Discover Deep Japan

Level Up your Nihongo with a Japanese Dictionary

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Studying Japanese is now easier than ever! A million billion books have been written on the subject, and for those who no longer read books, a million billion Japanese study apps have also been launched. Heck, a lot of the good ones can even be downloaded for free! For any quick word lookup, stuff like jisho has been a godsend, and I don’t feel ashamed saying kanji recognition apps like yomiwa have gotten me out of a jam or two.

However, many of these digital materials are most useful as supplementary learning or for brushing up what you already know. For those at opposite ends of the Japanese learning spectrum- those who just embarked on their Japanese study quest, and those looking to pass the N2 or N1 to realize their goal of being a world-renowned translator someday-it probably won’t be enough.

This is why today’s DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN LIFESTYLE GUIDE is about Japanese dictionaries. Invest in a good kanji dictionary if you need serious amounts of Nihongo for your job, or as a useful tool to kickstart your own language growth. If you are looking for more information about jobs in Japan, specifically job hunting, click HERE.

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About the different kinds of dictionaries

There is no shortage of types of dictionaries in Japan. The one you might be most familiar with is a plain ol’ E-J dictionary. This is doubtless easier to page through, (because it’s set up like any other dictionary you’ve ever seen) but is not likely to be of much more use than whatever website or app you are already using. One possible benefit of a Japanese E-J dictionary might be the usage examples, especially for those who want to expand their vocabulary of daily Japanese while brushing up on their grammar. The usage examples can also be rather amusing: search under “rotten” in one common dictionary and you may find gems like “He’s a rotten bastard.”

The other kind of dictionary is a J-E dictionary- in other words, a kanji dictionary. These come in a variety of levels, and will be useful as long as you are hoping to remember the kanji you already know and plan on learning at least a couple more.

A beginner’s kanji dictionary

So, who are beginner’s kanji dictionaries actually made for? You might be surprised to know the answer is actually Japanese elementary school students. You’d be shocked how early kids in Japan have to learn kanji- as if two other Japanese alphabets weren’t already enough! They can also be a way for beginner learners of Japanese as a second language to ease into learning kanji. So, assuming that you didn’t just download duolingo on a lark because it was what all your friends or your favorite vtuber was doing, check below to see if you really are smarter than a 6th grader.

First off, you will notice the ease in which you can read beginner kanji dictionaries, because you simply have to search for words according to the word or reading in hiragana. Items when alphabetized in hiragana are always arranged the same way: beginning with A-I-U-E-O, and then following the same order for ka, sa, ta, na, ha, ma, ya, ra, and wa.

Once you find the word you are looking for in a beginner dictionary, you will typically see illustrated steps to writing out said kanji, along with the stroke order. Stroke order may seem annoying, but it is fairly important, especially when looking up kanji as you learn more and more difficult ones. Learning stroke order is even useful for those who prefer to learn and write kanji on apps; this is because most apps don’t look at the complete picture of the kanji so much as the stroke order (one of the reasons why these apps are of no use to me, besides my terrible handwriting).

The more kanji you know, the less time it takes to suss out one from another. Try to get insight into how Japanese kids learn and you will quickly get over the fact that you might be a twenty year old with a seventh grade reading level.

Stuck in the middle: about Intermediate Dictionaries

By “intermediate level” we are referring to Japanese dictionaries typically used by high school students. High-schoolers in Japan have to know about 2000 of these kanji, and as a result these dictionaries can be quite a bit denser. To be honest, this dictionary might be the least useful to us: at this level you might be better off with kanji learning aids specifically geared toward foreign language learners. If you are curious, go ahead and borrow one from your school or local library.


Graduating to advanced dictionaries

Regular ol’ kanji dictionaries are extremely dense tomes which are time consuming to read, and for some of you out there, absolutely essential. First, it is time we talked a little about “radicals.”


Kanji Radicals: Your best friend, or your worst nightmare

Chances are you already know that radicals don’t merely refer to something cool, though kanji radicals could be considered cool in the sense that they allow you to identify similar kanji and are also a convenient way to group them. You may ask: why can’t kanji always be grouped according to the reading? Well, this may become more difficult because many kanji have variant readings: onyomi, which are readings derived from Chinese, and kunyomi, which are variant readings unique to Japan. 

Every kanji has an “official” radical which you can search them by. Unfortunately, this same radical is probably common among many different kanji, and they might even have similar meanings. Some of the most common radicals include 日(meaning sun) and 力 (which denotes physical strength). There are any number of similar-looking compound kanji that contain these characters within them.

So which part of the kanji is the radical? Radicals can be identified according to the layout of the kanji: for kanji that are arranged left/right, the radical tends to be on the left, while the kanji on the right usually indicates the pronunciation, such as the case of. Recognize the radical? Other kanji are oriented vertically, where the top kanji denotes the radical. For example, 早 and 花. It’s hard, but gets easier the more you do it. However, there are many exceptions to these rules. Sometimes different books have their own way to look up and recognize kanji, but unfortunately there isn’t one generally accepted easy way to do so.


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How to read a kanji dictionary, step-by step

Now, let’s search for a kanji. The kanji we will be looking for is 実, meaning truth. It has actually been on every page of every dictionary we’ve seen thus far. It can be difficult and time consuming to search for the truth in all things, including a kanji dictionary, but here’s how. Remember, the more you do this, the easier it will be, so don’t give up!


Step 1: Look for a radical glossary at the very end of the book. This part of the dictionary will be organized according to the reading in hiragana, like those earlier dictionaries were. Finding the kanji here will identify a numbered group, which you need to search for in an entirely different part of the dictionary. Oh joy!


Step 2: Check the soukaku section, which groups kanji by number of strokes. This will tell you the exact number of the kanji you’re looking for.


Step 3: From the soukaku page, you will be able to get the number of the kanji you are looking for. Some dictionaries have radicals listed on the margins to aid you in your search. This part of the dictionary will also include the meaning and etymology of the kanji in question. Also, it will give common names which use this kanji. This is helpful in a country where, believe it or not, people have difficulty reading each other’s names!


Other dictionaries

There are all sorts of other specialized Japanese dictionaries. Some even more expansive tomes are specifically made for technical terminology, while others are used to compile, for example, gairaigo, or foreign loanwords. While the nitty gritty of these dictionaries are beyond the scope of this article, see below for more info to aid in your Japanese and kanji learning. Good luck!


Helpful Links

A handy list of Japanese radicals


More information about Japanese radicals


A (mostly) free kanji recognition app


Everyone’s favorite online dictionary