Over two years ago Matt wrote an introduction to reading Edo literature. The books that he chose seem to be pretty haphazard and some can no longer be located. Since I’m trying to accomplish the same thing, here is a list of online resources that have helped me. I have no special talent for foreign languages, but if there’s premodern stuff you really want to read, it’s my experience that even if you are not a language genius, a few tools can help you get far.
Kanbun is classical Chinese, but it also refers to Sino-Japanese with diacritical marks. Think medieval Latin, but a bit more garbled. In Japan, kanbun is generally learned in the 2nd year of middle school (8th grade).
One option is to simply learn classical Chinese directly. My school is using a textbook by the late Prof. Archie Barnes which can teach you classical Chinese from scratch. If you already know Japanese this is a waste of time. Also, this textbook has some errors and omissions in it; there is no particularly good classical Chinese textbook for English speakers out there. Finally, this textbook is not a good preparation for reading medieval Japanese kanbun from scratch.
If you want to learn kanbun like a proper Japanese schoolboy, you will find it a lot easier than one might expect from looking at frightening walls of Chinese text. Japanese Wikibooks has a guide that can be mastered in a number of minutes. For more complex kanbun there is a high school guide that takes a couple of hours.
To look up Chinese characters you need a good kanji dictionary. If you are learning English->Chinese, Mathews’ dictionary is pretty standard. But it is not very fun, especially because you are more likely to induce errors into your translation from the outdated nature of the book than to make new discoveries. If you want real fun, get Kanjikai, which is up to date and will challenge your Japanese knowledge.
When reading original texts you will find that some variant characters that are not locatable in Kanjikai or any standard dictionaries at all. This is just a pain in the butt because there is no easy way to look these up. If you don’t have a knowledgeable specialist on hand, your best bet is to plug a guess into Hanzi Normative Glyphs and see if your character comes up.
A while ago a blog post about how to read kuzushiji floated through Reddit. I scanned through it, opened up the PDF file (mirror), and thought to myself, “is this guy a masochist?” That was the end of my thoughts about kuzushiji until this year, when I attempted to read an Edo period document myself, opened up the PDF file again, and thought, “am I a masochist?”
Understanding how kuzushiji works makes it no less insane. Digging in deep, I found a set of Waseda University OpenCourseWare lectures from 2004. Listen to these and you might begin to see an approach to deciphering the doctor’s prescription scribbles that are pre-Meiji literature. However, the course will by no means give you the ability to actually read the things.
The only online resource I know of for this is U Tokyo’s mysteriously named SHIPS, and it will not be very helpful because you have to know roughly what kanji you are looking for.
Vocabulary and Grammar
If you run into some medieval Japanese that doesn’t appear in a modern dictionary, you should really just get a high school prep book (they have anime versions!), but Googling it rarely fails me. You may run into a website called Gejirin proffering an attempt at definition. This is a website devoted to the parahistorical document Hotsuma Tsutaye and is basically amateur-run. Don’t rely on it like you would a full medieval dictionary, but it can help point you in the right direction.
Posted: September 27th, 2013 | Japan