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.) Mrbrass.org has reviews and screenshots of the apps if you want more info. Some of the top picks include:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 amazon.co.jp 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.