Electronic Dictionaries: A Buyer's Guide

From: American Embassy Tokyo, Thu, 27 May 2004 08:01pm

Electronic Dictionaries: A Buyer's Guide

(This article was contributed by the head of the U.S. Department of State's Japanese language field school)

Despite the wide range of web-based and PC-based dictionaries available, most of you will find yourselves at one time or another desperately in need of a dictionary to read or say something of great interest and with no PC in sight. That's when an electronic dictionary can be a real lifesaver. For one thing, they are portable. A single PDA-sized Sharp e-dictionary contains a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, an English-English dictionary, a Japanese-English dictionary, an English-Japanese dictionary, an English Thesaurus, a Kanji dictionary, and an assortment of mini-dictionaries covering famous people, geography, seasonal terms (so you make the correct reference to the season in your haiku), and a dictionary of famous works (so you won't be thrown for a loop by references to classical Chinese literary works or go cross-eyed trying to untangle the katakana version of a Russian, Arabic or Italian book, opera or play.) This is of course in addition to handy manuals for composing letters, notes and remarks for any occasion.

There is a bewildering array of choices out there for you with prices ranging from zero to 40,000 yen. The free option is a download for your PDA available at no cost from http://www.geocities.com/andrew_brault/dokusha/. If you are chained to your PDA anyway, this may be the most efficient solution for you. One positive advantage is that you have the option of simply writing in an unknown kanji with the stylus rather than trying to identify a radical and count the brush strokes.

If you don't have a PDA, the first thing to remember is that most electronic dictionaries are intended for native Japanese speakers whose interests and needs are different from ours. These interests tend to diverge most on the kanji dictionary function. We want a dictionary that readily gives an English definition for a Kanji or kanji compound word. Japanese users are more interested in making sure they have the right kanji for a word they already know. If they want a definition, they want it in Japanese. Accordingly, most electronic dictionaries tend to provide Japanese definitions for kanji first. Moreover, the J-E dictionary is often smaller than the combined kanji and J-J dictionaries (e.g. 80,000 vice 230,000) so there are often cases where there is no corresponding English definition. Another glitch is that some dictionaries (e.g., Sharp and Sony) do not provide English language screen prompts or button labels, which can be annoying for beginners.

The second thing to remember is don't buy anything you haven't tried out yourself. No matter how many features it has listed on the box, the most important feature is whether you can use it without going cross-eyed. When test driving a dictionary focus first on the kanji function. Electronic dictionaries at the upper end of the spectrum enable you to look up a kanji by a variety of means: on-yomi, kun-yomi, any radical within the kanji (not just the "right" one under which it is listed in the paper dictionaries) and number brush strokes. Some dictionaries, like the Casio Ex-Word XD-470, let you draw the kanji with a stylus. Once you select a kanji, another function lists all the compound words containing the kanji. Canon Word Tanks lists all compounds in which the kanji appears first. Sharp e-dictionaries list all kanji compounds containing the kanji, whether as the first, second, third or fourth element in the compound, which is nice if you're Japanese or a linguist but in general it just gives you twice as many screens to scroll through to get to the one you want.

The crunch comes with how easy it is to find the English meaning. My personal favorite, the old Canon Word Tank IDX-9600, is the most user-friendly, allowing you to go straight from the kanji compound to the English meaning. It is the last advanced electronic dictionary that seems designed for foreigners. Newer Canons, Sharps and Seikos give you the Japanese meaning first and you have to use a "jump" function to get to the English meaning. Beware! Some "jump" functions are better than others, allowing you to jump between all of the dictionaries. Most Sonys and some Casios don't let you jump from the kanji compound to the English definition. You have to re-enter the kanji compound phonetically in the Japanese-English dictionary. So, before making a purchase, make sure that that jump function works for you.

The newest and latest model is not necessarily the best for you. Most users believe that the greater number of entries (1.1 million vice 650,000), the fuller definitions and examples of usages in the newer models outweigh the convenience of the older models like the Canon Word Tank IDX-9600. Rather than being mesmerized by the overall number of entries, you should focus on the number of entries in the Japanese-English dictionary. That's the chief bottleneck for beginner-mid level users. No matter how many kanji-compounds your new electronic dictionary has, if the J-E portion is too small, you run into the frustration of having no English definition for the fancy "jump" function to jump to! Unless you're advanced enough to be satisfied with a Japanese definition, it's best to opt for the model with the biggest J-E portion. The smaller the gap between the J-E entries and the other entries, the lower the user frustration level. A robust jump function also helps to reduce the gap. While the original J-word may not be in the English dictionary, words used in the Japanese definition may- so check this out too while test-driving.

Another crunch is whether or not an English manual is available. Canon is generally better at providing English manuals. Akhihabara is better at stocking English manuals, although you can also download them from the web (if available) if you purchase you electronic dictionary elsewhere. For a more detailed description and comparison of specific models (including a step-by-step explanation of how to use them) you may want to check out these two sites:


Dictionaries at the upper end of the scale weigh about the same as a PDA but are generally wider. This is fine for the office or for tossing in your briefcase. Like an inner-city cop, you may want a smaller back-up piece that you can slip into a shirt or coat pocket just in case you need it while out and about. There are a large number of dictionaries in the 2,000-5,000 yen range that fulfill this function. They generally have just three dictionaries: Japanese-English, English-Japanese and kanji and seem pitched to Japanese high school students. The kanji function on these cheaper ones is quite limited. In the Casio Ex-Word XD-400, the kanji function is only to help Japanese make sure they have the right kanji for a word or reading. You input a reading and it produces the kanji. It does not provide any definitions or list compounds in which the word appears. It does not let you look them up by radical or brush stroke. If you don't know the reading, you are just out of luck. It is, however, useful for helping out in oral communication.

At 3,000 yen there is the slightly more versatile Seiko IC Dictionary (SR350). It also has three dictionaries: an English-Japanese, Japanese-English and kanji dictionary. The Seiko permits you to look up individual kanji by radical and stroke count. It does not generate a list of compounds containing the kanji but it does provide a Japanese definition of the kanji's basic meaning. If you're just tooling around town or idly reading a newspaper or book on the train, this is generally good enough. You can usually guess the general meaning of a compound word from context if you know the first kanji. Not much larger than a meishi holder, the SR350 is very portable and can easily become a permanent part of your wardrobe.

FOR ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS: The CASIO RM-2000. This is the only dictionary made specifically for the English speaker just beginning to learn Japanese. It is based on the Kenkyusha Romanized E/J-J/E Dictionary. It is the easiest dictionary to use out of the box! You simply type in a word using roman letters and you get a detailed definition with good examples of usages and idioms. For Japanese words you get the kanji and/or hiragana readings as well. However, it does not contain a separate kanji dictionary, so if you do not know the reading of an unfamiliar kanji compound, you're left high and dry. It is billed as targeting the very beginning level Japanese learner or those focusing on spoken as opposed to written Japanese. If you have any interest in learning to read, you should go ahead and get a Word Tank for about the same price (15,000 yen). If you know that you have neither the time nor the inclination to master Japan's uniquely complex writing system, then the CASIO RM-2000 would be much easier to use and provide value for dollar.

The American Embassy in Tokyo
American Citizen Services
1-10-5 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8420
Tel: 03-3224-5174
Fax: 03-3224-5856