One of the many painful things about learning Japanese was learning how to use a Japanese dictionary.  It is something that students aren’t usually taught by native Japanese.  They already know how to use a Japanese dictionary and input Japanese into a PC or smartphone.  It seems not to have occurred to any of my instructors to discuss how to get an alternative character set on your PC or phone and how to look up a word in a dictionary.

Japanese learners owe a huge debt to Jim Breen at Monash University in Australia.  Way back in 1991 he started a project that became the EDICT / JMDict Dictionary File. It is a public domain multi language Japanese dictionary database.  Prior to this most electronic Japanese to English dictionaries were expensive proprietary devices designed for Japanese speakers to look up English.  Almost every dictionary application on the web and the various smartphone dictionaries use Jim Breen’s data file.  So the all dictionary programs may have better or worse usability and search logic, but nine out of ten times the definition they provide will be identical.  The exception to this is the dictionaries designed for native Japanese speakers to look up English.  That’s a topic for another day.

As an Android user the dictionary on my phone that I use all the time is called Aedict.  One of the interesting things about whatever he used to develop the application is that he als runs a web version that is identical to the phone application.  It’s available here:

So let’s suppose that you are reading some Japanese and come across the following word:


What do you do if you have no idea how it is read or pronounced?  If it’s on the computer the easiest thing to do is copy the word and past it into the dictionary.  If you can’t do that you got several options each of them increasingly annoying.  First, let’s suppose you actually know the reading – in this case it is “deru”.  I can type that in romaji right into the search box.

Your second option is to actually type the word in either hiragana or katakana.  The dictionary will recognized the hiragana or katakana the same as if you used romaji.  However, your phone (or here my Windows 10 PC) will also bring up list of characters that are written with those same hiragana characters.  Take a look in the middle of the box in the second illustration.

Next, let’s suppose the character is physically written somewhere and you have no idea what it means or how to read it.  You have several options.  Below you see icons for a paintbrush or fude brush a puzzle piece and 4-1-4.

I’ll skip the puzzle piece and 4-14 approaches as those particular methods work based on the structure and shape of the character and the number of strokes and are even more complex.  Instead let’s focus on the paintbrush.  We can actually draw the character right on the phone! (Or in the example below  with my mouse – which explains why it looks so bad.)

The problem is that all of the character drawing applications for Japanese assume a basic knowledge of stroke order and number and type of stroke.  In the first example above I drew the character with the proper number and type of strokes.  You can see at the very top the very first character the application guessed is the correct kanji.  The second character may look drawn almost exactly the same, but it isn’t.

Look in the middle of the illustration – it says Strokes: 6.  This character is only drawn with 5 strokes.  In small stroke character like this it isn’t too problematic, but in significantly more complex characters adding or missing a stroke can make this particular input method daunting.  You can see there is a check box to allow the program to guess +- 2 Strokes.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Below Aedict displays both the proper way to draw this character and the definition. I picked “deru” because I find this word maddening.  It usage matches up to multiple different English meanings. The definition scrolls on beyond what I have displayed here.

The application also provides other words and other readings that use the same character.  It also uses another wonderful public domain project called the Tatoeaba Project that a collection of Japanese sentences and translations in multiple languages.

And finally because I chose a verb to look up the dictionary program tells us how to inflect it to make various grammar forms like present and past tenses.   In the old days you used to have also input verbs into electronic dictionaries in what is actually called “dictionary form”, but now most dictionary programs, including this one, will “de-inflect” verbs so that you can simply input the word as you read it.  That was huge deal because certain Japanese verbs are inflected in one of five ways and it can be difficult to tell which of the five was to use to get the dictionary form.

There you go!  Simple right?  Happy Japanese learning everyone.