‘A lot of squinting and counting.’ That is how Dries Durnez, a Belgian graduate student at Doshisha University in Kyoto remembers how he used to look up kanji, those intricate Chinese-based characters that make up a sizable chunk of the Japanese syllabary.
“I’d count 12, 13, 14 strokes. That would already narrow it down. But at times I still couldn’t find the kanji. OK, time to count again,” says Durnez, 25.
Few languages have a writing system as complex as kanji, 1,945 of which are designated for daily use by the education ministry.
Unlike Japanese-English vocabulary dictionaries (where the words are arranged phonetically according to the Japanese syllabary) kanji dictionaries are ordered by shape. By first identifying the radical (a portion of the kanji that recurs in other characters) and counting the number of remaining strokes in the character, only then can you locate the kanji in question. This process is made harder by the fact that some kanji comprise more than 20 strokes — and some do not even have radicals.
Fortunately for students of Japanese, technology is here to help. With electronic dictionaries, mobile phones and hand-held game consoles on the market, looking up kanji is getting easier.
Newer electronic dictionaries come with a stylus, allowing you to draw kanji on the screen. But that function is not a silver bullet, according Swede Marie-Louise Dahl, an exchange student at Kyoto University.
“You really have to know the way of writing — the stroke order from the top down, left to right,” she says.
A further complaint is that “since most electronic dictionaries are actually geared toward Japanese studying English,” the menus and navigational tools are usually in Japanese and thus difficult to use if you do not have a solid grasp of the language.
These tools don’t come cheap. Mid-range models such as the Canon Wordtank V80 or Sharp Papyrus PW-AT760-S cost up to ¥20,000.
Mobile phones are also a potential, albeit less scientific, kanji resource. By inputting characters as if you were composing a message, through trial and error you can see if the kanji in question appears as an option in the text box. Of course, if you don’t know a kanji’s reading, this approach won’t help.
Where cellphones come in handy is in double-checking kanji pronunciation on the fly, perhaps deducing the reading of a kanji compound in, say, an advertisement you’ve seen on the train in your daily commute.
Many newer models — such as AU’s Sanyo A5522SA — also have Japanese-English dictionaries installed, though they are limited to basic definitions and cannot look up kanji.
Perhaps the most user-friendly way to look up kanji is the Nintendo DS, the portable video-game console. With large dual screens and a stylus, the DS is a convenient platform for a kanji dictionary. Software such as the “Genius Kanji Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiten (Genius Easy-to-look-it-up-as-it-is Kanji Dictionary)” allows users to input characters using either a touch-screen keyboard or with a stylus. Clayton Tom, an American accountant at the Tokyo branch of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, recommends it.
“The touch-pad interface is very intuitive and the program itself has the best kanji- recognition system I’ve ever seen — I’ve completely butchered complex kanji with little regard to stroke order and somehow it always manages to read it correctly,” he says.
With a factory price of ¥16,800 and software selling for around ¥4,000, the price is competitive. The only downside to the DS, Tom said, was that “if you are looking for an in-depth analysis of each word, you’re better off using an electronic dictionary.”
The DS-as-study-tool seems to be catching on, too. A number of American students at the Kyoto Consortium of Japanese Studies told me they bring their DS to class every day.