Before you buy that denshi jisho…

Whether this is your first encounter with Japan and the Japanese language or if you studied abroad in Nagoya for a year and majored in Japan Studies, you will come across a word (or an obscure fish kanji) that totally throws you off. If you are with a student or teacher, they may whip out the denshi jisho (electronic dictionary), inspiring your immediate envy. All of them seem to give decent translations, and the ones you really want to raid Yamada Denki for have little screens where you can take a shot at that baffling kanji with a stylus.

Denshi jisho are great tools, but they are infamously expensive. The kind with a kanji-writing screen can put you back 20,000-30,000 new, depending on the brand, and 12,000 used. That’s a lot of yen to invest, especially in something that does only one thing. Before you commit to  the denshi jisho, let’s explore some alternatives that utilize technology you might already own.

There’s an App for That

If you own an iPod Touch or iPhone, then you have many, many choices. Through the  iTunes store, you can find all manner of dictionary apps for a fraction of the price of a denshi jisho. (Note: my experience is with the American store, but I am sure that most English-Japanese products can be purchased through Canadian, South African, Australian, or New Zealandian iTunes stores.) has reviews and screenshots of the apps if you want more info. Some of the top picks include:

  1. Kotoba! This is an astounding free (yes, FREE) app that allows you to search for words, individual kanji, and even example sentences. The word and kanji database comes from Jim Breem’s wwwjidic project, but unlike the Jim Breem site, Kotoba!’s interface is seamless. You can create lists of words or kanji that you have looked up to study later, and can view lists of kanji organized by JLPT level and by the order they are learned in Japanese schools. Best of all, everything but the example sentences can be accessed offline—no wifi, no problem. While Kotoba! doesn’t have touch-sensitive kanji-writing input, you can change the settings in your iPod/iPhone to allow Chinese character input.. Stroke order is different, but with a few tries you can generally get the DL on what fish is in your school bento today.
  2. Japanese. Either $8 or $20. The selling point of this app is that it has a kanji drawing input. Like Kotoba, it uses edict databases, but stores content offline so that you can do your searching with or without a connection. It has all the features of Kotoba! plus some enhanced JLPT prep material and quizzing features.
  3. Wisdom E-J. $21. This is the exact same content as is on the denshi jisho, just reformatted for the iPod Touch/ iPhone. If you want the reassurance that you are getting the same word your students and teachers are or want tons and tons of example sentences, this will be your best friend. I haven’t used it personally, so I don’t know if you can use the touch screen to draw kanji. I assume that the Chinese character input trick in the machine settings might work here as well.

Fun and Games

If you have a Nintendo DS, there is a famous denshi jisho alternative waiting for you. Kanji Sonomama is expensive in the US, but can be purchased used from or from Book Off and other game resellers. Kani Sonomama uses the DS touch screen to allow you to write and look up kanji. It is made for a Japanese-speaking audience, however, so be ready to spend a little time getting to know the navigation system. Non-obscure words have English translations, and obscure words have hiragana readings. This tool is perfect for reading forms or looking up kanji at the grocery store; however, the English-Japanese interface is tricky enough to make it impractical for conversations or teaching, as it gives only kanji for any English word you look up.

Phone a Friend

Your keitai, even if it was a freebie, has more features than you would care to believe. Almost every keitai has a built-in dictionary. The English to Japanese (英和) interface sometimes has the same problem as Kanji Sonomama (giving you kanji you may not know how to read) but the Japanese to English (和英) is generally good. It will take some time to get used to using the keitai dictionary interface, but hey, it comes with your phone. Use your own judgment as to whether or not it is appropriate to use your keitai as a dictionary in school.

 A feature worth looking for is kanji grabber. In more feature-rich phones, this will be under the camera menu. Basically, your phone uses the camera and built in dictionary to scan kanji you hold the phone up to. It then copy-pastes it into the Japanese-English dictionary and allows you to search. This feature is great for everyday words and phrases, but I’ve found that the English database doesn’t extend to fish at the restaurant or grocery store.

Ultimately, you know your own technology preferences. If that single-function denshi jisho represents a significant investment in learning Japanese and would serve as a motivator, then awesome. But for those who want the function and not the product, I hope that this has provided some other options.

If you’ve had a great experience with an alternative not listed here or have found that these alternatives pale in comparison with your denshi jisho, please enlighten us!

Posted by Lauren, who wants to be tech savvy one day.


5 thoughts on “Before you buy that denshi jisho…

  1. If you get stuck on kanji from your keitai dictionary you can always copy and paste it back into the Japanese>English dictionary to get the reading. It’s a pain, but it usually works.

  2. there are also some other options.

    For the few Android phone users out there. You also have many options to choose from. Most seem to use jim breens dictionary. Check it out here:

    The 2 android dictionaries I like the best are, Aedict, and wwwjdic. Both will allow you to search for typical vocab words or specific kanji, and much much more. Of course both are free.

    wwwjdic is nice because of the expansive list of example sentences (great for learning the language).

    Aedict is handy due to its word analyze function, which gives you the kanji breakdown for each character in the word.

    There are more out there both free and paid, and the android market search will help you find them easily.

    For the windows pc users who want a japanese type word processor with a dictionary, and about 5 different ways to search for kanji check out JWPce. It has not been updated in over 10 years, but dont let that fool you. It will work on any windows based operating system. I will also work on unix/linux based operating systems with wine.
    main webstie:

    And finally for the firefox users, check out rikaichan. Highlight a word/kanji character and you can get meaning, reading, and more.

    Your mileage may vary if you are using romaji.
    If there are linux users out there, drop me a line if you are in search for more native apps than jwpce.

  3. For the iPhone or iPod Touch users out there, you can also take a look at Japanese Flash.

    It has over 145,000 words split into 180+ sets so you can study specific vocab (like Sumo) or broadly (JLPT or Nouns). We also track your progress and make sure you are studying new words while occasionally repeating what you know to keep it in memory.

    It also includes a fast dictionary to make your own study sets on the go. We find this really useful when watching a movie or talking with friends and want to learn a word we just heard.

    Check it out here:

  4. I have an ipad but i definitely recommend a denshi jisho if you want to learn japanese seriously.
    Since i am a university student i spend about 4/5 hours a day to learn japanese and believe me denshi jisho are faster and easier to use than ipad !

    I know denshi jisho are expensives but how many years are you going to spend with your japanese studies. Maybe 3 or 4 years ? So think about that, because you will save a lot of time.

    PS : sorry for my bad english, im french! 🙂

  5. I suggest you look at this companion piece on the blog outlining the benefits of an electronic dictionary. While I am firmly in the denshi jisho camp, it takes a certain level of Japanese proficiency to get the maximum use out of one. Most foreigners living in Japan are looking for simple word translation and if that’s the case the free options are the more economical choice.

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