There are many good Japanese dictionaries (and similar) online — I personally recommend jisho.org, which I’ve started using over WWWJDIC because I find the interface is much nicer. But you can’t always have your computer with you, so if you’re studying on the go or you’re taking Japanese courses in a classroom setting, you need something you can use as a reference when you need to know what a word means or need help with translation.
A paper dictionary is always a solution. Entry-level dictionaries are fairly easy to find in print, published by names you’re familiar with from English dictionaries like Random House and Webster. At the beginner level, I personally recommend Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary (not an affiliate link!) because it’s good to start working with hiragana and katakana as soon as you can and the ordering of the entries will get you used to the way that Japanese words are ordered phonetically. But you’ll soon find that unlike, say, French or Spanish, you can’t get by with just a dictionary for translating words between languages, no matter how large it is. You’ll soon need a kanji dictionary, a dictionary particularly for looking up kanji characters, which will help you to read/write unfamiliar words. And for more advanced reading, there’s nothing quite like a straight Japanese dictionary, which gives definitions of Japanese words in Japanese.
As you progress, those books will become bigger and more numerous until it just isn’t practical to carry them with you anymore. It is at precisely that point that you should consider an electronic dictionary. Electronic dictionaries, or 電子辞書, have a number of key advantages over paper dictionaries:
- They are portable. A copy of 広辞苑 (one of the more popular dictionaries in print in Japan), is quite a thick volume. Those ~240,000 entries can fit in the palm of your hand with an electronic dictionary.
- They tend to contain multiple volumes. The one I have contains 広辞苑 along with 明鏡 (another Japanese dictionary), a kanji dictionary, two encyclopedias, J-E and E-J dictionaries, and more.
- They serve specialized needs well. You can probably find an electronic dictionary loaded with specialized content for your particular field, including science, computing, and medicine.
- They tend to have features for easy lookup. For example, many models have a touch panel to allow you to look up entries by hand writing. With multiple volumes, good models provide a “jump” feature to allow you to jump from one entry to another, or even between volumes!
But there are also a few disadvantages:
- They are usually quite expensive. I paid around $300 for mine when I bought it a couple of years ago.
- They’re quite hard to get outside of Japan. Then again, so are many of the best Japanese dictionaries in print (though even those aren’t too difficult to obtain if you’re lucky enough to have a Japanese bookstore nearby, like Kinokuniya).
- They aren’t typically designed for foreign learners of Japanese. But I wouldn’t recommend buying an electronic dictionary unless you’ve gotten to at least an intermediate or pre-advanced proficiency in Japanese, so this is probably less of an issue than the two points above.
So maybe after reading all of that, you’ve decided to buy an electronic dictionary. What do you need to look for, you ask? Well, it turns out that somebody on the Japan subreddit posted a pretty thorough guide to electronic dictionaries. To summarize it very briefly, you want to find something that comes with dictionaries and reference books that you need and will actually use and you will probably want to aim for models that cost $300 or more (cheaper ones will tend to be outclassed by other portable dictionary options like smartphone apps, which we will cover in more detail in future posts).
Here are the features I really appreciate in my electronic dictionary, a Canon EX-word Data Plus 4 XD-SP6700:
- Twin touch panel: the lower touch panel can be used to look up entries by hand writing but the main display is also touchable. You can use the stylus to click on entries while browsing, or in combination with the jump function to select which word you want to jump from, among other things.
- Backlight: because sometimes the lighting isn’t the best when I’m using my electronic dictionary. The backlight is just about perfect for reading the LCD display, providing just enough light to clearly read it without overwhelming the eyes.
- Specialized volumes: in particular, there are some books on medicine and computing.
This all said, when my study of Japanese was slipping more, I got much less use out of my electronic dictionary, and looking at it now I think I could have done a bit more research to pick an even better model for my needs. There are quite a few parts of it that I have absolutely no use for at all. But since it, like many others, is designed with native Japanese speakers in mind, maybe that can’t be helped.
Do you have an electronic dictionary? Which model do you own? We’d love to see recommendations, especially since it has been a long time since I was in the market for an electronic dictionary. Leave a comment here or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org!