directly targeting straight male players, and doesn’t really offer much for anyone else, unless you’re playing it ironically.

However, the game does give you lessons for vocabulary words and time based mini games that differ based on which girl you’re playing them with. While the lessons aren’t much more than a list of words with the Japanese and English equivalents, the games are pretty entertaining. Picking the right meaning for a word will let you shoot ghosts with arrows or enjoy festivals with girls, and if you get a high score you could get a love confession from the girl you played with. The higher lessons do cost money to unlock, so if you really like this style of game, there are currently twenty different courses with levels ranging from beginner to what they call advanced plus.

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The game also offers both Japanese and English text for all of the conversations you have with the characters, including your own thoughts. Sometimes the sentences in both languages can be a bit strange, the translations into English aren’t always the greatest, but they are there for people who want to use them as a study guide as well. The conversations are also skippable, so if they’re too corny for your liking, you can go straight to the lessons/reviews instead.

If you are going into this game without any prior Japanese knowledge you may be out of luck. It teaches you hiragana and katakana but uses kanji and no furigana (kana readings above the kanji) in all of the conversations, and the lessons/reviews seem to be more of a refresher than a real teaching tool, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have merit. The art and the music in the game is actually really well done, and it does feel like a real dating sim. But again, this game isn’t for everyone.

Learn Japanese with Koe (声)

Okay, so this game isn’t out yet, but bare with me on this one. Koe (声) is a game that was just recently backed on Kickstarter in March of this year. It is set up as a JRPG and is all about learning Japanese. They’re calling it communicative language learning and it looks really interesting. This means you’ll be hearing and reading Japanese, something that Slime Forest Adventure certainly doesn’t do.

One important aspect of this game is that they say they’re putting a focus on actual gameplay. That means it will be more than flashcards and multiple choice, unlike My Japanese Coach. Koe promises to contain all the traditional JRPG elements we know and love, like a story, random encounters, weapons, and a turn-based battle system. That’s more than any Japanese language focused game has been able to brag about before.

Koe looks promising and they’re aiming for a summer 2015 release. While the game does seem to be focused on completely new Japanese learners, there really isn’t any news about the learning level they go up to by the end game. There is talk of an editor, allowing the player to add new vocabulary to their in-game kit, but unfortunately, it’s too new to tell at this point. Hopefully this will be a great addition to the few Japanese learning games currently offered in the US.

To learn more about Koe, check out their Kickstarter page.

“Let’s Play” In Japanese


For those of you who prefer to watch games being played for you, there is something out there for you too! While online streaming of games has been growing in popularity over the last few years, especially on sites like and youtube, more and more Let’s Plays have been coming out of Japan.

For those who don’t know, a Let’s Play or 実況プレイ in Japanese, is a video in which someone plays through a game with commentary. It’s not the same as a walkthrough, because the point of watching isn’t to help you get through the same game yourself, but to enjoy it and the personality of the person making and hosting the video. There are quite a few Japanese Let’s Players and watching them can give you both the joy of playing numerous video games and help you study and learn Japanese.

Watching Let’s Plays can be beneficial in a lot of ways. First, you can hear Japanese that isn’t scripted. This isn’t textbook Japanese, it’s how real people talk, and that’s an important thing to learn how to understand and do if you want to be able to use more than just polite and bland Japanese. If you don’t have a way to get to Japan to experience this type of banter for yourself, Let’s Plays are probably the closest thing you can get to a real, colorful conversation with friends. This is also a great alternative for people who aren’t fans of Japanese talk shows.

The next awesome thing is that you can pause, rewind, and relisten to the things you hear. Some Let’s Players even edit their videos to add in subtitles like you’d see in talk shows, which can help you be sure of what you just heard. While watching these videos you can pause when you hear something you don’t know, use an online dictionary to look it up, and then easily return to the video and completely get what’s going on.

There are literally hundreds of games to choose from! If you only like first person shooters, there is a Let’s Player for you. If you love hardcore action role playing games, there is a Let’s Player for you. What about games with friends like Mario Kart and Minecraft? Yup, they exit. There are so many different types of people, games, and experiences out there to help you with your Japanese.

Here are some great Let’s Players on youtube. Feel free to check them out!

Language Options Are Getting Better

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Over the last few years there have been some pretty great improvements to learning Japanese from games. With international editions of games coming out, like Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, players outside of Japan are finally able to change their language settings to be in Japanese. Even some games not coined “international” like the new Pokemon games are having simultaneous release dates, and suddenly languages are an option, not a preset or region-locked to your console.

Hopefully with games like Koe coming out in the next year or so, more advanced games will follow their lead. If Koe does well, we might even see a sequel aimed at advanced language learners. Our future could see more interaction, more options, and better resources. Maybe in the near future we will see an MMORPG where you focus on speaking Japanese with other people to finish quests. Instead of killing spiders in caves, you have to talk your way through. You never know where the future of games will take us!

(If there are any game developers reading this, make me that MMO!)

Tips and Suggestions

  • Keep a notebook handy while you game. If you hear a new word or expression you don’t understand, pause, jot it down, and look it up when you’re done. Then you can add those words to the list of things you’re already studying.
  • Don’t just rely on subtitles. Paying attention to English subtitles while listening to a Japanese voice track can be really helpful, but try to wean yourself off of them. Subtitles should be a reference and if you catch yourself reading and thinking in English while you play a game, then it doesn’t really matter that the voice track is in Japanese.
  • Try to recognize the speech patterns and dialects different characters use while they speak to one another. You can do this whether you’re listening or reading in a game. Being able to recognize emotions and personality types from the way someone speaks is a great skill to have.
  • Repeat what the characters are saying aloud, or if you’re playing a game without sound, try to speak as you read. A major problem of self-taught language learners is in practicing verbal communication skills, and even students in a classroom may not be getting the enough time to practice speaking. Copy the inflection and tone of the characters you’re playing. Don’t worry about who can hear. They’ll be impressed by your mad Japanese skills!
  • Don’t make playing games too much of a chore! Remember, this is supposed to be a fun way to learn. An exercise for your brain. If you go at it too hard, you can tire yourself out quickly. Pace yourself. If you’re the kind of person who likes to marathon games, you may get overloaded and end up forgetting quite a bit of what you learn. Learning a language is going to take time, the more you cram, the more likely it is you’ll forget.

Above all, remember to have fun! And be sure to let us know if there are any other games you’ve used to study recently.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview About Lang-8′s New Service: HiNative Mon, 07 Jul 2014 16:00:44 +0000 Most everyone who reads Tofugu knows about the language learning site Lang-8 (and if you don’t you should check it out). Lang-8′s creator, YangYang, has recently released a new service which has seemingly spawned from something that comes up a lot in Lang-8: People want to ask questions about languages. There is a saying in Japanese: 餅は餅屋 (Mochi wa Mochiya), which literally means “you should ask a rice cake shop about rice cakes” and figuratively means “leave it to a specialist”. We wanted to know more about this new service so I talked to the CEO of Lang-8, YangYang Xi. He will answer all our questions about HiNative in this article so we can learn more about it and why they created it.

Name: YangYang Xi. Occupation: Lang-8 CEO


Q. What’s your story?

I was born in China, moved to Japan at the age of four and grew up in Japan, so I was never really good at speaking Chinese when I was younger. So when I was a university student I went to Shanghai to study the Chinese language for one year. During that time, I did a language exchange and my Chinese skills rapidly improved. I then thought it would be a great service. After coming back to Japan, I developed lang-8 with my friend and made it into company after my graduation.

Thanks to everyone, it grew in to a worldwide service with about 870,000 users from 190 countries (4 more countries to conquer the world). Then, this year, we launched a new service (still need to improve a lot of things though) called HiNative which enables you to ask native speakers any questions at any time. I can’t wait to introduce this awesome new service to you all!

Q.Really quickly for the people who don’t know, what is Lang-8?

Lang-8 is a language exchange platform, which is an SNS language learning service that native speakers utilize to teach their languages to each other.

Q. How did Lang-8 go from your bedroom to the company it is today?

I just wanted to make Lang-8 bigger, so I set up a company.

Q. Why should people use Lang-8?

I think learning from native speakers is the shortest way to improving language skills. That’s how I improved my Chinese and Lang-8 enables everyone to do so without actually going abroad.

Q. So you now have a new service called HiNative. What is that?


It’s a service where you can be frank about asking native speakers about absolutely anything, including language-related things, as if you were saying “Hi!” to them.

It’s aimed to be used on the Smartphone or tablet, though we are still in the middle of developing the app, so literally you can ask questions from anywhere you are with a simple press of a button.

Q. Why should people use HiNative?


In my experience, I often come up with random questions about the language I am learning and/or some cultural things of other countries. I could ask my friends to find the answer out, but I don’t want to bother them too much. I think many people have similar experiences. In such situations, if you have “HiNative” on your phone or tablet, you can freely ask questions without imposing on your friends.

We also set up some question forms that people can make a question sentence just by tapping the screen because we want HiNative to be very user friendly for everyone. We received a lot of Lang-8 user’s voice messages saying that they don’t even know how to ask questions, though they have many things to ask in their minds. So we hope this format option will be helpful to such people.


You can choose the language level you believe yourself to be at, so if you choose beginner, it is often that you will you be replied back to in your native language.

Q. Can you give me some examples of how somebody might use HiNative in real life?

You may think you can just Google the meaning of a word, but if you are a serious language learner, you’ll probably know that the dictionary is not always right. Even if it is right, the word you searched may be too formal for the situation you’re in. So when you want to find the true and natural usage of a word or a sentence, HiNative will be a perfect tool for it.

As I said above, you can ask any questions such as “What is the current most popular thing in the country?” Furthermore, if you are at a restaurant and you don’t understand what the menu says, you can take a photo, upload it, and ask native speakers what it is. In the future, we will make it an option to upload sound or video and a native speaker will be able to answer whether or not your pronunciation is right. There are a lot of uses.

As a real life example, I thought this one is quite unique. The Chinese person named bebe found the word 泡盛り(Awamori) on a face washing soap. Awamori is actually a type of alcohol and that’s the only meaning that she/he found on her/his dictionary. So she/he was wondering why it was written on the soap. Japanese people answered it is not a common usage and only used to emphasize that there are a lot (盛) of bubbles (泡) that the soap can make as a pun of the famous alcohol 泡盛. I’m pretty sure that bebe would not be able to find out the answer without asking native speakers.

Q. Do you have plans for an app in the future?

We are currently making the app. HiNative is intended to be used with smooth operation on smart phones and tablets just tapping the screen.

Q.What do you think about the language learning industry right now (in general?)

There are so many language-learning sites right now, but most of them are “contents-type”, which offer you a set material. On the other hand, the “SNS-type” such as Lang-8 and HiNative aren’t that numerous yet. In that sense, I think our services still have great potential.

Q. How could language learning be improved more (in general)?

I believe that you can improve language by actually using the language that you have learned and by making a lot of mistakes, then ask native speakers to fix it or adjust your requests.

Q.How are you trying to fix those problems with Lang-8 / HiNative?

Even though you are in an environment without native speakers around you, you can get the language you are learning fixed by native speakers on Lang-8 and ask questions to them via HiNative without any wait time. If you study with non-native speakers, you may not learn natural expressions, but you can learn natural phrases from native speakers on Lang-8 and HiNative.

Q. What do you think language learning will look like 10 years from now?

I’m not sure about 10 years from now, but in the near future the technology will be incredibly increased by machines making the perfect translation. If such time does come, HiNative will be used not only for language questions but for things more related to cultural differences and opinions.

Q.What are some upcoming features or updates for Lang-8?

We are focusing on HiNative from now on, so we will maintain the current state of Lang-8 for a while.

Q. What are some upcoming features or updates for HiNative?

We will make an app and an option to upload sounds and videos. We will also make some small improvements as well. Oh, and we haven’t decided the mascot character’s name yet, so we will get that done.

Q. Why is your mascot character Momonga (Flying Squirrel)?


I’m not sure, so I’ll let our designer answer that.

(The Design of Lang-8 Nutti~ answers)

I wanted to use a unique character and I’ve never seen a flying squirrel used as a mascot for anything else. They also fly quite fast from branch to branch, and it reminds me of a scene of people chatting with and questioning each other. That is why I chose the flying squirrel for the HiNative mascot.

The name hasn’t been decided, but I call it “Monga-sama” with myself. The name of the Ai file that I drew the illustration in is too. We would appreciate it if you could let us know if you like the name Monga-sama, or if you have come up with what you think is a better name and why you believe it is so.

Q. Do you have any other messages about HiNative to share with the Tofugu readers?

HiNative is an incredibly useful and cool website, so please try it out if you’re interested in learning a new language.


We at Tofugu are interested in seeing how HiNative grows and evolves. I mean, anything made by the creator of Lang-8 is worth keeping an eye on, I think. At the very least, perhaps you can direct some of your Japanese-related questions to HiNative instead of our support emails :p

But, being able to ask a native speaker a question and get an answer fairly quickly is quite a nice thing to have. In the past, you would have to search for an answer or ask the question on a forum, and you’re never sure if anyone will answer it. Now there’s an actual place for it, and if this works as well as Lang-8 does, you’ll be getting answers soon after posting them. Plus, being a community environment you add the “give and take” equation in there. You help out people and they help you out. Everyone’s warm and fuzzy.

If you’d like to try out HiNative for yourself you can visit the HiNative website on your smartphone or tablet.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 6: Old Kana Thu, 26 Jun 2014 16:00:33 +0000 Finally, you can translate The Tale of Genji from the original! But can you read it out loud without confusing your Japanese-speaking friends? It would be strange, after all, if you didn’t read「今日」 as「 きょう」, despite the fact that it was spelled as「けふ」in older texts.

If  the けふ >  きょう reading doesn’t make sense, consider that languages change. Important sounds change, but writing takes a while to catch up to the new sounds, or sometimes it never does. You know these transformations occur because I just spelled the word “know” with a ‘k’, yet there’s no ‘k’ in its pronunciation. There used to be! A long, long time ago.

In this post, I’ll focus on two important sides of the same coin, which you’ll use to purchase meaning in the Classics:

  1. How to phonetically read Classical Japanese kana and
  2. how this knowledge helps you decipher Kobun texts

In Japanese, this system of sound conversion is called “Rekishi-tekina kanadzukai” (歴史的な仮名遣い), or “historical kana usage”. I’ll assume you’ve read the other Kobun posts (introverbsjodoushiadjectives, and honorifics), but even if you haven’t, you’ll learn cool skills, like how to read old-timey hiragana signs in Japanese.

English Mirror


Before you can use Old Kana rules, you need to know why they’re beneficial. By looking at more familiar English – specifically, Middle English — you’ll see why.

Read the stanza below from William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (from the 1300′s). If you’re strict with your “suspension of disbelief”, this could ruin certain time travel movies for you; I don’t remember Timeline characters having babel fish or translator microbes, and the script didn’t sound like this:

“In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes
Wente wide in this world wondres to here…” (Langland)

You can listen to that stanza, read with accurate Middle English sounds in this video:

Here’s my interpretation just based on reading and listening:

In a summer season, when soft was the sun
I shop(?) me into shrouds as I a sheep(?) were
In habit as a hermit, unholy of works
Went wide in this world wonders to here

The question marks are beside words I couldn’t make sense of, but made a stab at based on my Modern English. Want to see how close I got to a reasonable translation?

“In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit’s unholy in works,
And went wide in the world wonders to hear” (Attwater)

Notice the words that don’t resemble our modern vocabulary. This exercise should give you a taste of the comprehension scale a Japanese native speaker approaches their own Classics with. historical kana usage rules help you do to Kobun texts what I did to the “Piers Plowman” stanza. In other words, you’ll be reading funny Kobun spellings, filling it in with your Modern Japanese knowledge, and coming to quicker conclusions about the Classical texts you read.

Kobun Rules

Don’t let the word ‘rules’ scare you. These aren’t rules for you to follow; they’re rules the sounds have followed, leaving a trail of bread crumbs from, say, an old ふ in the Kobun word 給ふ  to an う in the Modern 給う.

Watch the above video to hear what I mean.

Unfamiliar Faces


Photo by yamayadori

ゐ/ヰ and ゑ/ヱ are characters that are not used in Modern Japanese (except to invoke Shakespearean, old-timey language), but they crop up in the Classics.  The hiragana ゐ and katakana ヰ represented the sound ‘wi’ but the words written with ゐ/ヰ evolved simply into an い (look back at the Piers Plowman video; English ‘hear’ used to sound way different, and was spelled differently, too).

The same is true for ゑ/ヱ, which used to be ‘ye’ (or even ‘we’), and is responsible for “Ebisu” sometimes being romanized as “Yebisu”.

If you would read ゑ/ヱ as え, you could discern what a Classic story is talking about based on your Modern Japanese vocabulary. For example, what comes to mind if you read こゑ below as “koe”? Let me help with the other vocabulary; 祇園精舎 (gion-shouja) is a temple name, and 鐘 (kane) means “bell”.


Probably, you thought of the most common “koe” you hear in Japanese, and that’s “voice”. “Voice of the Gion Temple Bell”? Close enough; koe had a few other meanings, including 音色 (neiro), the quality, or “color,” of a sound. So it’s a metaphorical sense of ‘voice’ in that clause.

If you had read こゑ as “koye” instead of “koe”, you might have missed this clue and had to go searching through a Kogo-jiten. We do that enough already, so you can see how sound rules make the process faster  and easier.

Magic Particles


Moving away from unamiliar characters, を is a kana you know best as the direct object marker in Modern Japanese. But in Kobun texts, this was common in many other places where the ‘o’ sound could appear, mostly at the beginning of a word. In the Nara period, the pronunciations of を and お were consistent and starkly different (wo and o). But the を pronunciation began wobbling in the Heian period. Here’s an example of the Kobun を acting unexpectedly:

と兄(いろせ)といづれか愛(は)しき」(From the Kojiki)

That を? It’s actually 「男」- “boy / man”, which could also be hiragana’d in the slightly more familiar 「をとこ」way, but also as 「をのこ」. You just need to read these を’s as お.

Also, you learned at the beginning of your Japanese education that は (wa) and へ (e) aren’t pronounced the way they’re written, so you’ve already been using modern pronunciation for tricky, archiac spellings!

Small Things


This Kobun rule of thumb will help you with words like しずか (“quiet”) and 味 (aji; “flavor”):

Read づ as ず and ぢ as .

There are a lot of words that have changed their spelling in this way, like 水 (みづ → みず),  何れ (いづれ → いずれ), 閉(と)ぢる → とじる, and 紅葉 (もみぢ → もみじ).

If you look at the photo above, you can see that this train station post has on the side the location: Ochanomizu. Yet, the hiragana  is “Ochiyanomidzu.” I described the づ → ず rule, but it’s also worth mentioning that small characters weren’t really a thing way back when; hence, おちゃ is written as おちや. Little y-sounds (や、ゆ、よ) and small つ’s (such as in あった) will often be rendered as the standard-sized hiragana in Kobun texts, so try sounding things each way for clues.

Tenko, or stage directions


Photo by Ralph Daily

Below you’ll find bulleted lists of Tenko -”change of call”. These have to be practiced and memorized, but the bright side is that they’re straight-forward.

On the left is a Kobun word, and the sound change formula you should remember is on the right of the semicolon. In the formula, the left is the Kobun kana, while the right is how you read it:

  • かは (かわ);ha → wa
  • ひたひ (ひたい);hi → i
  • たまふ (たまう);hu → u
  • まへ (まえ);he → e
  • おほす (おおす);ho → o
  • らむ (らん); mu → n

The Tenko rules above are for the middle of words, so 我 is still “ware”, and 昔 still “mukashi”.

These are the other Tenko trends:

  • くわかく  (かかく);kuwa /guwa → ka, ga
  • あふぎ>扇 (おうぎ);a + u → ō; verbs with the a + u vowel ending are an exception (like 給ふ, read as 給う in modern)
  • じふじ> 十時 (じゅうじ);iu → yuu
  • けふ > 今日 (きょう);eu →  yō
  • きやうだい>兄弟 (きょうだい);iya → yō(pronounce the Kobun hiragana for that word; it’s almost like a southern accent)

Sound rules make the song below pretty interesting. The original melody uses modern Japanese lyrics, but the musical group likes to make Kobun-esque cover songs. In doing so, “koe” (声) became archaic “koye”, but the jodoushi らむ is still pronounced らん.

There might be an explanation for the discrepancy, but I haven’t found one. Whatever the reasoning, it’s fun to listen to the song and see what other oddities or consistencies it has compared to typical historical kana usage.



Cover of Matsuyama’s 1895 “Kyoto Guidebook of Famous Places and Art

Nobody was born knowing the English alphabet; someone taught you how letters represent sounds. Think back to that learning process. Rules like ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ are inaccurate but often helpful. The Japanese sound rules for historical kana usage aren’t accurate 100% of the time, either, but they should make Kobun a little less confusing and empower you on any quest to better understand the Japanese language.

I focused on concepts that I struggled with, but there are clumpier presentations, like “Wakatta zo!” at Yotsuya If you want more details or history, Jim Breen’s site mentions some of each. As always, I’d love to hear your questions and any Kobun or kana experiences!


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An Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 5: Honorifics Wed, 28 May 2014 16:00:17 +0000 I talked about Kobun adjectives last time, but you might want to review verbs and jodoushi before reading this. You should also know how Modern Keigo works. Review those because, this time, I’m outlining honorifics in Classical Japanese, including verbs, prefixes, and some special nouns.

The scale of respect shown in honorific language helps you to identify sentence subjects. I’ve mentioned before that Classical Japanese frequently omitted sentence subjects (like Modern). So to figure out who is honorably on first and what’s humbly on second in the monogatari’s, honorifics can be a big clue. A possible side benefit from reading this article, if you remember ‘agar mode’, is that you might indirectly improve your Modern Keigo.

Respectful Language


Photo by Håkan Dahlström

Imagine you’re a writer in the Heian Times, and you want to tell people about your nobleman landlord. If he heard you’d been talking about him like you were an equal there’d probably be a punishment of some sort. The following are words you would use to avoid getting your head chopped off while talking about the higher-ups. If you want in-depth examples of navigating different formalities in Classical texts, see the video below (Japanese):

The Nobleman Gave

There’s mostly just one word for honorific “give”, and it’s a very important Kobun word: 給ふ (tamafu). Tamafu’s Modern counterpart, 給う (tamau), means “receive/give”, which goes back to how this verb, on its own, also meant “receive/give” in Classical Japanese. That makes it sound contradictory, doesn’t it? If you’re confused about which meaning is true, “receive” or “give”, then just think of how Modern kudasaru and itadaku work; who receives what from whom are questions answered by the particles involved. You’ll have to pay attention to that stuff with tamafu and other honorifics, too.

Kobun:「いざたまへ、出雲(いづも)拝みに。かいもちひ召させん」(From Tsurezuregusa)

Modern: さあ、いらっしゃい、出雲神社の参拝に。ぼた餠(もち)をごちそうしよう。(context explanation here)

English: “Come… . let us worship at the Izumo Shrine. We’ll have . . . rice cakes” (Keene 192).

The Nobleman Was

Tamafu means more than “to honorably bestow upon someone”. It’s like Modern nasaru (“to honorably do”) and irassharu (“to honorably be”). If this Yodan tamafu is immediately preceded by a verb, then, just like with Modern “~ni naru”, the whole verb phrase is elevated to respectful language.

Tamafu isn’t the only Kobun verb equivalent to Modern nasaru, irassharu, and ni naru. おはす is an honorific expressing the “go/come/relocate/is” parts of irassharu. Then there’s つかはす, which is “to honorably do”, with an added meaning of “to honorably send”.

There’s also a kind of super honorific form, called Saikou (最高) Keigo, which was reserved for discussions of emperors, their families, and even those royal-marrying Fujiwara’s of yore. Saikou Keigo is expressed using one of two former jodoushi, せ or させ, plus tamafu, but you should consider せたまふ and させたまふ each as a set verb. Both mean “nasaru” or “irassharu.”

Here’s just one sampling of Saikou Keigo:

Kobun: 「人の謗りをもえはばからせ給はず」 (From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 桐壺帝は人々の非難をも気兼ねなさることもおできにらならないで。

English: “But the Emperor… paid not the smallest heed to those who reproved him” (Waley 7).

The Nobleman Said


Photo by Derrick Coetzee

And the esteemed parrot king said, “Polly, let’s have popcorn instead.”

おほす, like modern おっしゃる, means so-and-so “honorably says” something. You’ll likely see it before or after quotations. おほす could also be “to command” or “appoint”.

Kobun:「大将おほせて、『おり』とのたまふ」(From Makura no Soushi)

Modern: 大将が命じて「下りよ」とおっしゃる

English: “Come down,” the general ordered.

Now I should mention the chimaera of honorifics: 召す (mesu – easy enough to remember because this word is a mess). Its basic meaning is “to summon or call upon”, but it can also be an honorific for “govern”, “see”, “eat”, “ride”, or “wear”. Mesu can also tag onto another verb and make a ~ni naru type honorific phrase, as in 思し召す.

The Nobleman Knew

知ろし召す(shiroshimesu) is like Modern ご存知である – “to honorably know / be aware of.” It can also mean 治めになる (おさめになる) – “to govern” or “manage.” Those meanings sound incongruent. But just think of how a queen has subjects in the land she reigns over, but she can also be proficient in the subjects of math and astronomy. Those subjects are different (one being “constituents”, the other being “topics of scholarly focus”), but the word used is the same.

Kobun:「かかるに今天皇(すべらぎ)の、天(あめ)の下しろしめすこと」(From Man’youshu)

Modern: 今上天皇が天下を統治なさることが

English: “In the reign of our [peerless] emperor” (Rodd 46)

While we’re talking about what’s in this nobleman’s head, I may as well mention 思ほす(omohosu), equivalent to the Modern “お思いになる” – “to honorably believe/think/consider.” There are some variations on this, including 思す(obosu) and 思し召す(oboshimesu), but they all mean the same thing.

The Nobleman Ate


Photo by David Hollin

You’ve noticed, surely, that half of these words have more than one meaning. I mentioned how 召す(mesu) expresses “to honorably eat” in addition to it’s crazy collection of other meanings. 聞こしめす(kikoshimesu) is another indecisive honorific. Its base meaning is “to ask/listen,” with an additional meaning of “to be concerned with” and “to manage,” and, finally, “to consume.” That goes for food and drink.

Altogether, that’s a long list of honorable words to remember. Songs, like the one below, should help keep things simple and fun:

Humble Language

Now, back to you: the Heian Times writer. You want to pen a memoir. When it hits the market, you hope readers think you are cool, but not in an arrogant way. So your editor advises that you describe your past actions with some of these humble words.

I Gave


“Did my humble self give these guys weapons which are effective against animated dead? Hope so.”

The first humble verb for “to give” is pretty straightforward: 参らす (mairasu). The other two have a medley of other meanings. 奉る (tatematsuru), for example, can mean “humbly give”, but also “to humbly eat”, “drink,” or “wear.” Then there is 参る(まゐる), which is so much like modern polite 参る(まいる), meaning not only “to humbly give”, but also “to serve”, “go”,” “come,” “visit,” and “do.” (Of those, only the movement words really hold true in Modern 参る.)

Kobun:「いかにもしてたすけまゐらせんとは存じ候(さうら)へども」(From Heike Monogatari)

Modern: どうにかしてお助け申し上げようとは存じますが。(the whole passage here in both Kobun and modern)

English: I would spare you if that were at all possible.

I Received

“To Humbly receive” is also a mixed bag. First, 賜はる (tabaru, tamaharu) is a humble verb for “to receive”, and that’s pretty much its main meaning. But then there’s 承る (uketamaharu), which is a humble form of “accept” or “receive”, but also “to listen.”

Finally, (and this is where the song videos help dramatically), there is the Shimo-nidan verb 給ふ (tamafu). Yes. It’s the exact same kanji and dictionary form as in the Yodan verb 給ふ. When each one conjugates, the endings differ sometimes, and, obviously, the meaning differs, too. This tamafu means “to receive the privilege of….” and is like modern sasete-itadaku.

Kobun: 「今はこの世のことを思ひたまへねば」 (From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 今は現世のことは考えさせていただきませんので。

English: Because, humbly, now, I think no longer of worldly things…

I Was

I’m calling this section “I was” because these words mirror how the Kobun equivalents of irassharu, nassaru, and ~ni naru have overlapping meanings.

Let’s start with one you should already know: 致す (itasu) – “to humbly do”, as in the Modern 失礼いたします. Then, again, 参る(まゐる) has some meanings for “do”, but also for “go/come/visit.” Since 参る, like itasu, looks familiar, it shouldn’t be hard to remember. A new one, however, might be まかる, which means “to humbly go,” or sometimes just “to humbly ~” if it compounds onto another verb.

Kobun: いづ方へかまかりぬる。いとをかしう、やうやうなりつるものを」


English: “Where can it [the sparrow] have gone off to? And this after we had taken so much trouble to tame it nicely!” (Waley 98).

I Said


Photo by Grant

In your novel, you’re going to write “I asked Mr. Mountain-Rice Field what he expects this season from crops.” So what’s humble Kobun for “ask” or “say” (or even “call”)? Here’s one word that can do all that, and it’s even survived to Modern Japanese: 申す(もうす), as in 「山田と申します」.

Next, there’s 聞ゆ (kikoyu), which originally meant “to hear/be audible”, but in situations demanding humble speech, this is actually “to humbly say” or even “to humbly give.”

Another word won’t ring any bells but hits the same “to say” spot: 啓す (keisu). Keisu is equivalent to the modern 申し上げる, which is just “to humbly say.” One of the ways you can write a Japanese letter is with the set greeting 拝啓 (haikei). That second kanji is the same as in keisu, see?

Speaking of addressing people, the emperor is one person you’ve spoken to. That is, you have been privileged to humbly speak to the emperor. So heed this word, Kobun language user, when you write about that experience: 奏す (sosu), which is like 啓す(keisu) when the person addressed is the emperor or the royal family.

I Knew

You think you know things, writer? You want to open your novel with the line, “I know this guy named Prince Genji, and I think he’s an idiot”? Stay classy and use the word 存ず (zonzu). It means “to humbly know,” “think,” or “consider/believe.” Then your sentence will sound more like, “I am but a petty aquaintance of Prince Genji, and I humbly believe he’s an idiot.” Much better, isn’t it?

Kobun:「ただ一身の嘆きとぞんじ候ふ」 (From Heike Monogatari)

Modern: …ただ我が身の嘆きと思うことでございます。

English: When I think of the sadness of it…

Check out all of these and a couple other humble forms in the fun song below. Listen to it enough and you’ll have them memorized!

Beautifying Prefixes


Photo by MattysFlicks

Now, writer. You want to make sure your audience thinks that the things you mention are awesome. It’s nice to sound humble about your actions, but there’s no reason other things can’t have some flourish. So, you don’t just eat senbei, you eat osenbei. Enter the beautifying prefixes.

Two such prefixes still exist in Modern: お- and ご-. Nowadays, お- (sometimes を in Kobun texts) is used for kun’yomi words, while ご- is used mostly for on’yomi vocabulary. But that distinction isn’t a modern innovation. お- and ご- act pretty much the same in Kobun texts.

According to Vovin in A Reference to Classical Japanese Prose, the Kobun prefix み- is mostly paired with kun’yomi words, but “can also be used in combination with words of Chinese origin, probably those that were more nativized than others” (30). He then describes three vocabulary categories that pair with み- regardless:

  • “Human appearance, body parts, and secretions” (30, like tears or voice)
  • “Dwellings, buildings, and their parts” (31)
  • “Kinship terms” (32)

Nowadays, the み-prefix is permanently a part of certain words, like mikoshi (a mini, portable shrine) and isn’t detachable the way the お- in おせんべい or ご- in ご飯 are.

It’s hard to tell, though, which prefix you’re looking at if Kobun writers used the kanji , which could not only read お-, ご-, or み, but also おほん or おおん. おほん and おおん are two sides of the same coin and form an interesting pronoun-like prefix. See this example, where おほん stands in for something previously mentioned:

Kobun:「対の上のおほんは、三種(みくさ)ある中に」(From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 対の上の(合わせられた)お(香)は、三種類ある中で。

English: “Murasaki had submitted three kinds” (Waley 691) of incense to the contest.

There’s one more pretty prefix to talk about, which builds on the same kanji. 「大御」 reads 「おほみ」, and a noun following it won’t just sound cool. That noun will sound super respected. 大御 usually preceded vocabulary for emperors, gods, shrines, or parents.

Ending Grammar


Photo by Philo Nordlund

This is the last post on Kobun grammar. However, there is one important thing I’ve left alone throughout this series that you can expect soon. If you listened to any of those songs I linked, you’ll notice that the way Kobun words were written wasn’t how they get pronounced. There are rules governing those sound discrepancies which can improve your interpretations of Classical texts. Until now, I’ve (deliberately) just provided links to guides on old kana. But rest assured, I’ll still be writing a post to walk you through the rules of reading Kobun kana and why it’s helpful to know said rules.

Meanwhile, Hello-School has a larger chart to help you solidify your knowledge of Classical honorifics. I hope both your Kobun and your Modern Keigo muscles flexed a little after reading today. This post only covered prefixes and verbs, but I’ve read about other sentence elements, like pronouns and plurals, that border honorific language. So, if you’re curious about those or want to share your Kobun/Modern Keigo stories, make like Murasaki and write something in the comments section.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Keene, Donald, trans., and Kenkō Yoshida. Essays in Idleness; the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. p. 192.
  • Rodd, Lauren Rasplica, and Henkenius, Mary Catherine, transl. Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. 1984 Princeton Uni Press. p. 46.
  • Tollini, Aldo. “Keigo”. Tables of Classical (Tavole di lingua classica) Japanese Keigo. Classroom materials from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
  • Vovin, Alexander. A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p. 30-32.
  • Waley, Arthur, transl. The Tale of Genji: a novel in six parts by Lady Murasaki. New York: Random House, 1993. p. 7, 98, 691.
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How To Speak Beautiful Japanese: An Interview With Yomiuri TV Announcer Naomi Uemura Tue, 13 May 2014 16:00:24 +0000 I know most everybody here loves to watch Japanese television. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to interview somebody who was actually on Japanese TV. I was surprised when I heard back from Yomiuri TV’s 25 year veteran announcer Naomi Uemura, who I’ve respected for a long time. She is one of the most popular announcers in Japan, especially so in the Kansai area (Yomiuri TV is located in Osaka and serves the Kansai region). Honestly, I never thought this would work out the way it did, considering I watched her on TV all the time when I lived in Japan. However, she is an incredibly kind person and I was so pleased when she (and Yomiuri TV) politely accepted the offer and agreed to answer our questions.

“But why an announcer?” you might be asking. First of all, she’s someone I’ve been a fan of for many years, so this is a lot of fun for me. But, I also thought that someone who is an announcer could also help all of you who are learning Japanese. Part of their job is to speak beautiful Japanese, after all! We’ll get to that part later in the interview.

So, a very special thanks to Naomi Uemura and Yomiuri TV, once again. I’m sure all of you will like it because she shared her great experience and provided us with some great advice. Don’t miss it!

1. Uemura-san’s Details

Let’s take a look at her details first. This way you can get to know her a little bit before the interview starts!

Name: Naomi Uemura
Born: December 27, 1966
Graduated: Sophia University Faculty of Literature (Major in Philosophy)
Occupation: Yomiuri TV Announcer
Length of Announcing Career: Since 1989; 25 years
Main TV Programs She’s On / Appeared On

  • “NNN naomi-uemuraNews”
  • おはようドクター” (It’s airs Sunday at 5:50 a.m.)
  • おはようニュースマガジン
  • ザ・ワイド
  • ミヤネ屋
  • おもしろサンデー
  • ニュース・スクランブル
  • テンベストSHOW
  • マルバレ
  • リーダース・アイ
  • 極上の散歩道
  • 読売新聞ニュース
  • ザ・サンデー
  • サンデー・ドクター
  • ダウンタウンDX
  • BLT
  • 11PM
  • and more!


Note from Uemura-san: I believe that the meaning of the word “announcer” in English isn’t exactly the same as in Japanese. In Japan, the word announcer refers to various roles, whereas in English there are specific terms used to denote the people working in those roles. For example, in English there are news anchors, broadcasters, reporters, talk show or game show hosts and narrators of documentaries. Everyone who does these kinds of jobs would be called “announcers” in Japanese. My work calls for me to take on all kinds of such roles.

2. The Life And Work Of Naomi Uemura

Q. Why did you want to become an announcer?

What made me decide to become an announcer was a summer part time job that I had when I was in university. I was offered an MC position at a sporting event and I worked as a vendor in a sports drink tent where people threw a die and the number rolled indicated the number of free sports drinks we would give away. The event was held for about a week, but within a couple days some people from the neighborhood, from children to grandfathers to business men, became regulars of mine and came to my place every day. I hosted the dice show with a funny story and managed to create a great atmosphere. When I teased the audience, they quickly reacted with hearty laughter. It was very fun and interesting for me to see how the crowd swung from joyful laughs to empathetic sighs all because of what I said. Because of that, I thought I would seek a job in something that involved this type of talking.

Q. What was the most difficult thing about becoming an announcer?

Actually, I had almost no difficulty. When I was in my 4th year of university, I went to a job interview and just popped into Yomiuri TV. The difficult thing was…well, when it comes right down to it, the interview may have been the most difficult part because I was the only one chosen out of over 2000 applicants. At the time, going to job interviews was basically my hobby as I had interviews with more than 40 companies. Most of the companies had several rounds of interviews for applicants to go through until they were hired. There were even companies that had up to nine interview stages. My calender looked like it had been painted black due to all those interview appointments.

Q. What was it like to be the only female announcer in the company? (There weren’t any female announcers when she entered the company at least, but there had been a few before her)

In the Kansai area at the time, female comedians were very popular and because of that, jobs such as reporters and assistant hosts on television shows were often reserved for those female comedians. At that time, however, there were about 20 announcers on Yomiuri TV in 1989 and they were all men. Since they were all male, they were accustomed to changing their clothes in the announcer room without hesitation and, strangely enough, my new presence there did not change this. The pin microphone position in the news studio was standardly set to fit to the left lapel of a man’s jacket, so I was scolded when I changed it to fit to mine, the right lapel of a woman’s jacket. It was tough that there weren’t any female announcer superiors to consult with, as well. As for the job, there weren’t any positions for female announcers, as I mentioned above, and we had to obtain them from female comedians one by one. In order to do so, I worked hard and brushed up my announcing skills and expressiveness to appeal to the merits of using a female announcer. Now, out of the 20 announcers in the company, 10 of them are women. Those women undertake the announcing positions that are reserved solely for females. My first job involved creating something from nothing and doing it from the ground floor.

Q. What are the differences between when you started announcing and today, in terms of being a female announcer?

Nothing really.

Q. What was your greatest / most memorable moment in announcing?

Announcing is not a job that helps someone directly. It’s a job that requires the delivery of information to a camera and then through the TV screen. So, it’s rare to find yourself with an opportunity to help someone else. However, when the Great Hanshin earthquake occurred in 1995, I was actually in Ashiya, which was right in the center of the affected area that got a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. Fortunately I lived, so I reported what was actually happening in Kobe day to day through live news feeds and interviews with the perspective of the victims.

One day, after finishing a live news feed as an on-scene reporter, a man approached me to tell me that his life was saved by me. A lot of questions burst into my mind like, “Why? What did I do? Where were you? What do you mean I saved your life?” I then asked the gentlemen why he thought so and he began his story.

“I ran a photo shop in Kobe, but the photo studio, which was also my house, was completely demolished by the earthquake. Additionally, my wife passed away as a result of being trampled by a stampede of people. I lost not only my job, but also my family. After the earthquake, I got stomach cancer because of the stress. When I found out the only life I had left from the earthquake was disappearing, I began to wonder what I was living for. During that time, on the way to the hospital in Kobe, I got into an interview with you. You and I talked about the harsh times I had encountered and about how sad I was. I told you everything. You listened to my story with a full heart and burst into tears with me. Before that moment my sadness had nowhere to go and I had been struggling with the pain of my new life, but you accepted all my feelings and cried with me.

Upon the realization of that, the burden on my heart went away. In that moment I was able to think that if I continued to live, something good might happen. I was actually contemplating suicide, but a ray of light plucked me out of the darkness and and I knew I could hang in there.”

One day, by chance, we ran into each other in the effected area again, and told me that story and how “his life was saved by me”.

Hearing those words was the greatest and most memorable moment of my career.

Q. What is the funniest thing that happened to you while working?

In 2000, I bought an apartment for the first time in my life. At first, I took out a 35-year mortgage, but I would pay it back partly when I saved up some money. It is called “kuriage-hensai” (繰り上げ返済) which means pre-payment in Japanese. It was very fascinating for me that the mortgage term was shortened by about 10 years after “kuriage-hensai”, even though it wasn’t a lot of money. Shortly afterwards, I was obsessed with it and repeated the ‘kuriage-hensai’ as soon as I saved up even more money. Saving money kind of became one of my pastimes.

Meanwhile, Kyosen Ōhashi, who served briefly as a member of the House of Councilors in the Diet of Japan, resigned from his political position. On the evening news, I happened to report this story and during that piece I said, “Due to the resignation of Mr. Kyosen Ōhashi, Mr. Martti Turunen was”kuriage-hensai“-ed.” Of course, I didn’t intend to say “kiriage-hensai”, but “繰り上げ当選 (kuriage-tousen)”, which means to win an election as a result of the death or disqualification of one of the winners. All the staff members who knew that I liked paying “kuriage-hensai” were shaking their shoulders to prevent themselves from bursting out laughing. It was a news cast, you know, so they couldn’t laugh out loud. I didn’t even realize that I had made that mistake, so it turned out to be a funny story after the show ended. On the other hand, who knows, Mr. Martti Turunen may have been paying kuriage-hensai as well, so it might have not been a mistake after all….as if. (She chuckled)

Q. What is the most difficult thing about being an announcer?

[The most difficult thing] is the action of “conveying”. I’ve worked hard for 25 years to properly convey the news to people, but the fact is it’s still difficult to convey stories exactly as I want to. Sometimes, even though I think I conveyed things properly, it didn’t come off to the audience the same way as I thought it should have. Things like the environment that someone grew up in or the books they have read, there are so many factors that contribute to making the mind of an individual different from the next. Even if I say the same thing, whether it was to someone who just lost their loved ones, or to someone whom just had just seen their baby come into the world, my words would be received differently and it’s no wonder. Even for the expression “thank you”, some people may feel that it sounded “pushy” or “sarcastic”, whereas others may meekly consider it to be an expression of gratitude from the bottom of someone’s heart. After all, to convey something exactly how you want is such a difficult thing, and perhaps that is the reason why this is a job that I will never lose interest in.

Q. What is required to become an announcer like you?

Please graduate from a university and come to an interview here at Yomiuri TV. Try to habitually take interest in various things and convey that interest to as many people as you can. Attempt to feel various emotions, understand them, and learn how great it is to convey your feelings to other people. I’m looking forward to seeing you all.

Q. Do you think a foreigner could do that and become an announcer in Japan?

If the person could speak Japanese properly and have a lot of knowledge and insight, then I’d say why not?

3. Advice For Japanese Learners

Since Uemura-san is a professional at speaking, and since many of you would like to speak Japanese better, here are some questions that will help you with that!

Q. Being able to speak clearly and nicely is important to learning a language. How did you train to improve your voice to speak such beautiful Japanese?

I trained with abdominal breathing and pronunciation drills. I’ve been doing them since the beginning of my career.

Q. Could you talk more about the abdominal breathing?

In order to produce a beautiful voice, you have to inhale a lot of air into your lungs. To do so, you need to expand the space surrounded by your ribs. The only thing you could do for that is either to throw your shoulders back or to lower the diaphragm. However, if you strain your shoulders, it will strain your neck and your throat will constrict, so it won’t help you find your beautiful voice. So, to create a beautiful voice, lowering your diaphragm is the only way. For that, you have to train your abdominal muscles and try to learn how to move your diaphragm up and down. That is abdominal breathing. You become able to do that type of breathing once you get strong abdominal muscles.

Q. How about the pronunciation drills?

In Japanese, there are basically only 5 mouth shapes, which are the shapes when you say vowels “あいうえお” and the unique consonant “ん”. You can make 50 different sounds just by adding a consonant to the beginning of those 5 vowels. You can easily make consonants sounds with your tongue, but you have to properly shape your mouth when you pronounce vowels. Once you can make good shapes, your pronunciation will be proper and beautiful. So, pronunciation drills for proper mouth shape are very important. I still practice these at least once a day in the studio.

Q. What’s the difference between speaking Japanese and delivering what you think in Japanese”?

To read scripts in a beautiful way, to speak, to communicate, and to deliver are all different. Even though you pronounce words perfectly, without an accent and speak in fluent Japanese, sometimes what you want to say doesn’t come off as you intended. In order to have a better delivery, you may try changing the tone of the word you want to emphasize, to higher or lower, or you may change the volume of it, either louder or quieter, or you may even want to whisper. On top of that, a change of tempo might be called for, either slower or faster. You need to get a little creative and make all kinds of efforts. Put yourself in the frame of mind that you want to deliver the story in and think about what you could do to delivery that story to the people in the most effective way, and then talk. That’s the way to improve the skill of “delivering what you think”. I think it’s the same whether it’s Japanese, English, German, or French.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing to practice or learn if you want to speak “good Japanese”?

This doesn’t just apply to Japanese but to any foreign language, and the fastest way to improve your skills in another language is, I think, to make friends who speak that language. If you listen to that language with your ears and speak it from your mouth every day, then you’ll naturally learn new Japanese phrases, the way to say things and how to deliver what is said.

However, even if you become a fluent speaker of Japanese, I’d say that writing is a whole other monster. Unlike the alphabet, there are so many characters in Japanese with the incorporation of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. So I believe it would be much more difficult to write a letter in Japanese than it would be to recite what is written in the letter.

Q. When the news is delivered, I think it’s constructed to be easier for people to understand. How can we make “easy-to-understand” Japanese?

This is again not only for Japanese, but information given through speech is “easy-to-understand” if you focus on the base formula of communication – That is “5W1H”: Who, When, Where, What, Why, and How. If your message is compact and consists of these elements, it will be “easy-to-understand” in any language. Whenever you talk to your friend (or whoever), be aware of how you are delivering what you’re attempting to communicate and afterwards try to recall whether or not you’ve contained each element of 5W1H. It’s a great training method and you’ll end up being able to speak “easy-to-understand” Japanese if you focus on this.

Q. Do you have any other advice for Japanese learners?

The Japanese language might be difficult if you study its grammar. Yet, it is a great language for you to deliver and create sentimental expressions and atmospheres. You may like Japanese more if you not only study the Japanese language, but also Haiku or Tanka poems. In Japanese, it’s also common that the words from other countries find their way to Japan and settle in as a part of the Japanese language. Words such as 金平糖 (konpeitou), which means “confetti” which is Portuguese, or マネージャー (manger), which comes from English, are two of hundreds. Since ancient times, Japan has adopted many elements of foreign cultures and it even shows in its language as well. Japan has accepted many foreign things throughout it’s history, with Chinese influence being the most resonant of them, as Japan adopted techniques, social behaviors, Buddhism, ideas, customs, and kanji characters from China. The language is, in part, a demonstration of the country’s culture. When you study a language, try getting interested in its history, background, and culture. As you learn more, you may also enjoy learning more.

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Mining For Japanese Gold: The Professor Who Teaches Japanese Through Minecraft Mon, 12 May 2014 16:00:45 +0000 Minecraft… err, マインクラフト! Of course, I think almost everyone knows the game. Either you’ve played it, someone you know won’t shut up about it, or you’ve heard of it through popular culture / the media. To me, I’ve always thought of it as the incredibly addicting, fun, and educational game that I don’t mind seeing kids playing (darn kids and their CoD). The deeper you get into Minecraft the more educational it gets, really!

But, couldn’t the “educational” aspect of Minecraft be taken a step further? I thought exactly this during a month-long binge of Minecraft I had in 2012. Playing on various servers, you would meet people from other countries, Japan included. Mostly, I would see people trying to explain or ask things in the English language. Sure, we were mostly talking about diamonds, pick axes, and survival, but the grammar and the need to communicate was all being learned.

The game itself is simple, it encourages teamwork (or lots of fighting and whining), and communication is fairly realistic, all things considered. You have to talk in the past tense, the present tense, and the future tense. Also, you have to explain directions, where things are, what things are there, and so on. It’s a real (virtual) world, after all! Plus, the game is extremely simple to play at first, and builds very gradually to the more complicated, which is similar to how languages are learned. Unlike virtual worlds such as Second Life and MMOs, Minecraft has a very pleasant learning curve that’s almost perfect to learn a language alongside it.

That brings me to James York, English teacher at a Japanese university and PhD student researching language learning in virtual worlds. He has actually built a Japanese class around Minecraft, teaching several classes a year up to the JLPT5 level (at least for right now). Just from seeing how Minecraft encourages language learning from my experience “in the wild” I was really interested to find out how Minecraft could help someone’s language learning in a slightly more organized “class”. So, I interviewed York-Sensei to learn more about how he’s trying to improve how Japanese can be learned.

Q. What’s Your Story?

james-yorkI learnt a lot of Japanese when I joined a Japanese WoW guild back in 2006 and since then have been interested in games/virtual communities as language learning domains. I teach English as an assistant professor at a university in Japan and am also a PhD student researching how spoken language proficiency can best be promoted with virtual worlds. So lets just say Kotoba Miners (editor note: that’s what he’s calling his in-Minecraft Japanese class) is my hobby, but also my job, and will hopefully help me get a PhD.

I started the server originally as a LAN-based server where my Japanese university students could learn/practice English. Then I asked over on Reddit if I could bring my students to their server and if anybody would like to help them learn. The response was really promising and one very generous redactor offered to give me a server with his hosting company to make my own server. Of course I accepted and so became “Mining English” as it was originally called. So, we had Japanese university students learning English with some native English speakers on my own server. Then, the course finished and all the students stopped playing. What I was left with was a server with a bunch of English speakers eager to learn Japanese. It was at this point that the original objective of the server to teach English flipped to learning Japanese.

Q. What were your key takeaways from doing “Mining English”?

That you can’t force people to learn.

Students are sneaky :P (By this I mean that they will often do the bare minimum or cheat. For example, I gave them the task of interviewing a native English speaker on the server, but they actually ended up interviewing each other and then handing that in (haha). I wouldn’t have known unless one of the native English speakers happened to be online at that time and saw them do it.)

Task goals designed by teachers are often misconstrued into something completely different from what students actually do, but we have to roll with that and adapt on the spot.

Slightly negative: The Japanese don’t want to learn English (sweeping statement I know, but true… At least in a structured, Minecraft-based course). I opened the server up to the Japanese Minecraft forums and had very little response. It’s a shame, but I’m glad we became Kotoba Miners. I really enjoy teaching people that are eager to learn!

Q. So why Minecraft?


I experimented with a number of virtual worlds and games as part of my research. I rejected MMOs for lack of control over content and their often extremely specialized discourse (e.g. “Prot Warrior LFG SFK pst”). I also rejected a lot of social worlds (i.e. Second Life) for their painful aesthetics, controls and distance between user and content-creator.

Minecraft is simple. Controls, aesthetics, and gameplay. This means that you spend less time learning how to navigate the game and more time learning and focusing on language.

Q. How is your classroom in Minecraft set up?  How does a typical class work?

Class topics loosely follow the Genki textbook in terms of progression and the overall objective of the class is to get students to a JLPT N5 level.

The overall objective of the class is to get students to a JLPT N5 level. Lesson content is stored on the server in the “JP buildings” JP1 – JP10.


Activities related to the lessons in each building can be found around the building itself:


Classes are not lectures and students speak and interact with others for the majority of class time. Speaking is achieved with the use of TeamSpeak where we all log into the Kotoba Miners server (address: If you are to join the class you should expect the following as a typical class:

  • Start with a review exercise to refresh our memories of previous lessons content (an activity from another JP building).
  • Brainstorm vocabulary.
  • Sometimes I explain a new grammar point, but then other times, students go and Google it and share what they found (student-centered learning).
  • The next main activity is designed to make use of the new grammar point, but also requires the use of grammar/vocabulary that we have covered in the past also.
  • After class, there is sometimes homework (such as to create a similar activity for others to complete the following week) and I provide practice exercises via our LMS (learning management system):

Q. What kind of lessons have you created that are unique to the Minecraft interface?


We do a couple of lessons where students have to play Minecraft in survival for 2 full Minecraft days. They have a number of objectives to complete.

The objectives are given to them in a book. These objectives are pretty specific to Minecraft.


Once the two days are over, pairs get together and compare their experiences over the two days. This is obviously used to practice the past tense in affirmative and negative forms. An example of a conversation might go something like this:

A: 畑は作った?
B: 作らなかった。ダイヤは見つけた?
A: 見つけた!そっちは?
B: 見つけなかったorz
A: あまりできなかったねw

So, you’re doing things and you’re talking about them afterwards. In a regular Japanese classroom you you don’t really have these kinds of shared experiences that you can talk about. But, thanks to Minecraft we can do this. In addition to this we can speak WHILE doing them. Doing the activity itself requires the use of language.

A good example is the “Ice Palace” which is set up so that you cannot clear it unless you communicate with your partner. Here is a screenshot of one of the rooms:

This side has the route to tell your partner:


This side is a row of pressure plates that need to be navigated correctly. If you don’t pistons push the blocks at the top and crush the player.


Q. What advantages does Minecraft hold over a real world classroom?


Learning by dying. Simply put – games offer feedback loops that show/punish you when you do something wrong. And people are more likely to take risks and get things wrong when playing a game than they are in a classroom.

However, the biggest advantage for Kotoba Miners is the fact that people can log in from all around the world at the same time and connect with other Japanese learners and actually practice SPEAKING the language. The majority of students that come to Kotoba Miners that have been studying Japanese in the past invariably say something along the lines of: “I’ve been studying Japanese for a while, but I’ve never actually spoken it…” So I think the lessons we do on Kotoba Miners are a great place to improve your Japanese speaking and listening ability. (as an aside: these skills are generally not looked at as much as reading and writing in the literature on virtual worlds and language learning, and this is why I’m pushing them in my own research).

Q. What’s your language learning philosophy?

  • (Specifically for Japanese) Get the Kanji out the way early on. If you are serious about learning the language, and aiming for a high level of proficiency 6 months to 1 year is not a long time to spend on learning Kanji.
  • Use and SRS. RtK aside, Anki was the most useful tool I had when actively studying Japanese. Not just for vocabulary, but grammar, and even things like famous peoples’ faces, and famous dates etc. Extremely important.
  • Speak, make mistakes and learn. I (very fortunately) was able to learn Japanese while living in Japan. But it didn’t come without an almost uncountable amount of 恥ずかしい moments when I messed up. There is nothing more embarrassing than being told by a 6 year old kid 「なに?日本語変だよ」(What? Your Japanese is strange) but it makes you god damn certain that you will never make that particular mistake again. A famous point on mistakes is that you can do one of two things: speak or not speak. If you speak you get a result “I was correct” or “I was incorrect;” but if you don’t speak, you will never know if you are correct or not, and therefore never actually learn or progress. Get out there and mess up!
  • Read. Can’t understand what they are saying in anime? Start with books. Books should not be overlooked. I started with stories aimed at 小4−5 level (elementary grade 4 and 5) and learned an absolute metric cuss ton of useful language. Especially onomatopoeia which is so important in Japanese.

Q. How does the community outside of the Minecraft game enhance the Japanese language learning experience?


I’ll let my students answer this one:

Kotoba Miners the community enhances the language learning experience in every way, and I honestly can’t think of a better resource. Most of all for me is that it keeps me motivated, and I can say for sure I wouldn’t still be studying Japanese if I didn’t come across Kotoba. The way it does this I think is that the topic within the community is always language learning, but the specific activities we do may be things that we just enjoy. Naturally the Japanese learning leaks in to what we’re doing, but it doesn’t feel like I’m burning out on the learning aspect, rather than just enjoying it and getting immersed. For example I love video games; I grew up as a gamer. Within Kotoba I have found friends to game with, on games like Garry’s Mod, League of legends, Osu and more. Since we’re learning Japanese, even though we’re not focusing on it, you can bet a friend will show off some new word or grammar he learned, which will naturally make everyone want to know what it means. Then there is the social aspect, I have people from class as friends now (one of the main reason I got into the language I guess). There are constantly conversations going on within Teamspeak, IRC, the app “Line” on my phone, all in Japanese.

The community has Japanese natives also, so with all this combined it’s hard to get away from the language, I’m virtually immersed so to speak. The thing is, I’m just being social, it’s fun, but I have to learn Japanese if I want to be even better at participating in these conversations, which I want to do. A few weeks ago I even met Cheapsh0t, and a few other guys interested in the Japanese culture. I learned so many interesting things about Japan and got some nice manga just from being involved with Kotoba.

Then there is my imagined rivalry with other students within the community. When I see that they just held a conversation with a native speaker better than I would of, it makes my blood boil. How dare he be progressing quicker than me? You can bet that’s motivated me for the night until I think I could have done what I’ve just seen my friend do. It’s nice to be able to compare myself to others and make sure I’m not slacking. So the community is fun, sociable, and I use it to benchmark my progress, keeping me motivated to keep learn the language.

Let me touch on what I see on /r/learnjapanese lately, which is output. Quite a few of these people are like “output is important, but how do I do it?”. Then things like reading books, news, listening to podcasts, writing journals on lang-8, watching drama’s etc. are all suggested. This is literally, so easy without effort in Kotoba. Podcasts? I can talk to natives or friends and get my listening comprehension and speaking practice. Books? I could open up Line on my phone now and find a whole conversation to read. Grammar? “Hey mate, I didn’t quite understand what this bit meant, can you explain it?” I would ask, rather than searching it up and taking longer than I’d like. Writing journals? Well, I do this on the Kotoba forums, the forums are my favorite part (I can rikaichan everything!).

Honestly I used to use Genki textbook, Japanesepod101, Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide and all that cool stuff. However, I’ve substituted all those for Kotoba, I really think it helps me more and is way more fun. I think Kotoba’s only downfall as a community when it comes to enhancing my language learning is learning kanji, which I use WaniKani for. Besides that, it’s the perfect resource with immersion second to only actually living in Japan.

Q. What are your plans for the future of Kotoba Miners?


One thing that I haven’t been spending too much time on is how to study kanji. I personally went the Remembering the Kanji route, and a lot of my current students are using WaniKani, so although it is probably not needed, I’d still like to figure out a way to teach kanji in the Kotoba Miner’s world (James goes on to say that the blocky graphics make this particularly difficult).

Another thing I am focusing on is branching out into other games with our Saturday “Let’s Play” series where we play games in Japanese. We’ve mainly focused on Minecraft up until now, but we’ve got Rust, LoL, and DarkRP coming up, as well as suggestions from current students.

Finally, I think the Kotoba Miners model is usable for other languages, so if any readers would like to use it to teach another language, get in touch!

Q. How can people sign up for your Japanese classes?

We will be starting a new run of our course for EU students at the start of June. You will need a Minecraft account of course. I wrote a guide about signing up.

Currently, classes are Tuesday 11:00 AM and 9:00 PM (JST).

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

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An Introduction To Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 4: Adjectives And Musubi Thu, 03 Apr 2014 16:00:34 +0000 In Tokyo, you can rarely walk along a street, turn left four times and arrive on the same street you started on. Like Edo roads, Kobun conjugations do not form expected paths. We’ve gone over most of the winding alleys already in Parts 2 & 3, using the translation tour guide that is Part 1. And while there is one more mile marker after this (Kobun honorifics), I’m wrapping up the most confusing of conjugations and sentence endings in Classical Japanese with an outline of the rule breakers: adjectives and musubi.

An Adjective by Any Other Name


Photo by Evelyn Saenz

Adjectives describe nouns, right? My favorite Kobun scholar, Vovin, actually calls Kobun adjectives “quality verbs.” The “quality” part points at how these gems ascribe quality in a sentence (“the stupid jellyfish), not action (”The jellyfish cooked). In “quality verb,” then, the “verb” part describes Kobun adjectives in form; unlike nouns (私) or particles (は), adjectives are dynamic and flexible in shape.

Modern Japanese adjectives aren’t all so dynamic. Na-adjectives, like しずか, come in one form that only changes in what particles it attaches to. But i-adjectives are dynamic with interior changes similar to Kobun ones.

The Two Adjective Types


Photo by Wonderlander

Again, like Modern, there are two Kobun adjective types, which isn’t bad compared to the nine verb categories. These two types, ku- and shiku-adjectives, only really appear in three forms: Renyoukei, Shuushikei, and Rentaikei.

Ku-Adjectives (く活用形容詞)

Renyou: __く (赤く, “red”)

Shuushi: __し (赤し)

Rentai: __き (赤き)

Izen*: __け (赤け)

Kobun: 「白き鳥の嘴(はし)と脚(あし)とあかき」(From Ise Monogatari)
Modern: 白い鳥であって、くしばしと脚とが赤い(鳥)。
English: It was a white bird with a red beak and red feet. (My translation)

*Occasionally adjectives appear in the Izenkei as well. For more adjectival enlightenment, see Kafka-fuura’s in-depth page or this page (Japanese, but more examples), and like all Kobun elements, it can’t hurt to peek in a dictionary.

Shiku Adjectives (しく活用形容詞)

Renyou: __しく (を**かしく, “strange”, “interesting”, “awesome”)

Shuushi: __し(をかし)

Rentai: __ しき(をかしき)

Izen: __ しき(をかしき)

**Yes, spellings like this are abound in Kobun. There are guides, like Kafka’s page, which describe the crazy writing conventions and spelling in Kobun. Pay attention to the existence of two characters/sounds Modern lacks: ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we). If any of your teachers ever cautioned you against getting creative when scrawling “る”, now you can see why.

The “Verbal Adjectives”


Photo by Art G.

Alas, Kobun is not simple. There are two other adjective types lumped into a category of Keiyou-doushi (形容動詞). Unlike ku- and shiku-adjectives, these overachievers appear in all the forms verbs can except the Meireikei (command form). I think of these as similar to Modern na-adjectives because the base part of the word doesn’t change – there’s nari and tari at the end, and those are kind of jodoushi already.

Vovin, in fact, posits the nari, tari, and occasional kari that follow the base of adjectives like 静か (shidzuka, “quiet”) are definitely just adjective + jodoushi and thus naturally end like jodoushi. The traditional dictionaries call 静けし a ku-adjective and 静かなり a nari-adjective, but 静かなり just looks like 静けし in an altered form (ka) to connect to -nari. However it helps you to look at them, here are those nari and tari endings for you:

Nari Conjugation (ナリ活用)

Mizen: __なら (静かなら, “quiet”)

Renyou: __に・なり (静かなり・に)

Shuushi: __なり (静かなり)

Rentai: __なる (静かなる)

Izen: __なれ (静かなれ)

Tari Conjugation (タリ活用)

Mizen: __たら (堂々たら, だうだうたら “austere”, “magnificent”, or “elegant”)

Renyou: __たり or と (堂々たり・と)

Shuushi: __たり (堂々たり)

Rentai: __たる (堂々たる)

Izen: __たれ (堂々たれ)

Believe it or not, it’s actually kind of hard to find examples of adjectives in text, at least flipping through the poetry of the Kokin Wakashuu. There are experts that write about this stuff, but I’m personally wondering if it might have been an aesthetic or rhetorical technique to use noun phrases and verbs more than the Keiyoushi or Keiyoudoushi above. Or perhaps it just worked better for the rhyme scheme to use “noun + の”. For example:

Kobun: Haru no yo no/ yami wa ayanashi/ ume no hana/ iro koso miene/ ka ya wa kakururu. (From Kokin Wakashuu)
English: “How foolish is the darkness on this spring night – though it conceals the plum blossoms’ charm and color it cannot hide their perfume” (Rodd & Henkenius 60).



1) “Cheetahs run very fast.” Good!
2) “Cheetahs runs very fast.” Not grammatical!

1 and 2 above demonstrate a language feature of English called subject-verb agreement. Classical Japanese had its own “agreement” parameters to be met, which writers were more or less second nature to Classical writers. Unfortunately, this means some unexpected sentence or clause endings. Instead of agreement being based on plurality, it was based on particles. These four make up the kakari-musubi set:

  • ぞ (emphatic, anxiety)
  • なむ (emphatic)
  • や (doubt, question)
  • か (doubt, question)

Motoori Norinaga first described this phenomenon in 1779. He was determined Japan had the best old language, that there was something divine and magical in the old words, and that only by getting away from the Chinese style of literature and all that on-yomi could Japan become stronger. If you’re thinking this sounds like the seedling of the empire-building nationalism of the late 1800’s, you’d be right. It happened around the world, actually.

Norinaga called the Kobun particle-verb agreement 係り結び – kakari-musubi, using the characters for “connect” and “tie/bind”.

There is one other type of musubi, but I’ll get to that after illuminating the kakari-musubi.

The Rentai-Bully Particles


Look here, sentence. We’re ending on an attributive note, today, and there’s nothing you can do to change that

Musubi would be like ball lightning if the phenomena was more common. That is, musubi have scientifically observable patterns, but they still skew our view of the sentence. Musubi are also like bullies. We’ve actually seen them before; I included this example in Kobun Part 3:

Kobun: 「雪降れば木毎(ごと)に花咲きにけるいづれを梅と分きて折らまし」
English: “After the snowfall, flowers have burst into bloom on every tree. How am I to find the plum and break off a laden bough?” (Kokin Wakashu 81).

The presence of the particle ぞ forces ける into the Rentai (attributive) form. Since I personally wouldn’t question the attributive being in that spot in the sentence (though the Renyoukei might make more sense), I’ll explain through a clearer example:

“[W]hat thing should [we] entrust to the Chunagon?” (Vovin 209)

Normally, sentences end with the Shuushikei, right? But the Shuushikei of that final jodoushi is actually べし, while what we see above is べき, the Rentaikei (attributive). This is a case where the sentence ends in the rentaikei because of the presence of a musubi. So when you’re checking charts to see if the ending verb or jodoushi is what you think it is, take this into account.

That said, there are some non-musubi occasions for the sentence to end in the rentaikei, which I’ve cautioned about in the past Kobun articles. According to Vovin, this trend was, at first, only in 11th century recorded dialogue; the narratives of Kobun texts avoided Rentaikei-ended sentences. Over time, however, the trend was adopted into narratives, as well.

Pay attention to what you’re reading. If you’re reading something on the earlier scale of Classical texts, you’ll be okay just keeping an eye out for musubi. If you’re reading, say, the lyrics to a folk song from the Edo period or maybe even the Tsuresuregusa (14th century), there might not be a musubi around when a sentence ends in the rentaikei.

The Koso Musubi


Photo by Audrey

First of all, you’re doing zazen meditation wrong. Second of all, I said Izen, not zazen, which you would know if you’d open up your ears for once

One other musubi should be noted, and it forces the Izenkei. If you don’t remember, the Izenkei indicates started or even completed actions (not “past tense” or “end of sentence”) and usually pairs up with ~ば for “since” or “when”.

When こそ is used, the Izenkei form seems out of place in the middle of the sentence with no ~ば. In this example of the koso-musubi, what Shirane calls a “concessive” (49) is what the rest of us would translate as “though” or “but”. For example:

Kobun: こまかにこそあらねどときどきものいひをこせけり (From Ise Monogatari)
English: “[he] sometimes sent [her] messages, although [they] were not cordial” (Vovin 214)

The あらね is 有り (to be) + ず (neg.) in the Izenkei. After that, the ど you see is a particle of contradiction (“although” or “despite…”).

In other instances, こそ will force the last verb or jodoushi into the Izenkei as a word of emphasis.

Kobun: 折節(を理節)の移(うつ)りかはるこそ、ものごとに哀(あはれ)なれ.(From Tsurezuregusa)
English: “It is precisely the changing of the seasons that makes everything so moving” (Shirane 49, italics his).

You should know koso from the modern, but if you need a refresher, Vovin remarks that, “koso seems to place especially strong emphasis on a preceding word or phrase, much stronger than the [Kobun] particles zo and namu” (430).

If you’re wondering, “What on earth do I do if I see koso and zo, etc. in the same sentence?”, then Vovin’s got you fixed there, too, for almost every instance: “the form of the final predicate is defined by the particle that comes closest to the final predicate” (214).

The End of the Road?


Photo by Elliot Brown

That might not have been quite as easy breezy as jodoushi were, but then, I just taught you how to disarm Kobun bombs that would otherwise destroy your attempts at translation. Plus, Classical Japanese adjectives look so similar to modern ones, don’t they? You’ll probably understand them as you see them in texts without needing to look them up. Plus, when you think about the “core” meanings in the musubi gang, the only new particles are namu and ya.

So yes, that’s it: four adjective types, which mostly overlap in the ending sounds, and five agressive particles. If you’ve got questions, the comments section has an empty text box with your name on it. Ask away! Otherwise, get ready for the next and probably last Kobun post: Classical Japanese Honorifics.

Bonus Wallpapers

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry : with Tosa Nikki and Shinsen Waka. Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford Univ. Press, 1985. p. 81.
  • Rodd, Laura Rasplica, and Mary Cathy Henkenius. Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. Princeton University Press, 1984. p. 60.
  • Shirane, Haruo. Classical Japanese: A Grammar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. p. 49.
  • Vovin, Alexander. A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p. 187-188, 208-209, 214, 430.
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An Introduction To Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 3: Jodoushi Tue, 18 Mar 2014 16:00:12 +0000 What do dinosaurs, outdated fashions, and SNL have in common? They’re going to help us with Classical Japanese. Today’s course in your Kobun education is easy breezy: Jodoushi (助動詞). They’re “helper” or auxiliary verbs. I mentioned these critters a little in my last article on Kobun but I’d recommend you read Part 1 (the introduction to kobun) first if you haven’t already.

Kobun jodoushi are pretty old (we are talking about classical Japanese, after all!), but they do still show up in modern Japanese from time to time. We’ll see them fixed with verbs, in set phrases, or even adverbs. Some exist as useable grammar points. Most, however, appear in much the way that everything else in Kobun does: in the monogatari’s and nikki’s and other classical Japanese texts. That is, after all, why we’re learning so much about Kobun!

Timeless Jodoushi


Somehow, these dinosaurs made it into Modern Japanese, but they often sound formal or eloquent. Like, “Asteroid scientist, I am Danneth of Sharpteeth Abbey. You know the whereabouts of the asteroid which vanquished my ancestors. Kindly take me to it, or kindly prepare yourself for death”, kind of eloquent. Not so old-timey sounding, but definitely eloquent.

For each jodoushi below, I’ve provided a Kobun sentence taken from my favorite online Kogo-jiten where that jodoushi makes an appearance.



べし was the base form of a jodoushi that has survived through two evolutionary tracks to the Modern: べき (the old Rentaikei) and べく (the old Mizenkei and Renyoukei). べき is used these days to talk about the way things ought to be done, like English “should”, and doesn’t sound particularly high-brow or anything like the rest of these. べく is less common, and is a conjunction that indicates a direct cause or prerequisite. But in Kobun, べし could also mean that someone is assuming or framing a situation a certain way.

Kobun:「人は、形・有り様のすぐれたらんこそ、あらまほしかるべけれ」(From Tsurezuregusa)

Modern: 人間は容貌(ようぼう)や風采(ふうさい)がすぐれていることこそ、望ましいだろう

English: “It is desirable that a man’s face and figure be of excelling beauty” (Keene 3-4).


In both Modern Japanese and in Kobun, ず is a negative, like “not”. In Modern, ず can sound pretty formal. The ず jodoushi is ぬ in the Rentaikei (see part 2 of this series, scroll down to step 2), and that form appears in Modern as well, though less frequently. There’s important nuance to the ぬ breed of negation, so ask around before using it or you might sound like a better-than-thou snob (or, in Mami’s words, “a bossy Shogun”). In Kobun, however, ず/ぬ is a frequent (non-snobbish) -ない kind of negation.

Kobun:「京には見え鳥なれば、みな人見知ら」(From Ise Monogatari)

Modern: 都では見かけない鳥であるので、そこにいる人は皆、よく知らない

English: “Since it was of a [bird] species unknown in the capital, none of them could identify it” (Tales of Ise 76).



I’ve only run into ごとし once in Contemporary Japanese literature (as ごとく), if that tells you anything about its frequency. ごとく is a sophisticated-sounding ~のようだ, in Modern Japanese. The Kobun ごとし, however, could mean a variety of things. Like the modern version, it could be used for comparison, but also for equivalence or as an example-provision:

Kobun:「世の中にある人とすみかと、またかくのごとし」(From Houjouki)

Modern: 世の中にいる人間と住居と(が無常なこと)は、また、これと似ている

English: “In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing” (from here).


る、 さす、and す

Yeah, I know, there’s -る in almost every verb garden out there. This one is pretending to be a Kobun weed when really it’s the base form of almost the same passive or potential you’d recognize today. The others – さす、しむ、 and す – are causative, which also kind of overlap with modern. Go here for a more detailed breakdown of them.

Kobun:「涙のこぼるるに、目も見えず、物も言はれず」(From Ise Monogatari)

Modern: 涙があふれ出て、目も見えず、物も言うこともできない。

English: ”I am blind and speechless with tears” (Tales of Ise 110).


Debbie Downer Jodoushi


These Jodoushi are negatives. When Classical writers saw an affirmative verb’s bridge of dreams and wanted to crush it, they used one of these bad boys. What’s that, Taketori Monogatari? Bamboo cutter “有りけり”? NOPE. Author guy’s Pokémon Pen slams the sentence with “有らぬ” and there wasn’t an old bamboo cutter.



Do you remember this advertisement from the very first part of the Kobun series?

Written there you can see maji、which negates “forgive” and generally seasons the sentence with some negative feelings:

Kobun-ized ad: 許すまじ

Modern: 許す! or 許さないぞ!

English: Don’t yield (to pollen)!


This is pretty equivalent to the modern 「まい」. It’s a negative + “probably” or negative + intention. See here:

Kobun:「京にはあら、あづまの方に住むべき国求めにとて行きけり」 (From Ise Monogatari)

Modern: 京には住むつもりはない、東国の方に住むのにふさわしい国を探し求めるためにと思って。

English: “Perhaps because he found it awkward to stay in the capital”… “[He] journeyed toward the east in search of a place to live” (Tales of Ise 74).


Yesterday’s News


“That outfit is so past tense.”

The following jodoushi relate to time. Most of them are for the past, but not all.


けり、き、and けむ

We encountered けり in the Kobun verbs article – it’s a past tense thing. き is the same, but it has a crazy line of conjugation, so be sure to check out the chart I include at the end of this article. けむ、meanwhile, talks about something that has happened and is part conjecture (see the -ただろう in the sentence translation).

Kobun:「昔、こはたと言ひけむが孫といふ」(From Sarashina Nikki)

Modern: 昔、こはたと言っとかいう(人)の孫という。

English: “They said that they were the descendants of a [once-]famous singer called Kobata” (Doi and Omori 11).



Like in Disney’s Mulan, when Mushu says, “Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow….” This jodoushi casts “Deshou” on the situation, “deshou” on a reason for the situation, and general vagueness all around, in my opinion, since らむ can also equate to euphemism or simile.

Kobun:「などや苦しき目を見るらむ」(From Sarashina Nikki)

Modern: どうしてつらい目に遭うのだろうか。

English: How did it come to such a rough time as this? (my translation)



This jodoushi can be the volitional (modern ~しよう!) or a “deshou”. As in modern, a “deshou” or volitional can go a long way towards soft suggestions for the way things ought to be. Likewise, む/むず in Konbun could represent a suggestion and even, as with らむ, simile.

Kobun:「かのもとの国より、迎へに人々まうで来(こ)むず」(From Taketori Monogatari)

Modern: あのもとの国 から、迎えに人々がやってまいるだろう

English: “People are going to come from my original land for me” (Behr 128).




These jodoushi are flip-a-table, pull-the-plug, 800% done. Or, the verb they attach to sounds like a completed action, at least.


The Renyoukei (see part 1 of this series and scroll to “step 2”) for つ is て. Classical Japanese had a few other sentence parts (like particles) with ‘て’ at the border between words, so you’ll want to list out some guesses when translating. In addition to completion, つ was written for lists (like “…たり…たり、…” in modern) or a “deshou”-tinted “certainly” or “without mistake” (“たしかに…だろう”).

Kobun:「蠅(はへ)こそ、憎きもののうちに入れべく」(From Makura no Soushi)

Modern: はえ(という虫)こそ、憎らしいものの中に確かに入れてしまいたいもので

English: “The fly should have been included in my list of hateful things . . .” (Morris 70).


This is a different ぬ than the negative ず/ぬ. This ぬ is completion. How do you know which ぬ is being used in the sentence? You’ll have to look at charts and forms. Remember that the Mizenkei usually precedes negatives, while the Renyoukei is usually used as a connective form. So verb in Mizenkei + ぬ = negative action, while Renyoukei + ぬ = completed action (probably). There’s more to it than that, but here’s an example sentence to get you started – it’s a beautiful poem from the Kokin Wakashuu, as translated by Kuma Papa-san).

Kobun: 「散りとも香をだに残せ梅の花」

Modern: 散ってしまっても香りだけは残していってくれ、梅の花よ

English: “If these plum blossoms must wither/scatter, at the very least leave your fragrance. . ..” (Kafka-Fuura).


This jodoushi can signify either completion or an on-going action – use your best judgement when translating.

Kobun:「くらもちの皇子(みこ)は優曇華(うどんげ)の花持ちて上り給(たま)へ」 (From Taketori Monogatari)

Modern: くらもちの皇子は優曇華の花を持って都へお上りになった

English: “Prince Kuramochi has returned with the Udonge flower!” (Behr 108-109).


The Wishlist


Photo by Noel Portugal

Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary, defines hope as “Desire and expectation rolled into one”, which is exactly what 希望(kibou) sounds like. Guess what these jodoushi express? Hopes, wishes, and dreams, like the modern -たい form.


たし and まほし

These are both like the modern -たい or (て)ほしい, depending on the subjects and objects in the sentence.

Kobun:「帰りたければ、ひとりつい立ちて行きけり」(From Tsurezuregusa)

Modern: 帰りたいときはいつでも、(自分)一人ふいと立って行ってしまった。

English: “When he was ready to go home, he at once got up and went off all alone” (Porter 53-54).


The Circus Group


Photo by Les Chatfield

The final group of jodoushi are a hodgepodge mix. Some resemble verbs, while some simply have unique meaning or classification.



This jodoushi only sounds like the regular verb “なり” by coincidence. なり tags onto a verb to convey an assumption of some sort, hearsay, or to point out that something has been physically heard, as in:

Kobun:「音羽山(おとはやま)今朝(けさ)越えくればほととぎす梢(こずゑ)はるかに今ぞ鳴くなる」(From Kokin Wakashuu)

Modern: 音羽山を今朝越えて来ると、ほととぎすが梢はるかに今鳴いているのが聞こえるよ。

English: “Journeying onward over Otowa Mountain while the day is young, I hear a cuckoo singing high in the distant treetops” (Kokin Wakashu 41).



まし is what’s called a “counter-factual supposition”. It’s inherently hypothetical – sometimes just an observation, but sometimes conveying wistfulness. It often connects to the conditional ~ば, but it doesn’t have to. “Would that I had eaten ice cream one last time before the zombie apocalypse began!” is an example in English.

Kobun: 「雪降れば木毎(ごと)に花ぞ咲きにけるいづれを梅と分きて折らまし」(From Kokin Wakashuu; more breakdown here)

Modern: 雪が降って、木に白い花が咲いたように見える。どの木を本当の梅の木と区別して折ったらよいだろうか

English: “After the snowfall, flowers have burst into bloom on every tree. How am I to find the plum and break off a laden bough?” (Kokin Wakashu 81).



Like a lot of things on this list, めり indicates a projection of circumstances, but, unlike most of the others, has a strong tinge of uncertainty or neutrality. In English, this would be the difference between “Someone forgot their bag” and “It looks as if someone forgot their bag”.

Kobun: 「簾(すだれ)少し上げて、花奉るめり」(From Genji Monogatari)


English: “A nun, raising a curtain before Buddha, offered a garland of flowers on the alter” (Suematsu 92).



The Kobun らし acts exactly like the Modern らしい, but I don’t know that they are actually related (changing from a jodoushi to an adjective?). But like so many others on this list, らし is conjecture, a statement about the appearances of a situation or thing, including the reason something came to be.

Kobun:「ぬき乱る人こそあるらし」(From Kokin Wakashuu)

Modern: 糸を抜いて玉を乱れ散らす人がいるらしい

English: “There must be a man unstringing them at the top” (McCullough 482).



らる is classified on charts and in Kobun discourse as 自発. Spontaneous? As in “Spontaneous Combustion Man”? Yeah, I didn’t get it either, at first. But if you reframe it as an expression of naturally occuring or unplanned actions and circumstances, then it makes more sense.

Kobun:「なほ梅の匂(にほ)ひにぞ、いにしへの事も立ちかへり恋しう思ひ出(い)でらるる」(From Tsurezuregusa)

Modern: やはり梅の香りによって、以前のことも(当時に)さかのぼって、自然となつかしく思い出される

English: “It is the perfume of the plum which sends our thoughts lovingly back to the days of old” (Porter 21).


Wrap-up: A Kobun Jodoshi Chart


As promised, here is a jodoushi chart, made by the education site “Wiquitous”. The top row is the verb form (Renyoukei, etc.) that the jodoushi tags onto, while the right side scales down the forms the jodoushi conjugate through. Empty circles mean that the jodoushi doesn’t appear in that form. Meireikei (command form), for example, doesn’t go hand-in-hand with many helper verbs, and that makes sense when you think about it.

Jodoushi were way easier than verbs, right? The verb patterns I talked about before permeate everything, so knowing the forms is truly essential. Hopefully, learning about helper verbs just made the previous lesson snap into focus. We’re not completely done looking at conjugations, though, because adjectives are still to come.


  • Behr, Maiko R.. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter: A Study in Contextualization. Diss. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1998.
  • Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary.
  • Doi, Kōchi and Annie S. Omori. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.
  • Kafka-Fuura’s Classical Japanese Blog
  • Keene, Donald, trans., and Kenkō Yoshida. Essays in Idleness; the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry : with Tosa Nikki and Shinsen Waka. Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford Univ. Press, 1985.
  • Kuman Papa-san. (“散りぬとも香をだに残せ梅の花恋しきときの思ひ出にせむ”.](
  • McCullough, Helen Craig. Brocade by Night: “Kokin Wakashu” and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry. Stanford University Press, 1985.
  • Morris, Ivan, trans. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • Porter, William, trans., and Kenkō Yoshida. The Miscellany of a Japanese Priest, Being a Translation of Tsure-zure Gusa. London: Humphrey Milford, 1914.
  • Suematsu, Kencho. Genji Monogatari by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. 1982. Reprint. New York: Colonial Press, 1900.
  • Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan. Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford University Press, 1968.
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An Introduction To Kobun (Classical Japanese) Pt 2: Verbs Mon, 10 Mar 2014 16:00:10 +0000 Please read my introduction to Kobun article before reading this one.

Brave Kobun pupils! I’m going to take you further into the woods of Classical Japanese with verbs. Remember, Kobun is very different from Modern Japanese, and, as such, you’ll see new and unfamiliar features. In starting with verbs, I’m being biased and deliberate. It’s my opinion that verbs are top priority in a Kobun education because:

  • Classical Japanese, like Modern, can omit the subject.
  • Again like Modern, adjectives work like light verbs.
  • Verbs take longer to look up and identify accurately than nouns, particles, etc.

Seriously – it’s a long process to decode verbs. I’ll describe an approach each for the short-term and long-term Kobun students. Both approaches involve puzzling a verb’s meaning by 1) establishing what kind of verb you’re dealing with and 2) looking at what shape it’s in.

The Short-term Approach


Photo by Anu & Anant

If you’ve never used Rikaichan, check it out. Rikaichan is an app that doles out meaning and readings for unfamiliar Japanese words and kanji if you hover your mouse over in-browser text. The short-term approach to Kobun verbs is equivalent to using Rikaichan on a news article: unless you’re really pro at Japanese, you won’t mentally store all the new words and characters Rikaichan breaks down for you, but you can read and comprehend the news article. This kind of approach is about understanding a text you have time to sit with but don’t expect to quote or write commentary about.

Let’s start with this line, the first in Taketori Monogatari:


Here’s the non-verb stuff in the sentence :

  • いまは昔 (mukashi): now (subject) an ancient time
  • 竹取 (take-tori): bamboo-lumberjack (AKA “bamboo wood-cutter”)
  • の翁 (ou)といふもの: an old person/man.

といふもの is technically a verb phrase. I’m ignoring it because it has carried on into modern Japanese as というもの. That leaves just one verb phrase to decypher: 有りけり(arikeri).

Given this information, I want you to spend a moment searching around in a kogo-jiten for what you think 有りけり means. Don’t look up translations. Honestly look to see if you can analyze 有りけり the way you could “食べました”, which is [“eat” + past + polite + affirmative + end of a sentence]. Did you give it your best shot? I hope so. Here’s what I do:

Step 1: ID the Verb

First, we’ll need to figure out what kind of verb we’re looking at. Find the verb in a kogo-jiten. 「有りけり」 as a whole doesn’t get results. However, breaking it up into「有り」and 「けり」gives us results. Here’s 有り.


The top orange box outlines the verb type: 有り is a ra-gyou henkaku (“ra-sound irregular”) verb. The second box encapsulates the most common meaning: “to exist”, “to be”, etc. But wait — do you see the sample usage they provide? I’ve underlined it: it’s the sentence we’re trying to translate! We’ve definitely ID’d the right 有り. As for けり…


In the previous search, we could tell that what we’d found was a verb because 自動詞 (jidoushi; “transitive verb”) was written before ラ行変格 (the verb type). But here the Kogo-jiten entry lists けり as 「助動詞 (jodoushi)」, which means “helper verb”. Jodoushi won’t appear on their own but, instead, always connect to something else.

The orange box in the screencap outlines that this 助動詞 is used to create a past tense verb. So, this けり is like the “-ed” in English “highlighted” and the “た” in Modern Japanese “食べた”. Again, underlined in orange, the example provided is the very sentence we’re translating! For other verbs, though, you won’t be as lucky.

Pretend the sentence they provided wasn’t the exact one we’re looking at now. Two other search results appeared for “けり”: one is a verb (not a helper verb) that means “to come along” and the other is a verb for “to be wearing”. How do you know which is the right one? Mostly from meaning and context. While it’s definitely possible to see verbs chained together, “live” (verb) + “past tense” (helper verb) makes more sense here than “live” + “came along/comes along”or “live” + is “wearing”, especially after looking at the next step.

Step 2: Listen to the Verb

The next step: identify what form, or 形 (~kei) the verb is in. I’ve translated another part of the entry for けり in that screencap: “Attaches to an inflecting word in the Renyoukei”. If this けり attaches to a Renyoukei verb, we need to check if 有り is in the Renyoukei or not. Then we’ll know for sure which of the three けり’s is in this sentence. Ugh, homophones.

To check which “form” the verb is in (Renyoukei, etc.), think about the last sound in 「有り」 and check this chart:


This chart was made by Anthony Stewart. The original chart has more cool things and is available here.

Using the charts is like playing Battleship. The verb types are the x-axis points which intersect with sound-based forms on the y-axis. As the chart lists, 有り, a ラ行変格 verb, could appear as -あら, -あり, -ある, or -あれ. The form in our sentence ends in -り, which means we either have the Renyoukei or the Shuushikei.

Renyoukei is a connective form, like the Modern Japanese pre-masu stem. Shuushikei is a form that marks the end of a sentence, like how “-ました” in modern Japanese always comes at the end of a sentence and never in the middle. 有り doesn’t end the sentence, so it’s not in the Shuushikei. Plus, 有り is connected to something, which means it’s the Renyoukei 「あり」. We were right with our context judgement: the right けり is the past tense helper verb. けり also happens to be in the Shuushikei, the sentence-ending form, so all the pieces line up.

It’s helpful to know what all of those y-axis forms mean. But an in-depth knowledge of those verb forms isn’t necessary in the short-term approach since you can just look them up.

If you put the pieces together [“live” or “exist” + past tense + end of sentence], it becomes clear what 有りけり as a whole means. Kafka-fuura skillfully translates this sentence as: “In a time now long past, there was an old man who was a bamboo cutter.”

You might be getting curious about some patterns. Could 有り sit on its own in the Renyoukei? While using the short-term approach, don’t fill your head with such stuff. Just look things up until they make sense. Eventually, some patterns will settle in your memory, and that’s great, but memorizing patterns isn’t the aim. The aim is to give you a process for sporadic Kobun dealings. That said, the short-term approach only works if you have time to sit with a Classical sentence and some dictionaries and charts.

The Long-term Approach


The short term method will hold back folks who really want to learn the lingo of the ancients. So, I’ve made the above flow chart for your referencing pleasure. Short-term and long-term students can benefit from the chart, but long-term learners should know it thoroughly.

To read more than the first couple pages of one Classical Japanese text, it’s more efficient to have verb types steadily memorized on the front end of your learning journey.

Actually, that’s how my Latin education was; we learned verb conjugations and noun declensions while reading increasingly difficult sentences at a slow pace. At first I was reading “In the picture is a Roman girl named Flavia”, but by the end of the year, I could eek out a paragraph from the eloquent Cicero. If I had had a prior knowledge of Italian, my reading comprehension probably wouldn’t have taken me a year, though, because of common vocabulary and roots. So if you have a functional grasp of modern Japanese (and motivation!), it won’t take you a year to teach yourself what’s necessary to read Kobun.

Step 1: Know Thine Verb Types

As I briefly pointed out earlier, Kobun verbs come in different types. Think of them as flavors. Things that are watermelon flavored just get called some variety of “watermelon-flavored”, right? Verb type names aren’t misleading. For example, 四段 (yo-dan) verbs are called “quadrigrade” because they conjugate into four different vowel endings. 知る is a 四段 verb, and conjugates as outlined in orange:


The vowels あ、い、う、and え added together make four grades of sound, see? Hence 四 (“four”) 段 (“grades” or “steps”).

The other eight verb types are: 上一段 (kami-ichi), 上二段 (kami-ni), 下一段 (shimo-ichi), 下二段 (shimo-ni), and the irregular ナ行変格 (na) , ラ行変格 (ra), カ行変格 (ka), and サ行変格 (sa-gyou henkaku) verbs. For the first four, see the next image. The last four conjugate mostly as 四段 verbs, but with irregularities you can reference in a traditional chart.

qDujY5LIchi-dan = one vowel in the Katsuyou. Kami = ‘upper’ vowel (almost always い). Shimo = ‘lower’ vowel (え). Ni-dan = either upper or lower vowel plus the median う.

My favorite author on Classical Japanese, Vovin, actually boils those verb categories down to just three: verbs with a vowel stuck at the end of the root (like mi-, “see”), verbs stuck with a consonant at the end (shin-, “die), and irregular verbs.

Step 2: Know Thy Charts


Photo by Linus Bohman

There are a variety of charts out there, but they’re all basically the same x/y-axis combo between verb types and forms. Hard-core classicists probably have, either intentionally or over time, memorized which sounds correspond to which verb forms.

Personally, I don’t think you need to have the sounds memorized. It would suffice to just be really familiar with the form boxes and what they represent:

  • 未然形 Mizenkei: Imperfective, but not really, since it usually tags an action that has not yet begun. Connects often to form the negative.
  • 連用形 Renyoukei: Stem form, like pre-ます.
  • 終止形 Shuushikei: Sentence ender.
  • 連体形 Rentaikei: Attributive. Modifies other parts of sentence, like 「かかる人…」, “such a person…”. Can also make gerunds and participials. Sometimes, this ends a sentence.
  • 已然形 Izenkei: Perfective. Action started or completed.
  • 命令形 Meireikei: Command form. Usually on its own and at the end of a sentence.

These forms are what I’m personally trying to memorize and understand, especially since I am now noticing Kobun forms in Japanese media a lot more. It’s easy for me to notice and remember things like “けり”, but not as easy to translate, say, a folk song as I hear it.

All Roads Lead to Rome

No matter which interest group you fall in for Classical Japanese, both translation approaches I’ve described emphasize looking at these four parts of verbs:


If you wish I’d provided more examples, check out the cool stuff below — especially the source with quizzes. Deciphering Kobun is a strategic process that takes practice (and time) to get right. If you have any questions, please say something in the comments section. The sources I’ve been using are have more fun tidbits than I have space in this article to fully explore (after all, they are books on the subject). Ditto for comments or criticisms: I want to hear your take on Kobun verbs, especially if you are learning it in class or on your own!

Cool Stuff


  • Barczikay, Zoltan. “Classical Japanese Grammar: Japanese verbs”.
  • Stewart, Anthony. “Bungo Nyuumon”, Paradigm Chart & Verbs.
  • Kafka-Fuura. “竹取物語ー「かぐや姫の生い立ち」”Taketori Monogatari” – The Birth of The Shining Princess”
  • Shirane, Haruo. Classical Japanese: A Grammar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. p. 24, 44.
  • Vovin, Alexander. A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p. 163- 172, 213.
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Okay, Fine, So You CAN Learn Japanese From Anime Mon, 24 Feb 2014 17:00:05 +0000 I’ve been known in the past to say you can’t learn Japanese from anime… and that’s still quite true. The amount of people out there who watch thousands of hours of (admittedly addicting) anime under the pretense that they’re “learning” Japanese is startling. They sit in front of their computer screens and watch and watch and watch… with subtitles. Trust me, not a lick of Japanese is being learned here, perhaps with the exception of the occasional “kawaii” or “senpai“-type vocab being learned.

While my “you can’t learn Japanese from anime” words were meant for those people, there is a way to watch anime where you do actually learn something. In fact, you can learn quite a bit if you try really hard. That’s what language learning is, isn’t it? Whoever tries the hardest is the winner, and the method (while important) doesn’t dictate whether or not you make it to the end. So, in order to help those of you who are learning Japanese and just happen to have an anime addiction, this article is for you.

Step 1: Ditching (Then Unditching) The Subtitles


First thing is first. You gotta get rid of the subtitles. If there’s English (or any language you’re proficient in) anywhere on the video screen then you’re doing yourself a disservice. The human brain takes the easy way out 99.9% of the time. If the option is there and it doesn’t hurt all that much it will take that option. If the subtitles are there it will process the subtitles – the Japanese audio in the background will not be processed.

A lot of anime, whether it’s on Netflix, Hulu, Crunchyroll, or *ahem* some other source, will have the option to remove the subtitles. With the first few sources, that ability is in the video options. With the “other” source, that option is usually under “video” in VLC (if that’s what you’re using to play these video files). If the option isn’t there, then you’re not going to be able to study using that video so I’d suggest trying something else.

After that, it’s time to get some subtitles.

“What?” asks the person living inside this article. “But I thought you told me to get rid of them!”

Well, good citizen, this time we’re adding in Japanese subtitles. Sometimes you’ll be able to turn on Japanese subtitles. Other times you’ll have to download them. There are various sites out there (Google it), but this is one of them. One way to go about it is to look through this list and find things you either like or are interested in. That will help you out in the future, because studying with anime actually takes most of the joy out of anime (warning you now). It is hard work, after all.

You’ll want to download the subtitles and add them to your video. Usually this just involves putting the subtitle file in the same folder as the video it belongs to. Other times you can load the subtitle file via the media player you use. If you’re not familiar, you may have to do some searching around to get it working. It will also depend on the subtitle file type too.

Step 2: Laying The Groundwork


This is where things get… study-y. Certain subtitle types will have trouble with this. Others will work a-ok. Using a text editor (or often cases an application you’d use to program with, like Sublime Text) open up the subtitle file. You may need to change the encoding of the file to Japanese as well. Just something else to look out for.

If you’re on the intermediate-to-advanced side of your Japanese learning journey, you can stop right here. If you’re on the more-like-a-beginner side, keep reading this section.

For you, this is going to be really hard. It’s not going to help you to just look at things and read them, as it will probably take forever and you could be using your time much more effectively somewhere else (like by learning kanji, or really most anything). If you’re at a more intermediate level, but perhaps a lower one, it might be helpful to download the English subtitles of the same anime and episode as well. You can open them like the Japanese ones and then use the timestamps to compare the Japanese with the English meaning. Don’t use this as a crutch, but use it to make sure you’re not completely off with any translations (and to help you when you get stuck). In addition to intermediate level learners, this can be helpful for advanced learners as well. Just use this crutch less and less the less you need it. Remember, our brains just take the easy way out whenever they are able so don’t trust it!

Step 3: Break Out The Vocab


Go through each word and make sure you know the meaning of it. If you’re having trouble figuring out what word something is, plop it into the search field in beta Jisho (or regular Jisho if you’re reading this in the future), which will take words in sentences then break them down into usable, more easily definable pieces. I’d recommend writing down all the words you don’t know or putting them in a spreadsheet. This isn’t so much for study but for keeping track of what you’re learning. The more you treat learning like a science with data the faster you’ll be learning in the long run. Plus, it’s nice to come back and see what you know and don’t know later on when you’ve been doing this a while. It will also make it easier to make sure you’re not doubling up words.

After you have them in a spreadsheet, put them into your SRS of choice. Some of these applications will let you import via a spreadsheet (how convenient!). You’ll want to use your own vocab studying method here, as there are many (and people like doing their own thing). The most important thing is you learn all these items before moving on to the “watch the episode” step.

Continue pulling out vocab and learning them until you’ve finished a “scene” in the anime. This is going to depend on the anime. This might take a long time for you or it might be fairly quick. Just know that the more you do this the faster it will go. Each time will be better than the last but the first 10-20 times is really, really painful.

When you know all the words in a scene, it’s time to take a look at the scene itself.

Step 4: Can You Read It?


Make sure you can read everything on the Japanese subtitles. Read it out loud, because this is a lot more telling than reading it in your head. You don’t have to be able to read it at the speed of the anime (yet), but you do need to be able to read it at a moderate speed. Once you are able to read it it’s time to fire up the video file.

Step 5: Shadowing


Now we’re going to do something called “language shadowing.” This involves reading the text along with the speaker, in this case the anime character, narrator, or whatever. This is a lot like singing along with a song. You learn the tones and intonation of a song when you do this, until you can sing the song somewhat in tune (your friends will disagree). Shadowing and reading along with someone speaking is a lot like this and will help you develop pronunciation abilities. That being said, be careful to not mimic people who don’t sound like people… In anime this is much more prevalent, so if you don’t know what you’re doing you could be training yourself to sound like a weirdo.

Various video players will have various options, but VLC has a “jump back X seconds” shortcut. Look it up for your operating system and use that to jump back over and over to the same sentence or two until you’ve perfected it and can speak up to speed. Once you’re able, move on to the next one until you’ve finished the whole section. Now go back to the beginning of the section for one big hurrah of a speak through. Do you feel like you’ve learned something?

Improving Over Time

The good things about this method of study are that it teaches you a lot of vocab over a long period of time, it helps with pronunciation, and is hopefully fun for you. The bad things? It’s hard. Damn hard. Especially if you’re not an advanced learner. That being said, I’d recommend this for advanced learners and maybe some motivated upper-intermediate ones. After doing this for a while (months, probably) you’ll start to really see an improvement. It will feel like you’re beating your head against a wall for a long time and then suddenly *bam!* you get better. That’s because getting better at a language is more like climbing up a giant set of stairs. You can’t see where you’re going until you reach the top of the step you’re working on.

I hope this article helps you to turn your anime addiction into something a little more studious. If not, well, at least you’re having a good time I suppose.

Since studying this way involves a lot of kanji knowledge, one way to make this type of study more effective and time-efficient would be to learn more kanji. Of course, we do WaniKani for doing that, but there are of course other methods as well.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

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The Different Ways To Learn Kanji, As I See It Fri, 14 Feb 2014 17:00:31 +0000 Ask just about anyone who’s learning Japanese what their method for learning kanji is and you’ll almost certainly get a disproportionately passionate / angry answer out of them, myself included. There’s something about asking someone what their kanji learning method is that brings the worst out of them. It’s right up there on the “do-not-talk-about-at-parties list” with religion, politics, and iOS vs Android.

The kanji methods war is broken up into several camps, which I will be naming the following:

  • Repetition
  • Vocabulary & Context
  • Reading Reading Reading
  • Heisig’s
  • Mnemonics With Readings

As I go through each “Way Of The Kanji,” I’d like to look at the positives, negatives, and history of each (if possible). I should also note I have an incredible amount of bias towards the method I like the best, so I hope you enjoy your delicious bias served hot.

The “Repetition Is King” Camp


Photo by mxmstryo

Also known as the “traditional way to learn kanji” this group loves paper with lots of square boxes on it (often with smaller, greyer boxes inside those boxes). Inside said boxes they write the same kanji over and over again until their hands ache like that of a jazz hands beginner. Oftentimes, the kanji they write come from a textbook that orders the kanji in the same order that Japanese schoolkids learn them.

I have several problems with this method, in case you haven’t guessed already.

First, after a certain point (and that point comes very quickly), repetition doesn’t actually help you to learn something. Memory comes from how often you pull something out of your mind. It’s also important to remember that the time distance between each pull out of your memory is important too. Your brain won’t think a kanji is important to store for easy access if it thinks you’re just going to pull it out of your short term memory over and over again, not to mention that most people just look at the previous kanji they wrote (which was based off the example written out by the teacher at the beginning of the first line), which means they aren’t doing any memory pulling at all.

Second, the ordering here is often bad. Japanese schoolkids learn kanji in an order that comes from the assumption that they’re already fluent in Japanese (they are). So, a much more complicated kanji (in terms of strokes) can appear much earlier on the ordering list than one that is quite simple but has a more difficult meaning. This is because they’re kids, and they need to learn things with simpler meanings first. As someone who’s not already fluent in Japanese, you should be learning kanji that have a simpler structure first. Then you can use these simpler structures and combine them into more complicated ones, which happens to be how the Heisig’s and Mnemonics With Readings camps operate.

Pros: Will keep you busy for a long time. Easy to assign to your students.
Cons: Quite inefficient for most people.
Resources: Most teachers who follow the “traditional” methods, which is most of them

The “Kanji Flashcards” Camp


This group of people lives and dies by their flashcards, which I can’t necessarily say is a bad thing! They study their cards and slowly learn a little more each day, whether it’s vocabulary or kanji. This method comes straight from the “repetition” method above, actually. Traditionally, if you wanted to learn kanji you wrote the kanji out a lot of times. Then, you used your flashcards later on to study them some more.

The trouble is, in my opinion, this isn’t so much a method as it is a helper. In addition to just about any other method, flashcards are a big help. Combine that with spaced repetition and you will begin to see your efficiency increase. Even physical flashcard users can do this by taking advantage of the Leitner System.

Even more effective than only using an SRS is learning with mnemonics in combination with flashcards. As I mentioned before, flashcards are just a helper, not a complete “method,” at least not on their own.

Pros: Keeps things organized. You can easily see what you know and don’t know. Combines well with other things.
Cons: Not a “method” on its own.
Resources: Anki,, Memrise

The “Vocabulary & Experience” Camp


I used to share a tent with these guys, but have since moved on. In the “Vocabulary & Experience” camp, they believe that by learning vocabulary (with the kanji, of course) you will learn the kanji naturally. So for example, if you’ve learned the words 食べます (tabemasu) and 食堂 (shokudou), you will know that this kanji could be read as た (ta) or しょく (shoku). Through learning more vocabulary that use the kanji 食, you will begin to learn when to use what reading, and eventually be able to guess readings and understand the meaning via context. The more words you learn the easier this gets, and the more you will be able to read and understand.

I think I liked this method because it feels most like you’re “getting somewhere.” After a while, though, I realized that it eventually becomes less efficient. Let’s think about it this way… What are the things you learn in the order in which you learn them? We’ll continue to use 食べます as the example:

  1. Vocabulary word 食べます (Ah ha! So you can read it as た!)
  2. Vocabulary word 食堂 (Ah ha! So it can be read as しょく!)
  3. Vocabulary word 食器 (Ah ha! しょく again, though it was shortened, be careful!)
  4. Vocabulary word 食う (oh! This is kind of an exception?)
  5. So now I know the readings しょく and た.
  6. It seems like most of the meanings have to do with eating or food, so I’m going to associate that meaning with the kanji itself.

You can see the logic there, and why this actually does end up working. But, I’d like to argue that it’s better to go the other direction.

  1. Learn the meaning of the kanji 食 is “eat” / “food” (now I know that all the words I learn with this kanji probably have something to do with that. Now I have something to hook all vocabulary word memories on in my mind).
  2. Learn the readings of that kanji: しょく (on’yomi), た (kun’yomi), く(kun’yomi)
  3. Now any word I see (so long as I know the basic rules of how readings work) can be read by me.
  4. And, since I know the meanings of the kanji, I can guess the meanings of words I see too. 食べます is a verb that has the “eat” kanji on it, so I can safely guess it means “to eat.” 食堂 has two kanji, with the meaning “eat” and “hall” in it. This is an “eating hall” of some kind, which is a good guess considering the meaning is “dining hall” or “cafeteria” or something along those lines.

You end up with the same knowledge, but I think the opposite direction allows you to make more educated guesses, which is going to get you reading and understanding more quickly.

If you are very serious about this method, though, you can learn to read most kanji, especially the more common ones. This method becomes more weak when it comes to the less common kanji, I think (since vocab will naturally use more common kanji), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Combined with flashcards, this method can work quite well for a lot of people.

Pros: Learn a lot of vocabulary, learning in context.
Cons: I think the order you learn things is slightly less efficient than the opposite direction, but it will depend on the person
Resources: Various Anki decks, any vocabulary deck, any vocabulary list

The “Reading Reading Reading” Camp



Allies with the previous camp, the “reading reading reading” camp just reads… a lot. Not a lot of people do this until the later part of their kanji learning careers. I’d say without somewhere between 700-1000 kanji under your belt, this is going to be a difficult method to swallow. In terms of solidifying and practicing kanji you already know, I really like this method. In terms of learning knew kanji? Sure, you’re going to learn some things, but I think it’s generally better to learn the kanji and readings separate and then apply that knowledge to all your reading practice.

Pros: Solidifies what you already know
Cons: Isn’t going to teach you a lot of kanji, unless you do this a lot, at which point it may be better to spend that time learning the kanji first, and then do this a lot later as it’s great review and practice.
Resources: Anywhere with a lot of Japanese text to read

Mnemonics Camp #1: Heisig’s


Photo by timtak

“Heisig’s Remembering The Kanji” is where the whole mnemonic camp got started. From there, as people discovered more efficient and effective ways to learn kanji using mnemonics, this camp became divided.

For the most part (unless you’re looking beyond the first book in the series… which you shouldn’t, because they’re not worth looking at) you are able to use radicals (basically littler kanji or parts of kanji that can be combined into bigger kanji) to learn the meaning of the Joyo kanji. By being able to identify the radicals in a kanji, you can then recall the story that was made up using those radicals, which will trigger the memory of the kanji’s meaning in your mind. If there’s one thing our brain is good at, it’s storing memories. If there’s one thing it’s not so good at, it’s recalling them. This mnemonic method allows you to recall those hidden memories from your head.

The problem with this method, though, is you end up learning the meanings of around 2,000 kanji really, really quickly… but that’s about it. You don’t know how to read anything. Sure, you can kind of guess what the meaning of a word is by looking at the kanji that made it up, but you still can’t read it.

A lot of people think Heisig’s is a good way to get started, though, and I see their point. You know the meanings of all these kanji, and that allows you to focus on reading (I think a lot of people use the “Vocabulary and Experience” method from here on out). Still, many people forget that the meaning of a kanji is only around 20% of what you eventually need to be able to do. The reading is where things get more difficult and requires more work.

Pros: Learn the meanings of the joyo kanji really, really quickly
Cons: You don’t learn the readings, and the meanings is the easiest part! Oh no, still the hard part to go…
Resources: Heisig’s Remembering The Kanji

Mnemonics Camp #2: “Kanji Meanings And Readings”


This is a step up from Heisig’s first book. Communities such as Kanji Koohii have stepped up to fill this void allowing Heisig readers to come up with reading mnemonics and share them. They use the meaning of the kanji (or the radicals) to trigger a memory of a story that leads to the reading of the kanji, so that way you now known both the reading and the meaning of the kanji, using mnemonics.

I think this is a really good way to do things. With these two pieces of information, as well as the method itself (using mnemonics really speeds up the learning time for you), you will be able to go out there and read things. But, I feel like learning the meaning and reading of a kanji can be a little shaky on its own. It feels like a Jenga tower with one too many pieces pulled out, who knows when it will fall. Using  vocabulary for context is what helps with this, I think, which brings us to the next Mnemonics camp.

Pros: Reading and meaning are both learned. Mnemonics allow for quick learning.
Cons: Without vocabulary, this things can get kind of shaky. Also, if you don’t know which readings to learn (sometimes there are a few options) you could end up learning very unimportant readings, wasting your time.
Resources: Kanji Koohii

Mnemonics Camp #3: “Kanji Meanings, Readings, And Vocab”


The final mnemonics camp is a combination of the first two, plus vocabulary. By adding in vocabulary, you are essentially solidifying what you learned in terms of kanji meaning and reading as well as learning vocabulary, which is the main currency of learning a new language. Sure, by learning all three things at the same time you’re spending more time on each kanji… that can’t be denied. But, I think overall you’re getting to the finish line first. You’ll feel behind for a little while (as people talk about how they “know” all the kanji in two months by going through Heisig’s), but after the first year you will have such a solid building of knowledge and be far, far ahead.

Pros: Everything reinforces everything else, meaning your memories are strong.Cons: Slower at first and requires you to spend more time per kanji. Also, if you don’t know what vocabulary to learn, you’re going to learn a lot of unnecessary vocabulary.
Resources: WaniKani, KanjiDamage

The Future Of Kanji Learning Methods


Photo by Sam Howzit

Surely someday soon, someone else will start another kanji-learning movement and the camps will be split even further still. I think it’s really funny how passionate people get about kanji learning methods, though. It becomes something that is so personal and so important to every Japanese learner that people get in long fights about what is best, myself included.

Hopefully the write-ups of the different methods above helped you to understand the camps (and didn’t just make you angrysauce). Maybe you will be the leader of some future-person kanji method. If you do, be sure to share it with me, I’m always interested!

Bonus Wallpapers!


[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

…And posters!


Kanji by Repetition Poster: [700x906] ∙ [Printable 8.5x11 version]
Heisig Poster: [700x906] ∙ [Printable 8.5x11 version]
Learning Through Flashcards Poster: [700x906] ∙ [Printable 8.5x11 version]
Learn Vocab Poster: [700x906] ∙ [Printable 8.5x11 version]

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An Introduction To Kobun (Classical Japanese) And How To Read It Wed, 12 Feb 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Since a lot of Tofugu readers fancy the older, traditional stuff in Japan, (and for a lot of other reasons as well) I’m going to be writing a series of introductory lessons on 古文 (こぶん) or 文語 (ぶんご), the “literary language” that dominated prose and most poetry in Japan all the way from 794 AD (Heian Period) to 1900 AD (Meiji Period).

Obviously, if you’re already familiar with interpreting Kobun / Bungo, you may not find this very useful. However, if you’re a reader who doesn’t know what a 上二段 verb in the 終止形 is, this article is for you.

What is Kobun?


Photo by Hajime Nakano

There might be some konbu in there… oh, kobun?

I said earlier that Kobun was a “literary language.” This means that while it was modeled on a spoken language (Classical Japanese), the literary form was used long after the spoken form had drastically changed. So basically, people were were writing the way that people spoke long ago, even though they don’t speak that way anymore, all the way up until 1900 (though it was still used frequently from the turn of the 20th century to WWII, and then occasionally afterwards).

English-speaking scholars mostly call this Japanese prose language “Bungo”. Among Japanese-speakers, however, “Kobun” or even “Koten” (though “Koten” can just refer to “the classics”) is used unless one is trying to specifically contrast the spoken with the written language of the time. In Japanese primary education, the textbooks usually say “Koten” or “Kobun”, so we’ll go with that.

Five Reasons Why It’s Worth Studying



Reason #1: Japanese students learn it sometimes as early as middle school, with usually a few lessons on the topic per week until high school graduation. You can check out a Youtube channel for students here or search “古文” at this Japanese educators’ site. I don’t know about you, but I want to be smarter than 6th grader.

Reason #2: It could be on the N1 of the JLPT. A friend of mine who passed the 2013 N1 said he didn’t run across any Kobun, or that maybe it was there but he just didn’t recognize it. Though, some people say that it shows up because of idioms, which often have archaic elements thrown in.

Reason #3: Talking points. Like a knowledge of pop culture, Kobun knowledge will give you things to talk about. You don’t need to have Taketori Monogatari memorized, but having experience reading some of the classics would help you relate to peers. Kobun appears in: modern and older songs (here’s one and another), Noh and Kabuki, anime, and generally when people try to sound serious (or when they’re being sarcastic about being serious).

Reason #4: Most Japanese college entrance exams include Kobun as testable material. So, if you’re trying to test into a Japanese school as a regular student, a dash of Kobun can go a long way.

Reason #5: Nationalism. In case you’re not familiar with the political climate right now, here’s how one of my Japanese friends put it:

“Right now, nationalism is on the rise, thanks to the Abe administration, and so there’s this trend of stressing the importance of tradition and history, etc. And so, even with Kobun, with things like Polite and Humble language, they’re part of Japan’s unique culture and as such ‘must be treasured’, a lot of people say.” —K.S.

Keigo aside, other traditional things in Japan, such as Ikebana, tend to have jargon heavy on the archaic language. With such a long history, you can imagine the list of other hobbies and areas of study in which you would spot a wild Kobun sentence.

Exhibit A


No wonder the author is anonymous. Their handwriting is terrible.

Here’s an example to demonstrate just how different Kobun can be when compared to modern Japanese. An example from the Hamamatsu Chuunagon Monogatari, 11th Century AD:


Part of the difficulty there is the plethora of kana that could be written in kanji but clearly weren’t. For example, that “いふ” is actually “言ふ”. I’m not an expert on how, but there definitely were aesthetic preferences to blame for this strange balance of kanji to kana in written Japanese. This is difficulty number one.

“Mountain” is the only meaning we can get without looking a lot of the other things up in a Kojiten (Classical dictionary). Sure, you might see “ながれた” and “より” and “ところ”, but there’s a probability that those things don’t mean in that sentence what they would mean in a modern sentence. Then, even after you discern their meaning, you still have to analyze all the other kana.

In case you’re curious, here’s one translation of that sentence: “A place called Miyoshino, more distant than those which are known under the name of the Yoshino mountains” (Vovin 74).

The “ながれた” there combines with “る” and “より” to mean “than those which are known”. Many Kobun particles and words exist in Modern Japanese, with sometimes the same and sometimes different meanings. Many died out. My tip: if you hear ‘namu’ or ‘keri’, you are 99% likely to be dealing with Kobun, since those don’t exist in modern and don’t sound like many common modern words (or parts of modern words).

One Approach


The way you know this isn’t Kobun is because of all the helpful Kanji.

What to do when you do see Kobun? Here’s my approach for translating Kobun text.

(Some things, like “conclusive form” and “Musubi”, below may not make sense now, but I’ll elaborate in future articles – this is just the process, and there are resources at the bottom to get you started if you’re that curious now)

  1. Read the sentence through once. Get an impression.
  2. Look up kanji you dont know.
  3. What do you think are nouns? What about subject/topic markers? (They were often dropped in Kobun writings). Look them up in a Classical dictionary.
  4. Go to the end of the sentence. What does that look like? Is the verb in the conclusive form? Attributive? Something strange? If it’s strange, look for a Musubi.
  5. Slide back and forth in the sentence, listing out on a sheet of paper what each kana could mean. You’ll ask yourself a lot, “Is that a particle or a verb written in kana there?” This is a trial and error process-of-elimination sort of approach. Obviously, you can look up existing translations, but that should be a final resort since it won’t always pan out or benefit you.
  6. Look at the previous sentence. Look at the current sentence. Contemplate. Then move on to the next. The people composing these texts were trying to write beautifully, so some sentences will be mysterious hook lines for the next bit of content. And like in Modern Japanese, the authors will also carry established subjects across sentences and will probably only tell you what each sentence’s subject is if it changes. So you have to keep looking back and forth: within the clause, throughout the sentence, and across the paragraph.
  7. If you’re serious about this stuff, you’ll want to look for outside commentary on the thing you’re reading. Especially if it’s old literature, there will be references and jokes you just won’t get unless you look outside the main text.

Your Confusion-Resistant Battle Gear


Photo by rumpleteaser

Look at that mask: a face of wonder to reflect the newfound comprehension you can gain by having the right resources.

Kafka Fuura’s Bungo page
If you’re really ready to get down with this Classical stuff but don’t want to shell out the money for your own materials just yet, this is a good place.

Tangorin’s Classical Japanese Dictionary
This online dictionary is not comprehensive by any means, but it’s in English and has some of the higher frequency items.

Weblio’s Kogo-Jiten
If you’re Rikaichan-equipped, this is a great online dictionary for Kobun. It’s in Japanese.

Classical Japanese: A Grammar by Haruo Shirane

This in particular is a great resources for those of you who are going into Bungo for the long haul. Despite being a textbook (with a companion workbook), all of the examples are from existing texts written in Kobun. Because my interest is always piqued when I see particles that carry over to modern-day usage, I personally like the historical notes Shirane provides; in them, he talks about their evolution, among other things.

A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose by Alexander Vovin

This is out of print, but it’s my favorite resource for a number of reasons. If you have access to college Interlibrary Loans, you can get your hands on a copy. Or you can make an inquiry at Blackwell’s publishing site.

The Iwanami Kogo-jiten

This is just one example of a Kobun dictionary, but it’s very comprehensive. It’s also completely in Japanese. To my knowledge, there are no English Kogo-jitens. The plus side is that this dictionary is exhaustive, so if you feel confident you’ve looked at a Bungo sentence every possible way and still don’t have a good translation, you could look in this book and find the exact obscure meaning that will make the puzzle pieces fit.

Stay Tuned!

I’m a big fan of teacups, small desserts, and manageable chunks of language-learning. If you’re the same way, stay tuned to Tofugu. I’ll be writing more about Kobun soon. Let me know in the comments if you’ve encountered Bungo before; I want to know what your experience was like!

Bonus Wallpapers!


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  • Vovin, Alexander. A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p. 74.
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