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A Guide to Japanese Dictionaries

Updated on December 22, 2011

Can You Tell Which One is Sugar?

There are countless horror stories of people buying salt, thinking its sugar, and then making a cake maggots wouldn't eat.  Find out which dictionary below can save your baking reputation.
There are countless horror stories of people buying salt, thinking its sugar, and then making a cake maggots wouldn't eat. Find out which dictionary below can save your baking reputation.

A Dictionary: Your Indispensable Ally Against the Evil Forces of Kanji and Japanese

Learning Japanese has its good points and its bad points. Just some examples, being able to communicate with Japanese speakers is a good point, and memorizing thousands of kanji is a bad point. I think no matter what level of Japanese you're at, dealing with kanji is probably the most technically difficult part of learning the language. For example, you can be cruising through a neat biology article online in Japanese, and all of the sudden this gnarly character that looks like this acts as a roadblock to literacy. You think, "Well kanji is basically just a picture, so let's try to decipher it". You notice the thing on top looks like a robot mouth with vents, and the bottom looks like a beard. Connect the dots and you have big bushy bearded robot...right? Of course not! Being able to tell what a kanji is just by looking at the picture it represents probably only applies to an anorexic 1% of the kanji you learn, and here, finally, is where the dictionary steps in to save you from being another victim of illiteracy.

A List of Available Dictionaries and Their Comparative Advantages

There are a few options that I've come across in my search for Japanese dictionaries, and they boil down to the following:

1. Buying a good ol' fashioned 電子辞書 (denshi jisho), which translates to electronic dictionary. These are made by any number of companies and if you go into an electronic store in Japan, you'll be mobbed by the selection you see in front of you.

2. Using an Ipod Touch or Iphon and downloading the free app called Kotoba or the $10 app called Japanese. This allows you to use the Apple equipment of your choosing to draw kanji with your finger and then look it up.

3. Buying a Nintendo DS and then buying a kanji dictionary for it on top of that. Obvious benefit of this option is that for a smaller price than the above two options, you get to have a dictionary and a neat little gaming machine.

4. Going completely free and using only online resources. This one is fine if you're chained down to the floor next to your computer, but for those of us who like to study in coffee imbibing institutions without wifi this can be a problem. You might say, "Well it's free so you can't complain", but complaining about free things is a hobby that many people take pleasure in.

Now on to a short break down of each option, along with the winner in respect to price, usage, convenience, and quality.

A standard electronic dictionary

My crappy electronic dictionary sans touch pad

Dictionary Option #1 The Denshi Jisho

These bloody things are really expensive if you want to get a good quality one. You can get one without a stylus and drawing part for about $150, but that would literally be a waste of everyone's time, including the cashier who rings you out for such a worthless piece of equipment. A dictionary with touchpad capability will run you an easy $250 or so, which is a little pricey for something you'll be using just to learn Japanese. If you're fluent in Japanese though, there's some justification for this price because they come pretty well equipped with things like encyclopedias, pictures, and the most in depth definitions and information out of the rest of the options.

Verdict: Way too pricey for just serving as a dictionary. Unless you're using it beyond looking up the occasional word and kanji, then there are better options.

The dictionary entry page

It shows the definition of the kanji you've drawn or typed, but also compounds that it's used in.
It shows the definition of the kanji you've drawn or typed, but also compounds that it's used in.

Dictionary Option #2 The Apple Path

I complained above about the denshi jisho being a pricey choice, which will probably make you think I'm a hypocrite for not criticizing the Ipod for the same reason. Depending on the amount of memory you get, an Ipod Touch will run just about the same as a low-end Denshi Jisho, or maybe slightly below. However, you get a lot more for your buck, as you can listen to extremely tasteful music or fool around on apps or the internetz where there's wifi. Multi-functionality is always appealing in my book. Regarding the dictionary capabilities on the Ipod Touch, I HIGHLY recommend this app It costs $10 as opposed to the free app (called kotoba), but it gives you time saving live search options (meaning as you search for words, it'll continuosly update the list to give you more options). Also, it gives you flashcards for all of the JLPTs (Japanese laguage proficiency test), which is really handy for studying. Your best bet is to just get both though, because as you play around with them you'll see the advantages to both.

Compared to the denshi jisho, the dictionary portion isn't nearly as in depth as the electronic dictionary above, but it gets the job done. Also, using your finger to draw kanji can be a pain sometimes, and you end up using a fingernail which can injure your screen for the sake of precision.

Verdict: Still kind of pricey, but in regards to overall functionality very good and worth the money.

A photo of drawing the kanji on the Japanese app

The area to draw is kind of small, but if you use a fingernail you can get even the harder more cramped kanji.
The area to draw is kind of small, but if you use a fingernail you can get even the harder more cramped kanji.

The upper screen that shows the entry

The bottom screen where you draw the kanji

Dictionary Option #3 The Nintendo DS

With the recent drop in price for the Nintendo 3DS, I purchased one of these beauties along with a dictionary called "Kanji Sono Mama", which is fairly well known. Unfortunately though, the DS came with a highly discounted game, and I ended up spending the first few hours with the DS playing instead of studying. However, here's the run down on the dictionary:

All in all, you'll be fairly satisfied with the dictionary for the DS. I bought mine in Japan off of Amazon, and it only cost me about $25, which added to the 3DS price of $150 or so, isn't that bad of a deal for an electronic dictionary. On top of that, you get a sweet gaming console that can also serve other purposes (like counting how many steps you've walked that day woo!). The downside to the dictionary is that it doesn't have nearly as many entries as the Ipod Touch or the denshi jisho, but it still gets the job done. Also, if you don't know stroke order for kanji it can sometimes take a few tries to get the dictionary to pick up on the kanji you're trying to draw. On top of that, there's no "jump" function in the Japanese to Japanese dictionary, meaning that you can't just scroll through the entry and click on a word and have the dictionary bring you to the meaning. You'll instead have to individually search each thing. This was a major disappointment for me, and something that I wish someone had told me about.

Verdict: Price wise a really good deal, considering you're getting a gaming system on top of a dictionary for less than the other two options that cost money. However, there are some setbacks that can be annoying, but easily dealt with and overlooked.

Dictionary Option #4 The Free Bird

Being half American, I'll do almost anything for something that's free. There was always that really weird kid's house that you didn't want to go to, but then someone would say, "Well, there's free pizza", and something inside of you just couldn't resist. In much the same way, you have to look at the trade offs with going with the completely free route.

The first major road bump probably comes in the form of not being able to easily draw the kanji that you're looking for. If you're at home and have a mouse, it's pretty easy, but if you're on a laptop and in the library, then using the touchpad can be torture when you're trying to draw the more complex kanji. In regards to actually looking up words though, my favorite and indispensable site is, which can also be reached by typing in "Jim breen's" into google. There, you can go to the text glossing section and copy and paste entire paragraphs. Also, there's a neat little add on called Rikai Kun (found here which translates things you highlight with your mouse. That being said, the power that you have for looking up what words mean for free is pretty amazing.

The Verdict: The downside is the lack of portability and also fumbling around on different webtabs and trying to draw kanji without a mouse. If you're fine with that though, then there's no reason why you can't stick to the free path. Also, if you lug around a laptop wherever you go to study Japanese, you might just look more important than you actually are.

The Grand Verdict-- Which Option Rises Inexorably Above the Rest?

Having personally experienced all four options, I have to say that the Ipod Touch is your best bet for a dictionary. It looks up words and kanji wonderfully and at the perfect level of description for those not 100% fluent in Japanese, and it has other cool functions to boot. The Nintendo 3DS comes in 2nd place, but having to deal with cartridges and looking like a middle school boy whenever you use it makes it not the best option for learning Japanese. The electronic dictionaries go WAY overboard, and essentially give you more power than you can responsibly wield. Going with option #4, is all fine and good, but let's try to live less sedentary lives, yes?

Hope this guide was helpful, and feel free to add any dictionaries you've toyed around with in the comments section!


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    • Susan Ng profile image

      Susan Ng Yu 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Akemashite Omedetougozaimasu! Thank you for the Japanese lesson. I will say it to everyone on Chinese New Year instead of Kung Hei Fat Choi. Hehe. :D

    • Akbok profile image

      Akbok 6 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan

      It took me a while to figure it out as well. The Japanese you wrote is perfect! To say Happy New Year you can say `Akemashite Omedetougozaimasu`.

    • Susan Ng profile image

      Susan Ng Yu 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Oh sorry, I didn't realize Japanese wouldn't show up. :O Hmm... what was it that I wrote in response to your encouraging words... I think it was "Ganbarimasu. Arigato gozaimasu." Hehe. :D

      Internetless mountain hut, eh? Must have been relaxing. :) Happy New Year, by the way. ^_^

    • Akbok profile image

      Akbok 6 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan

      Susan Ng: Unfortunately, in the comments section of Hubpages Japanese only comes up as lots of '????'. Write it in romaji and I'll let you know. Just got back from spending Oshougatsu (new years) with my family in an internetless mountain hut, so I'll get working on that Hub asap!

    • Susan Ng profile image

      Susan Ng Yu 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      ???????????????????? Did I just say that correctly? Hehe. :P By the way, I'm also looking forward to that hub Ruthcurley requested. ^_^

    • Akbok profile image

      Akbok 6 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan

      Simone Smith: Yeah I basically used that as an excuse to get a DS in the first place. "It's for a dictionary, not gaming!". The app is definitely the best way to go though, and I'm thoroughly jealous of how technologically advanced you are.

      Susan Ng: Thanks for reading, and yes, I really wished I had a guide like this when I was first out shopping for a dictionary. I ended up letting my grandpa take care of it for me and I got a dictionary with about as much use as a painted rock. I remember him asking the shop clerk if it could look up words in Japanese and English, and that shoulda been the sign for me. Good luck with the hiragana! Ganbareba nandemo dekiru yo

      Ruth Curley: Though it's tricky territory, I'll seriously considering doing that as my next Hub. Thanks for reading and the compliment!

    • Ruthcurley profile image

      Ruthcurley 6 years ago from Bozrah, CT

      I used to buy the wrong thing all the time! Wish they had the ipod back when i was in Japan. I didn't know you could use it as a dictionary. Great info! My husband says he could use an article explaining honorofics like chan, kun, san and sama. How about that next? Thanks for another useful hub.

    • Susan Ng profile image

      Susan Ng Yu 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      I'll definitely remember this when I get to studying kanji. Thanks. :) I'm still on the basic hiragana though. :P

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      I had no idea that the Nintendo DS could be used as a dictionary. I suppose I would use an iPhone app since that's what I have- and there's no way that I would want to shove out for one of those expensive pocket dictionaries.

      Great advice. Thanks for the helpful guide!