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The Essential Japanese Electronic Dictionary

By Erick Villacorte 

The following discussion focuses on those essential features and functions that make an electronic dictionary (or denshi jisho) an effective and invaluable tool to all English-speaking learners of Japanese. Hopefully, readers will also be provided with some guidance in the purchase of an e-dictionary


If you’re an English-speaking person studying Japanese and shopping around for your first electronic dictionary you’re now probably as bewildered as I was then when faced with this current plethora of models to choose from. It’s true what they say – having too many choices can sometimes be worse than having a few. Indeed, deciding on which model to purchase has become even more difficult as e-dictionaries have been increasingly closing that technological divide between a dedicated language-learning tool and a multi-function PDA.

High-resolution color screens, memory cards, MP3 – these are just some of the razzle-dazzle that top-of-the-line denshi jisho models now offer.  Sure, who wouldn’t want these features?  But unless you’re some hopeless technophile with a lot of money to burn, the prudent thing to do when purchasing an e-dictionary is to resist being distracted from its primary purpose as an effective language-learning tool.  As such, a careful consideration of those features appropriate to your learning needs should take precedence over all other enticing add-ons. 

Dictionaries galore

It is truly amazing how more and more data can be packed into smaller and smaller devices.  Most electronic dictionaries come loaded with a full complement of dictionaries essential to all levels of learners: a Kanji dictionary, Japanese-English (J/E), English-Japanese (E/J), and a Katakana dictionary.  Advanced learners will also appreciate other references that come bundled in with some of the more recent e-dictionary models such as a Japanese-Japanese dictionary (J/J), a Japanese thesaurus, and The Encyclopedia Britannica (Japanese version).  Additionally, e-dictionaries equipped with memory cards allow the installation of a host of other references on specialized topics such as medicine, business, computer terminology, etc.

The Sharp PW-A8400 contains a whopping 100 dictionaries!

With all these learning resources compressed into a gizmo that can fit into a coat pocket e-dictionary users no longer need to carry around bulky printed editions and can find more time and places to study since they need much less desk space or none at all.  But I wouldn’t chuck out the old tomes just yet because portability usually exacts some compromise in terms of quality and completeness.  While convenience may be a good enough reason to switch to an e-dictionary I find that printed editions still provide more depth in their entries’ definitions.  Nevertheless aside from the occasional “No entry found.” message, using an e-dictionary has been generally quite adequate for my study needs.

Which models come with the best Kanji, J/E, J/J and E/J dictionaries?  Unfortunately there seems to be a dearth of reviews with regard to the relative merits of the different editions usually bundled in by major brand names of e-dictionaries.  An interesting comparison of two competing editions of J/E and E/J dictionaries, Kenkyusha and Genius, can be found in

Single-kanji search


Love in Japanese Kanji


Before electronic dictionaries came into wide use, anyone who has studied Japanese seriously enough to begin to learn how to read a Japanese magazine, newspaper, or book will tell you how much more arduous this task was back then.  Before you could start looking up the definition of a word with a kanji component in a J/E dictionary, you first had to look up the character(s) in a separate kanji dictionary to determine its romaji or hiragana rendering (i.e. its pronunciation).  This entails a tedious process of using a stroke-count index and subsequently going through a long list of characters with the same stroke count. 

In contrast, an e-dictionary’s kanji dictionary allows the user to key in several search parameters aside from stroke count such as a character’s radical, on-kun reading, etc, (Fig.1) to effectively come up with a short list of kanji that share these parameters (Fig.2). To get an idea of how much faster I could do a single kanji search using an e-dictionary I measured my average time relying solely on a stroke-count index using Gakken’s A New Dictionary of Kanji Usage (65 seconds) versus that of entering both stroke count and radical using a Canon IDF-4100 (31 seconds). I think this significant improvement in efficiency of kanji search is, by itself, enough of a justification for investing in an e-dictionary. It does require though that the user be familiar with radicals and the general rules of stroke order3. For users who prefer to draw the kanji instead of keying in search parameters models that are equipped with touch screens and handwriting recognition software include the Casio XD-470, Canon Wordtank V80, G90, and V90.

 Fig.1 The Kanji Search Function 

  Fig.2 The list of possible Kanjis
  The Kanji Reading.

It must be noted that most e-dictionaries were primarily meant to be used by native Japanese speakers as an English language-learning/ translation tool.  As such, English-speaking learners of Japanese accustomed to learning kanji by associating characters with core meanings in English will find a kanji dictionary which entries are purely written in Japanese to be just achingly shy of being completely useful.  Consequently, users end up mainly relying on these kanji dictionaries to provide a quick look-up of a character’s reading (Fig.3).  This design bias toward Japanese speakers learning English is also probably the reason why a lot of e-dictionaries include an English-English dictionary (E/E) and why so many e-dictionary models do not come with an English manual. 

Compound-kanji word search

In all the e-dictionary models I’ve tried, looking up a compound-kanji word (i.e. a word with two or more kanji components) using the kanji dictionary is not accomplished by entering each character in sequence as one might expect.  Instead, as soon as the user has entered the head character (i.e. the first kanji) of a compound-kanji word most models will display a list of words with the same head character.  This feature is sometimes referred to as the Quick Search.  If the word list generated by the Quick Search is not too long or the word is common enough you should be able to quickly select the right word and segue to the J/E dictionary to obtain its pronunciation and meaning.

Preferably the Quick Search should display a word list that not only contains words that begin with the character keyed in (or handwritten) but also all other words that are formed with this character.  For example, if you want to look up the on-kun reading and meaning of 勉強 (study) and are already familiar with the on-yomi of 強KYOU you can indicate this as a search parameter and look up this character first.  Many e-dictionary models will list only words beginning with KYOU such as TSUYOi (strong), 強いる(compel), or 強力 (powerful); however, a more useful Quick Search algorithm, such as those found in many Casio and Sharp models, will also list words such as 気強い (stouthearted), 頑強 (stubborn), and of course . 

If the e-dictionary does not have a Quick Search feature, you’ll need to employ a two-step routine akin to using paper dictionaries:

1.  Look up each character individually in the kanji dictionary to determine its reading.

2.  Look up this reading in the J/E dictionary to find its meaning.

Anyone who has tried this routine will know that the procedure can at times be frustratingly tedious since, more often than not, a single kanji can be pronounced in several ways, and getting the right pronunciation of a compound-kanji word is sometimes a matter of trying out possible combinations of pronunciations of each kanji. 

A compound-kanji word search can also be performed, albeit much less effectively, within the J/E and J/J dictionaries using the Wildcard Search function.  When the user only partially knows the pronunciation of a compound-kanji word, the wildcard characters “?” and “*” can be substituted for the unknown component.  However, searches based on a wildcard character affixed to a hiragana reading4 often yield an exceedingly long list of entries that match the search criteria, and it can be quite time-consuming to go through such a long list and select the right word.  For example, if I were to look up the word 換金 (liquidation) by entering “*金” in the J/E dictionary of a Canon IDF-4100 I would have to select the right word from a list of 238 possible words!  A Wildcard Search can be used to good effect though in cases where the compound-kanji word is made up of more than two kanji, and the user is familiar with the reading of more than one kanji.  For instance, entering “*kin.sei” to search for the word 換金性 (liquidity) will yield a list of only 5 entries to choose from.   

Wild card searches are usually applicable to both the J/E and J/J dictionaries and are usually applied to compound-kanji word searches where the reading of the head character is unknown.  In e-dictionaries where the Kojien is the installed J/J dictionary, this very same function is alternatively known as a Reverse Search because it is enabled by the so-called Gyaku.biki Kojien or Reverse Dictionary.  The Reverse Dictionary appears to complement the Kojien exclusively and seems to be more of a search index than a true dictionary.  For all practical purposes though, a Wildcard Search using another J/J dictionary (e.g. Super Daijirin) and a Reverse Search are virtually the same.

The Jump function

Most Nihongo learners are all too familiar with this scenario:  While looking up the definition of a Japanese word in your paper J/E dictionary you proceed to read the word-usage example included in that particular entry.  However, the sample sentence contains another kanji word which you neither know how to read nor understand its meaning.  After looking up that kanji word’s pronunciation using your kanji dictionary you would now have to turn the page of your paper J/E dictionary to look up its definition.  Then you would have to return to the previous page to read the sample sentence again so as to better appreciate the definition of the word you were looking up in the first place.

Taking such detours while looking up a word is part and parcel of the language-learning process, and it is patently time-consuming. The Jump or Super Jump function of an e-dictionary considerably cuts down the time to make such a digression and return to the original term being looked up. It enhances the learning process by enabling efficient access to the e-dictionary’s many resources. This function is somewhat analogous to clicking on a link in a webpage that brings you to another webpage; clicking on the “Back” button returns you to the original webpage. In the case of e-dictionaries the user highlights that particular item within the entry he/she wishes to cross-reference, and the Jump function allows him to select a resource (e.g. dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia) and look it up. Many e-dictionary models allow a series of jumps to be made, and pressing “Return” at any point in this trail of jumps brings the user back to the entry from whence the last jump was made.

A picture of the Jump function. There are four choices to jump  
A. Kojien dictionary B. Kanji Dictionary  
C. Japanese - English Dictionary D. English - Japanese Dictionary  

Beware though that, as a result perhaps of the aforementioned design bias toward Japanese learners of English, some e-dictionaries can only jump from English words to either the E/J or E/E dictionary.  As English-speaking learners of Japanese, it is absolutely important to choose a model that allows you to jump from a particular kanji or Japanese word to the J/E, J/J, or kanji dictionary.

On user friendliness

A clear, easy-to read display is, without a doubt, one of the most important hardware features that you will want to have in an e-dictionary.  Larger screens allow not only allow more information to be viewed but can also provide better presentation of this information.  High-resolution displays enable you to view characters in crisp detail which is especially important when looking up unfamiliar kanji.  Even top-end models might not be able to display high-stroke kanji without some distortion in normal mode, so check out the zoom and variable font-size capabilities.  Screens will usually have contrast control, and having backlighting will definitely be a boon when using the e-dictionary in an environment with insufficient illumination.  And if you donft mind changing batteries more often a colored display immensely enhances the viewing experience especially when viewing the many images, diagrams, charts, etc found in The Encyclopedia Britannica

Almost all models come with a Qwerty board, arrow keys, function keys, etc. entirely filling up one surface of a typical clam-shell configuration.  Since size is a design constraint, the Shift key is also used to double the function of many keys.  This large number of keys together with some dual-function keys may result in annoying instances of being thrown off track when a wrong key is inadvertently pressed.  Perhaps in order to ease the keyboard-input process, a lot of new models seem to be veering toward the use of on-screen menus similar to the GUI (graphical user interface) operating systems of personal computers. 

When an English user manual is not available models that allow the menus to be displayed in English will be quite helpful to beginner-level students.  With a modicum of patience though and maybe a little help from those already familiar with the use of a denshi jisho, one should be able to figure out how to work its functions.

 Choosing the right model – the bare essentials

“So which electronic dictionary model should I get?”  Of course for different people other considerations can figure in prominently in their purchase decision.   Prices (inclusive of shipping) can range from about US$150 to 500 so budget will definitely be on many people’s minds.  Models that include specialized dictionaries for medicine, law, information technology, etc will be of special interest to professionals in these fields.  Many models also include a complement of translation dictionaries in a third language - German, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, etc – and will be especially useful to speakers of those languages.  Essentially speaking however, I think we can distill a good e-dictionary down to two primary aspects that will be important to almost all English-speaking learners of Japanese.


1.  Library of references

Practically all models will include the three essential dictionaries – kanji dictionary, J/E, and E/J. While the number of entries might be an indicator of a particular dictionary’s comprehensiveness it is by no means the only measure of its usefulness. For instance, if a satisfactory J/E dictionary were the only criterion for choosing an e-dictionary most people (unless you are into translating difficult material) might not be able to find enough practical reasons to eschew a mid-range model that typically contains 80,000 entries in favor of a high-end model, like the Seiko SR-E10000, with a staggering 480,000 entries.

Interestingly, some people are of the opinion that the choice of model can also be contingent on one’s proficiency level. Indeed it is easy to imagine for instance that students at the beginner levels may profit more from a kanji dictionary that encourages the practice of writing kanji through handwriting input and a J/E or J/J dictionary that provides simpler usage examples. Advance students on the other hand will better appreciate J/E, E/J, and J/J dictionaries that offer more depth and breadth

 2.  Powerful search capability

It would be oversimplifying things to choose an e-dictionary just on the basis of how many dictionaries are bundled in with any particular model or the number of entries that each dictionary contains.  After all, purchasing an e-dictionary is not only about having compact quality references.  Just as important is its ability to enable users to retrieve information simply and quickly.  The Quick Search and Wildcard Search are the two features that you will depend on when looking up words from external material such as Japanese newspapers, magazines, books, etc while the Jump function serves as the nexus that allows a smooth transit between or among the e-dictionary’s internal references.  Potential buyers are well-advised to try out these search functions of different models to be able to gauge the relative effectiveness of each. 

A wish list

Judging from the apparent design bias toward native Japanese users, it appears that the community of English-speaking learners of Japanese represents only a minor share in the market for electronic dictionaries.  Although using a denshi jisho has already given me considerable relief from my former plodding study routine, I still hanker for a model that is thoughtfully designed to respond to the needs of our marginalized community of learners.  High up on my wish list will be a kanji dictionary that gives the core meanings of each kanji in English and is capable of a wildcard + kanji search.  The brisk pace of hardware enhancements presents some tantalizing possibilities for the transformation of the denshi jisho into a veritable sine qua non for Japanese language learning - playing the old language tapes in MP3 can help hone aural comprehension; interactive programs for teaching grammar can be developed; a denshi jisho could in the very near future be used as an FEP (Front End Processor) to compose email, or as an e-book reader via removable storage or a plug-and-play architecture.  Truly, the possibilities are as exciting as they are unlimited.



1 “The Kojien is a large single volume Japanese-Japanese dictionary with around 3000 pages containing both modern and old Japanese words.  Published by Iwanami Shoten, Kojien literally means “wide garden of words.”  Like most Japanese dictionaries, the headwords are in hiragana, and the words are arranged in gojuon order.  It is considered by many Japanese people to be the standard dictionary.”  (

 2 More recent kanji references like The Kodansha Kanji Learners Dictionary ( have reportedly devised an indexing system to significantly speed up the kanji search process to something approximating the time it takes to do an alphabetical look-up of an English word.

3 Certain models also feature an animated display showing correct stroke order - especially useful for those who are still not well-versed with its general rules or those who think they might have a penchant for calligraphy. 

4 Conceivably, a wildcard + kanji search would be the optimum way to do a compound-kanji word search; however, at the time of this writing there is yet no e-dictionary that is capable of this kind of search.


  If you have any comments on the article on Japanese Electronic dictionary, you can email Erick at



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