Kobun: Classical Japanese Take the Challenge!

    Over several months I wrote six posts on Kobun (aka bungo / bungo-tai), the Japanese literary language of old. My goal was to take students through the important things that they will need should they want to learn to read and understand classical Japanese. I cover resources, verbs, adjectives, honorifics, pronunciation, and much more.

    Now that the series is complete, I wanted to put them all in one place for your viewing and reading pleasure. While reading all of these won't make you a master in Kobun, it should give you a basic foundation – one that will allow you to continue studying and then forge your own Kobun path. There's so much more to Kobun that I didn't have time to mention, but you should at least be ready to leave the nest, so to speak.

    I suggest reading them in order, as they kind of build on each other and refer to each other. Enjoy!

    1. An Introduction To Kobun And How To Read It

    Some of the oldest texts in Japan, like Taketori Monogatari and the Tale of Genji, were written in Kobun. This post is a quick-start for any Kobun education, so I define Kobun and then point out places you'll run into it, such as the JLPT, Kabuki and Noh plays, modern sarcasm in Japan, Keigo, haiku, and songs both old and new. No starter kit would be complete without tools, so I also suggest a variety of resources, some free and online, some affordable and time-tested. Finally, I pass on some advice and trouble-shooting tips, like the importance of seeking outside texts when Classical punchlines just aren't hitting you. WARNING: this stuff is not for beginners!

    • What is Kobun?
    • 5 reasons to study Kobun
    • An example Kobun sentence, broken down
    • A 7-Step approach to interpreting Classical texts
    • A list of helpful books and websites to get you started

    By the end of this post you'll know what Kobun is and why people bother learning it, plus you'll be ready to personally start learning!

    2. Verbs

    This post focuses on verbs, which are the backbone of Japanese sentences and require the most attention before you can graduate this series. It's worth it, though, and I've structured this article into two sections: one is for those with only a casual interest in the Classics and the other is for those with serious Kobun ambition. I introduce, step-by-step, how to identify verbs with the help of online Classical Japanese dictionaries and demonstrate the process of analysis described in the previous article. I also provide more resources to practice your verb power, such as online Kobun quizzes and fill-in charts.

    • Short-cuts and scenic routes
    • 4 sides of a verb – type, form, meaning, and modifier(s)
    • Kobun Verb Types (9 total)
    • Conjugation forms (6 total)
    • How to use Classical dictionaries
    • Helpful charts and outside tools

    After reading this, you'll have concrete steps, scaled for your motivation, to decoding verbs in Classical Japanese.

    3. Jodoushi

    The last post included "modifiers" as one of the four sides of a verb, and jodoushi, or helper verbs, are crucial modifiers. English words like "can" and "would" are similar to Japanese jodoushi. There are fewer jodoushi (about 20) than regular verbs (thousands), so jodoushi occur at a higher frequency. This post describes the helper verbs and their conjugations and categorizes them into meaning-based groups. I provide 1) examples of jodoushi from Classical texts so you can see how they appear, 2) warnings about jodoushi oddities, and 3) some comprehensive jodoushi charts and resources.

    • Jodoushi placement in sentences
    • Jodoushi used in Classical and Modern Japanese:べし, ず, ごとし, さす
    • Negation:まじ, じ
    • Past: けり, らむ, む
    • Completion: つ, ぬ, り
    • Desire: たし, まほし
    • Declaratives and Suppositions: なり, まし, めり, らし
    • Spontaneous: らる

    By reading this post, you'll solidify your sense of Classical verbs and learn a number of critical Kobun words.

    4. Adjectives & Musubi

    Adjectives in both Modern and Classical Japanese acted a lot like verbs, so in addition to going over adjective types and forms, I talk about what an adjective is, in a general and in a Kobun sense. In a lot of ways, adjectives are the easiest part of Kobun, because they only have three conjugations and often look very similar to their modern equivalents. There are also only two main types, plus two adjective-adjacent things called keiyou-doushi. I wrap up by introducing Musubi– particles which force unexpected grammar forms. Like with the jodoushi post, I provide plenty of examples to help you see adjectives and Musubi in action.

    • Defining 'adjective'
    • Ku adjectives
    • Shiku adjectives
    • Conjugation patterns of adjective types
    • Keiyou-doushi – verbal adjectives
    • ナリ and タリ conjugation paths for Keiyou-doushi
    • Kakari Musubi – what it is and what triggers it (ぞ, なむ, や, か)
    • Koso Musubi (triggered by こそ)

    Musubi might take some diligence to understand, but after reading this post, you won't be caught off guard by funny grammar forms. You'll also have a framework for determining if a piece of Kobun text is an adjective, and when it is, you'll be able to puzzle out its meaning.

    5. Honorifics

    Many of the honorific and humble expressions from the Classics have continued into Modern Keigo, so if it's been a while since you practiced (Modern) Keigo, reading this post is a good, lazy way to do catch up one your 'saseteitadaku's' and 'irassharu's'. I break expressions up into two categories: respectful and humble, which naturally reflect the position of the speaker or person doing an action. This will be crucial to understanding certain passages which omit subjects or names. As usual, I've also found some helpful outside resources, specifically videos, which have personally helped me a lot.

    • Respectful and Humble forms
    • Why these are helpful to know
    • Kobun Keigo expressions: say, give / receive, conditions (moving, existing), knowledge, eating
    • Video-songs to help you memorize those expressions

    After reading this, you should know enough about Kobun honorifics to recognize when respect or humility is present in a sentence and what those expressions reflect about the sentence subjects. You'll also remember certain important, high-frequency words (like 'tamafu').

    6. Old Kana

    The way old words changed into their modern forms can offer clues for Kobun interpretation. I start with an example from English poetry that looks way different than modern stuff to demonstrate what you'll do to Kobun texts and why it's so helpful. In essence, Kobun becomes easier when you can draw on Modern Japanese more and look words up less, which is what happens if you learn how sounds changed from Heian times to now. Specifically, you'll learn how to read Kobun kana as if it were modern Japanese. This sounds abstract and vague, but it's actually easy and beneficial, and I take a hand-holding approach with enough examples so you don't get lost.

    • Rekishi-tekina kanadzukai – historical kana usage
    • Middle-English parallel example
    • Old kana ゐ/ヰ (wi) and ゑ/ヱ (we / ye)
    • を as both particle and initial or medial kana
    • flip-floppy づ and ぢ
    • Tenko – change of call (h-row and other sound changes)
    • Old-timey signs and book covers

    After reading, you'll know how to phonetically read Classical Japanese kana, which will help you more efficiently unlock meaning in Kobun texts, avoiding the confusion of Classical dictionaries.

    One Final Note

    If you've finished your core Japanese classes / books / self-study, or generally feel like you're getting bored, Kobun is a great direction to take your studies. Now that I've finished this series, I see Kobun everywhere because I actually know what to look for. Older Japanese poetry doesn't confuse me as much and is probably the reason I'm still practicing.

    Kobun is different and can be scary. I know. I used to despise it. But getting comfortable with Kobun lets you learn so much more about Japan, especially its literary culture. If you read these posts and felt overwhelmed, come back later and know the second, third, etc., time will be easier, and eventually, you'll be ready to read Kobun texts . I sincerely hope you stick with it. Good luck!


    For those who are serious about continuing in Kobun and reading Classical texts (such as the monogatari's and old poetry), there's nothing like Haruo Shirane's Classical Japanese textbook series, which is frequently reprinted.

    Below are some other resources serious students might appreciate.

    • List of Pre-Modern Texts
    • List of Kobun reference materials
    • A Handbook to Classical Japanese, by John Timothy Wixted, which apparently covers problem areas in translation
    • Bungo Manual: Selected Reference Materials for Students of Classical Japanese by Helen Craig McCullough, notable translator

    Some Japanese resources

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