Getting Started with Electronic Dictionaries

How to Use this Site

I have revised this site to make it easier to use. This section is for the readers new to electronic dictionaries. The site navigation menu is arranged from left to right in order of general information to specific. The next section is the tutorial section and is design as a quick model-unspecific tutorial to give new readers an idea of what to expect from the different electronic dictionaries on the market. The Features section discusses the details of the various feature supported by the dictionaries. Once familiar with the features it is time to compare the various models to decide which model best fits your needs. The Models section then has further details and reader comments on the various models. Finally, if you still have unanswered questions, check out the FAQ for answers. If you still have questions, feel free to send me an email. I may add you question to the FAQ to help future readers.

About Electronic Dictionaries

Japanese electronic dictionaries are made for the Japanese market. This doesn't mean foreigners cannot use them, it just means it takes a little practice to learn how to use them efficiently. Even the Canon which is advertised as "for foreigners" is really is just a dictionary for Japanese with a few extras like English menus, etc. Of'course foreigners can use these dictionaries, even foreigners that do not read kanji. But the less kanji you know the more jumping you will need to do the and longer it takes to look up words. After a while you would learn some kanji just looking at them so often. Kanji is part of Japanese communication. I never thought I would need it and resisted even learning hiragana at first. Now I am grateful since without being able to write some Japanese I would not be able to communicate with many of my Japanese friends via email or chat.

When you look up a word in any of the dictionaries, the main entry text is displayed in Japanese. That is kanji and kana. This is even true when you look up a word in the Jap->Eng dictionary. For example, if you look up the word "inu" in the Jap->Eng dictionary, the entries will be in English, like "hound", "canine", "puppy", but the explanations will still be in Japanese. On most dictionaries examples are in Japanese and English which is important.

Types of Dictionary Users

The type of dictionary that is right for you depends on your specific needs. I will cover the types of dictionaries in the next paragraph. However, there are some generalizations that can be made. I would categorize users into the following groups.

I am a Japanese language student and so this recommendations on this site may be slanted towards the serious student. However I will touch on the other two groups as well. The needs of businessmen or travelers are very different from students. They are probably more interested in phrases and conversation and not as concerned with reading kanji and certainly not interested in writing kanji. Japanese manga has become very popular overseas with some people interested in recreating the art work and other interested in reading. I have often been asked, "which dictionary should I buy to read Japanese manga". If you will be reading children's manga that contains furigana like Crayon Shinchan, one on my favorites, you may not need a kanji dictionary. Furigana is the small kana written next to the kanji to help children read kanji they do not know. If you will be reading adult manga that does not contain furigana you will need a kanji dictionary with good search and jump features.

Types of Electronic Dictionaries

There are many types of electronic dictionaries on the market these day. I have classified them into the following categories.

I will cover the first three types first. This site covers the Handheld dictionaries in great detail. These are the dictionaries made by Canon, Sharp, Seiko, etc. This site mainly focuses on dictionaries for the serious student and the handheld dictionaries tend to meet these needs well. In addition to handhelds, there are PDA-like dictionaries/organizers that let you search for kanji by drawing them on the screen. A very cool feature for looking up kanji if you will be doing a lot of reading. However, the ones I have seen, were of'course for the Japanese market and a little difficult to use. A PDA can also be used as an electronic dictionary with the right dictionary software. If you already have and carry a PDA around, this could be a good option for you. I have used a freeware Word Processing program called JWPce for Windows on my laptop. This software also supports Windows CE. The dictionary feature uses James Breen's extensive on-line dictionary. One of the great things about this software was the SKIP search capability. To learn more about SKIP, see SKIP Search Method. The downside is the lack of examples in the available dictionary software. These three types of dictionaries, in general, tend to meet the needs of students best. For more information about PDA dictionaries see PDA Dictionaries

There are also "talking" dictionaries, but since these too are made for the Japanese market most only speak the English entries. Besides these are usually much bigger and not as portable. Next are the dictionaries/organizers with built in internet capability which can use resources from the internet. However this site does not cover these types of dictionaries. Mainly because they are not mainstream and one would probably need to go to Akihabara in Tokyo to get one.

Seiko has a Japanese/English romanized electronic dictionary. There seems to be a lot of interest in romanized dictionaries because one does not need to learn kanji or kana to use the dictionary. The Seiko RM-2000 is one of the few or only romanized electronic dictionaries and displays Japanese text in English and romanized Japanese, as well as kanji. But with this particular model the number of entries is considerably smaller than the heldheld dictionaries I discuss on this site. If you are going to do any serious studying, you will grow out of this model very quickly. However, if you a businessman or traveler going to Japan for a short time and want to learn a little Japanese to be independent then a romanized dictionary might be right for you. However, if you are going for any extended length of time and planning to study Japanese, then common opinion suggests to forget about romaji, and start learning at least kana instead. Remember there is no romaji in Japan. Everything is written in kanji and kana.

NEC had planned to release a English/Japanese voice activated translator at the end of 2004. It was last tested in Feb. 2004 at Narita airport. As of May 2005, I have still not heard about it hitting the market. According to a press release, the user can speak in English or Japanese and the device will speak the translation. Dictionaries that speak English vocabulary have been on the market for some time now. This will be the first device to speak Japanese and with voice recognition in addition to translating entire phrases real-time! "...It can cope, in other words, with slang and local chatter, and has a vocabulary of 50,000 Japanese and 25,000 English travel and tourism related words..." I have including this here for completeness. However this is not so much a study tool for the serious student.

Lastly, the "Other Dictionaries" category. There are small, light and inexpensive dictionaries and some can even handle multiple languages besides Japanese, like Chinese, French, German, etc. These are glorified calculators with some organizer features and a very limited number of entries. These are not appropriate for the serious student. However because of there small size and lower prices, despite the extremely limited entries, these might be useful to the businessman or traveler.

Internal Organization

Electronic Dictionaries are organized internally with several individual dictionaries. These internal dictionaries are many times from various manufacturers. For example, a Canon electronic dictionary may contain a kanji dictionary from one manufacturer and an English dictionary from another. Also different electronic dictionary manufactures like Canon, Sharp or Seiko to name a few, may contain the same version of the same internal kanji dictionary for example. So basic operation includes selecting a dictionary then entering a word to search. For example, select the Eng->Jap dictionary and enter the word "dog". Or selecting the Jap->Eng dictionary and entering the word "inu".

PDA Dictionaries

(From a reader Peter...)

You mention dictionaries with compound examples in the kanji dictionary. This points to the problem with all handheld dictionaries. They're made for people who already know Japanese well. They expect that anyone wanting to look up a look up a Japanese word already knows how to pronounce it--thus in the kokugo and J>E dictionaries, you have to enter words in kana. If you see a word and don't know how to pronounce it, you can't look it up in those dictionaries. Your only hope is to look up one of the kanji in the kanji dictionary, then scan through all the compounds listed as examples in that dictionary to find the word, then jump from that compound's entry in the kanji dictionary to its entry in the JE entries. But while there might be 100,000 to 200,000 words in the J-to-E dictionary and 250,000 words in the J-to-J (kokugo) dictionary, there are only 48,000 compounds in the kanji dictionary.. And those 48,000 weren't chosen to be the most useful compounds, either--each one was chosen by how well it illustrated the kanji in question. So most of the time, when you try to look up a word by how it's written, you simply can't find it. Try looking up "katsuyaku" to see what I mean--except in the oldest current Sharps and long-out-of-production Canons, if you enter the kanji "katsu" then pull up the list of words containing it, "katsuyaku" won't be on the list (all other brands, the newer Sharps, and all the current Canons don't have that word in their compound lists). But if you enter it in hiragana, you'll find the entry right away.

That's where the PDA solution shines. Even an old Palm can be converted into a decent dictionary in which all 1.8 million J>E entries in Eijiro and all 130K J>E entries in Edict can be found by entering either hiragana or kanji (or katakana, if the word is normally written that way). You can get it running on a $100 used Palm with another $60 in software. Or, for someone in Japan, you can get a Japanese Windows Mobile PDA used for 20000 yen or less plus 1980 yen for Eijiro, and you've got an even better dictionary, with built-in handwriting recognition that works easily and beautifully. With the WM system, a serious student can also add exactly the same dictionaries the handhelds have (but now they can find every word in those dictionaries by kanji or kana, so the same dictionaries are much more powerful on the PDA than in the handhelds). Adding Daijirin adds about 7000-8000 yen to the price. I run a site at Japanese Language Tools with advice on how to do all of that and a lot of free files to optimize the system, along with links to the software one would need, both free and not.

Confession: at the same site, I also sell fully PDAs fully configured as super dictionaries customized for non-Japanese users. But a visitor can still find everything he needs there to set up a dictionary system without paying me a single yen. In fact, a user with a Japanese WM PDA can set it up entirely with free files from my site without paying ANYBODY another yen (a Palm user would need to drop another 4000 yen for software to make the Palm capable of Japanese, as Japanese Palms are almost impossible to find). So for a do-it-yourselfer with very modest technical skills (even people who didn't know how to click on a link and download a file have succeeded), the price of a PDA system can be the same as the cheapest handheld denshi jisho but the dictionary he builds will be much more useful. And, yes, someone who wants to drop a little more money can have me ship him a deluxe unit, ready to use out of the box. Even if you don't link to my site, I think it's fair to let readers know they can get a cheap used PDA and set it up as a dictionary customized for their needs without spending any more than they would for a handhelf denshi jisho.