Tools

Jisho – What is a Japanese Dictionary?

Every student needs a dictionary. And every person who studies Japanese needs a Japanese dictionary, otherwise known as a jisho 辞書.

As a student, this is one of those super useful tools that you’ll want to have access to. With it, you can look up any new Japanese words that you run into. But what is a Japanese dictionary most useful for? Looking up new kanji, that’s what!

It wasn’t that long ago that there was only one kind of jisho 辞書 that you could get. But thanks to the internet and smart phones, there are lots of different kinds you can use today.

Just like the saying “different strokes for different folks” no one jisho 辞書 is the best for everyone. Read on to see which is right for you!

Jisho - What is a Japanese Dictionary
This is my first jisho!

When I was first starting out, I picked up a typical Japanese-English dictionary from a local book store. It’s pretty much what you would expect to find, and it’s broken up into three separate parts.

(1) – The first part is extremely brief and just goes over a few things such as a guide on how to use the jisho, pronunciation, the Japanese writing system, and a spreadsheet of hiragana & katakana.

(2) – The second part is organized by Japanese words that are alphabetized (from A-Z) in Rōmaji. It shows what part of speech the word is (noun, verb, particle, etc) and then it shows the word in kanji or kana so that you know how it’s spelled in Japanese. Finally, it has the English translation for the word. I would say that this second part of the jisho is about 1/3 of the entire book.

Example: fujin, n. 婦人 woman; lady.

(3) – The third and final part of the book is just like the second part, but it’s a reversed version of it. The English words are shown first, and then the Japanese version of the word comes next. This third section comprises the remaining 2/3 of the book.

Example: dog, n. inu .

After using it for a few years, I have to say that I really enjoy mine! And will most likely use it until the day it falls apart. Which could be soon, haha!

Best place to get: Amazon.com

Or you might prefer one of these:

a mini jisho with phrases ^_^

One of the main problems with normal dictionaries is that they’re more a “tool of reference” than they are everyday learning material. I mean, you could just open one up and learn all the words on the page, but for some people (points to self) that is a really boring way to learn!

So a fair compromise is to pick up a phrase book & dictionary combination. I have the Berlitz one in the photo above and it’s actually pretty new. This book is also broken into three sections.

(1) – The first section has a “how to use this book” which is pretty useful due to the way they have the phrases laid out. And it also has a pronunciation  guide that actually explains the different sounds that the ん (n) makes depending on if it starts the word or ends it. I rarely see that explanation – very impressed!

(2) – The second section has all the phrases grouped into different topics like food, travel, conversation, etc. It has the English phrase first, then the Japanese words in both the normal scripts and Rōmaji.

Example: Can you recommend a hotel? いいホテルを教えてください。ii hoteru o oshiete kudasai.

And in addition to the phrases for each section, there are little clips of useful information that will help you out when you’re in Japan. Kind of like a “culture” section if you will.

(3) – The third section is a small English-Japanese dictionary just like the one I talked about with the first jisho. The only difference is that this one is considerably smaller. That could be either good or bad depending on what you’re needing.

If you need to know about lots of different words, then a full Japanese dictionary would be better. But if you’d rather just have access to the most common words (and perhaps the most useful) then the smaller dictionary included in the phrase book might be more of what you’re after.

Best place to get: Amazon.com

Welcome to the digital age!

I love the internet! You can find almost anything on it. And there are a lot of people who have created advanced technology that you can use to learn Japanese. I’ve talked about using Google Translate before to help with Japanese. That’s one option for you to use for free.

But Google Translate is a better honyaku 翻訳 (translator) than it is a jisho 辞書 (dictionary).  The best online Japanese dictionary that I’ve found is jisho.org – and it’s TOTALLY FREE!

It’s got a very simple, yet extremely beautiful layout. Type in any word (letters or kanji) into the main search bar and check out the results!

But don’t stop there! You’ve got a phone, don’t you?

There are tons of Japanese dictionaries for the mobile phone. Now, I have an iPhone (don’t hate me Android users!) so I’m only familiar with the ones on the App Store. I’ve tried a few, but my #1 pick is one called imiwa?

I like it because if you see a kanji or Japanese word that you don’t know, you can copy it and then when you launch the app, it automatically brings up the definition of the word you copied.

I also like how it has a unique system for looking up kanji. You can pick any radical (part) of a kanji and look up all the other kanji that use that same radical. It’s pretty useful!

Check it out of you’ve got an iPhone, iPod, or iPad!

Which jisho is the best?

The best Japanese dictionary is the one that you use. Some people like the feel of a physical book in their hands. Some like the idea of having a digital dictionary in their pocket. It doesn’t really matter which type you use as long as it works for you. That’s all I’ve got for you today!

See you later! ^_^


I want to hear from you! What Japanese dictionary do you use? Do you have any recommendations for a jisho on Android?

Let me know with a comment below!

6 Comments

  • Hisbel

    This information is really useful. I was looking for information about the Disney Park in Japan, because we wanted to visit it, but sincerely, I was put off by the complexity of trying to translate menus, etc.
    I downloaded a dictionary (can not remember which one, but it looked quite good), and started trying to translate things.
    But most of the information that I wanted to translate was stored as an image rather than text, so I could not cut and paste. Then I decided to download the Japanese keyboard to my phone so I could write the characters, and there were so many different ones of them, that I got completely lost! I wish I had started with a dictionary like the one you are showing here! It would have made my life much easier and perhaps I would still be planning a trip to Japan.
    Definitely next time I will follow your advise. Thank you.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Hisbel,

      Yeah the language barrier for Japan is pretty high compared to other countries like Mexico or Italy. Having a dictionary on hand is essential for anyone visiting Japan these days.

      When it comes to deciphering Japanese text that is stored as an image, you can actually take a picture of it with your phone and have the Google Translate app turn it into English for you. I wrote about how to do it in this post:

      How to Google Translate Japanese

      I hope that helps!

  • Brandon

    Great job! I’m liking this site so far, and this article has made me love it even more. I totally agree with you that you can LITERALLY find anything you want on the world wide web. And nothing is off-limits. The tip that you mentioned (Google translator) will be a good way to start learning, and it’s completely free as well!

    Thank you so much for the helpful info.

    -Brandon

    • Nick Hoyt

      I know, right? I remember back when I was a kid and the internet was pretty much just email. Now it’s like you can live your whole life on the internet! I think some people even do!

      Of course, that is a great advantage when it comes to something like learning Japanese. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles to learn about the culture. You can do it at home first! Anyway, glad you liked it. Thanks!

  • Jonathan

    Hi mate thanks for putting this information out there. Ill be heading to Japan with the girlfriend and her family this year, so hopefully the information provided here will help me out when im navigating the streets or trying to order some food.

    thanks again!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Man, sounds great! I’m glad I could help. Going out to spend some time in Japan sounds pretty awesome. There’s lots of useful information here on Japanese Tactics in case you need a little refresher on your Japanese. And when you leave, have a great trip!

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