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Kanji Dictionaries

Author: Nicolas Delerue, Issue: September 2003, Topic: Japanese Language

For those who do not yet know the whole Joyo list, kanji dictionaries can be very useful when they have to decipher a text!

The July issue featured a dictionary that lets you find the kanji you need from its English meaning, this month's dictionaries let you find the meaning of the kanji you meet.

How to index kanji characters

Unlike alphabets that have a very limited set of characters and for which it is easy to define an order [or even many orders as for the hiragana that can be sorted either by the iroha order (following Kodo's poem) or by "consonant order" (a, i, u, e, o,...)], there are too many kanji characters to define a fixed easy-to-remember order. So different dictionaries may use different indexing methods.

Some Japanese dictionaries order the kanji by their pronunciation, using the consonant order, but this requires that one already knows the pronunciation of the kanji and is useless for foreigners learning Japanese.

Another widespread indexing method relies on the kanji radicals. There are 214 radicals in the Japanese language and they can be ordered by their number of strokes. Kanji can then be ordered by radicals and within a radical, by number of strokes.

For Japanese language learners, an other useful indexing method relies on the pattern of the kanji (do the kanji have 2 vertical or horizontal components? Does one part of the kanji enclose another....) This is known as the SKIP method.

When one knows the pronunciation of a kanji, it is possible to search the kanji in the "On-kun" index which orders the kanjis by their pronunciation (and as a kanji can have different pronunciations, it may appear more than once in the index). Almost all dictionaries have this index.

As ordering is different from one dictionary to another, each dictionary explains its ordering.

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary
3900 Yen, 1008 pages
The use of the SKIP method by this dictionary makes the search of unkown kanji very easy especially when the radical is hard to identify. A few numbers are associated with each kanji like its Unicode value (very useful if you have to type kanji with a non-japanese Keyboard), its radical (so that if you had not been able to identify the radical, you can see what it is and learn for the next time) and its Joyo list number. The most common words using this kanji are then given. The compact size of this dictionary makes him an ideal companion when traveling around Japan. This dictionary also gives you the stroke order of the kanji, making it easy to write it down.

The Kanji Dictionary
8500Yen, 1748 pages
This dictionary is very complete and includes many place names and rare kanji. It is the only one in which I have been able to find both kanji used for Mount Tsukuba. The appendices of this dictionary provide many useful information such as kanji used in geographic names or in family names, kanji of famous Japaneses persons or companies. It also includes a section on chemical compounds (useful when you have to decipher what is in the bottle you just found in your lab) and a section about the calendar signs. This is certainly the most complete of all the dictionaries I have seen.

How to decide which dictionary you need

Before you want to buy a dictionary, you should try to answer the following questions:

"Am I able to recognize radicals easily?"
For some kanji, radicals are easy to find, not for some others.

"Do I prefer a complete dictionary with almost all kanji characters or a lighter, easier-to-carry dictionary?
Carrying a 3kg dictionary is not always easy, but in a smaller dictionary you many not find the kanji you encounter in temples or shrines (for example).

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