<< Previous

Lesson 10: Kanji Dictionaries

Traditionally every student of the Japanese language past the beginner stage would need to carry with them everywhere they went a 5-pound Kanji dictionary which is why they were so healthy. Nelson's Kanji Dictionary was the standard. It would let you look up a Kanji by Radical, Stroke count or Reading.

The radical was the quickest way to look up a character you don't know at all but sometimes what part of the Kanji is the radical is not obvious. In those cases you would have to count each individual stroke and then look it up by stroke count. Sometimes this too is not obvious since strokes that form an angle are sometimes a single strokes but sometimes multiple strokes. If you still didn't find it by the original stroke count you count the strokes again since maybe you missed one the first time. If you get the same answer then you need to check a couple strokes more or less.

Once again, when looking up a Kanji here are the steps you take to determine what the primary radical is:
  1. If the Kanji is a radical itself, use the Kanji
  2. If the Kanji is enclosed by a radical, use the enclosure radical
  3. If the Kanji has a left & right side with a radical on the left, use the left-side
  4. If the Kanji has a left & right side but no radical on left, use the right-side
  5. If the Kanji has a top & bottom with a radical on the top, use the top
  6. If the Kanji has a top & bottom but no radical on the top, use the bottom
  7. At this point it gets tricky. If the radical is in a corner, use it. If there are more than one radical in the corners use the following precedence: Top-Left, Top-Right, Bottom-Left then Bottom-Right.
If you're lucky you might kind of already know the Kanji and remember what it's reading is. Then you can look it up by reading.

Once you've found a character the dictionary will give you the meaning, all the possible readings and the words for that Kanji. Some dictionaries only list the words that start with that Kanji (Like the Classic Nelson's Dictionary) while other dictionaries list all words that contain that Kanji (New Edition of Nelson's or The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary).
Electronic Dictionaries
Decent Electronic Dictionaries started coming out in the 90's. First for native Japanese speakers and later for learners of the language. The usually include a Japanese-to-English, English-to-Japanese and a Kanji dictionary. The better ones will include a "Jump" feature that let's you jump between entries in the different dictionaries.

The TenguGo Kanji dictionary let's you look up words by Direct Kanji, Radical, Stroke Count, Reading, Meaning and JLPT level.

Handwriting Recognition
Electronic Dictionaries with touch screens often have character recognition functionality. You write the character on the screen and it shows you a list of characters it thinks you are trying to write.

Many times a beginner will get frustrated with these because they write the character exactly the way it should look but the dictionary still can't recognize the character. The reason is that most software only pays attention to the order and direction of the strokes and doesn't care about what the end result actually looks like. For example take the simple Kanji for mouth:

It is basically just a square. But the correct stroke order is:
1) A downward stroke on the left
2) A single angled stroke from top-left to bottom-right for the top-right corner
3) A final left-to-right stroke at the bottom

If you draw them in any other order the character recognition software will probably not work. So....

When learning new Kanji always practice your writing and pay attention to stroke order!