Has this ever happened to you? A friend in another country e-mails a plea for help in finding information in Japanese due to their encountering any one of several obstacles. For instance, the operating system or software on the computer they are using might not be able to input Japanese or read it. Or the friend might simply lack the knowhow about Japan needed to do a search.

I frequently hunt for information on Japanese Web sites. The three most common items I search for are: corporate data, including the English equivalents of the names of companies or organizations and their directors; readings of the kanji in people’s names; and locations or telephone numbers of restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

The good news is that 検索 (kensaku, searches) in Google, Yahoo and other search engines do a fine job using kanji or kana characters. The bad news is that readings of Japanese personal and place names can be notoriously capricious, so verifying how to render them in Roman letters may require extra effort. It’s simply not safe to rely on assumptions.

A good starting point (cross-references are advised) is Wikipedia. If the item being searched involves a famous person or event, there is likely to be a Wikipedia entry in English, which will also display Japanese (and Chinese) names in kanji.

Here’s one example, taken directly from a Wikipedia entry on the late author Yukio Mishima:

“Yukio Mishima (三島 由紀夫 Mishima Yukio?) was the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka (平岡 公威 Hiraoka Kimitake, January 14, 1925-November 25, 1970), a Japanese author, poet and playwright, also remembered for his ritual suicide by seppuku.”

In the lower left of the Wikipedia page, under “languages,” is 日本語 (Nihongo, Japanese) — the link to the Japanese-language site, which contains all kinds of nuggets of information lacking on the English page, such as Mishima’s blood type (A) and height (163 cm).

But what about someone not famous enough to have a mention on the Web in English? Searches in the Roman alphabet are unreliable for a number of reasons. For one, the common male name “Akira” (which, although rarely, is also given to girls) can be written with dozens of different kanji.

Let’s say I am hunting for information about a songwriter named Sato whose name is written as 佐藤裕一. There’s no question about how to read Sato (the first two kanji of his name, above), a common surname. But is his given name, 裕一, read as Hirokazu, Yuichi or something else?

First, I enter his full name, 佐藤裕一, in kanji in the search window. Then I input the hiragana form of Sato, which is さとう — with the extended “う” vowel. Entering the hiragana will usually refine the search to sites where the kanji name appears together with explanatory furigana (phonetic transcription in hiragana) of the proper reading.

Then there can be the problem of 同姓同名 (dōsei dōmei): people with the same surname and given name. Fortunately, I happen to know three more things about Sato. He’s a songwriter, he was born in 1947 and his birthplace was Hiroshima Prefecture. So I respectively add 作曲家 (sakkyokuka), 昭和22年生まれ, (Showa 22 nen umare) and 広島県 (Hiroshima-ken). This time I get lucky — he even has his own home page, and I find that he reads his name Yuichi. Success!

The name of the online search game is “tenacity.” So keep in mind the old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and remember the following:

1. Kanji are by no means the only puzzles that need to be solved. Extra care needs to be taken when searching katakana words that may or may not contain a “ー”, which is the dashlike symbol denoting an elongated vowel that’s known in Japanese as a 長音符号 (chon fugō). For instance, miira, the word for “mummy,” is ミイラ and not ミーラ.

2. If a Japanese site you access comes up garbled on your screen, you probably need to change your browser settings. Go to “text encoding” under the “view” tab and toggle between “SHIFT-JIS,” “ISO 2022-JP,” “EUC” and “SHIFT-JIS X0213” until you can read the contents.

3. Try Baidu. China has the most Internet users of any country, and its most popular search engine Baidu (which means “100 times”) is more popular than Google. Baidu’s Japanese site has a very clean interface and works well with kanji.

4. When all else fails, try that old-fashioned device the telephone and ask a smart friend. My colleague Mark Schilling very kindly put me on to Weblio, a wonderful reference tool for all things Japanese. Thanks a million, Mark!

Search terms:

範囲 (han’i, range)
検索を実行する (kensaku wo jikko suru, to search for)
検索条件 (kensaku jōken, search conditions)
検索効果 (kensaku kōka, hits)
検索項目 (kensaku kōmoku, object of a search)
キーワード (kii wādo, key word)
見つかりません (mitsukarimasen, not found)
類似 する (ruiji suru, resembles)
サーチエンジン (sāchi enjin, search engine)

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