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You’re sitting there staring at this (probably ancient alien origin) kanji character, and you have no idea what it means. Like nada. Nothing. Zilch. No matter how deep your probe your brain nothing will come out. Congratulations. You have successfully failed at identifying a kanji. Don’t worry, though. It happens to the best of us. I mean, everyone except me, of course. Ever since using WaniKani I’ve basically become a kanji master (warning: obvious self-promotion alert), but whatever, you don’t have to say I’m hoopy frood or anything in the comments unless you really want to.

Anyways, I digress. Not being able to identify a kanji. It’s a rough problem, though there’s different levels to it. Sometimes the problem is easy to solve. Sometimes it’s not. Let’s start with easy and move our way down.

Identifying Typed-Out Kanji

This is by far the easiest. If you need to identify a kanji that’s accessible via your computer you just copy it (that’s ctrl+c or cmd+c after selecting said kanji) and then past it (that’s ctrl+v or cmd+v) into the dictionary of your choice. For me, when it comes to simple stuff like this, my dictionary of choice is jisho.org.

Upon pasting  a kanji into the kanji section, you’ll get lots of information about it, including it’s meaning, reading, name-readings, number of strokes, and so much more. Basically, everything you need in order to identify a kanji.

How easy. Let’s move on to something more exciting.

Identifying Handwritten Kanji

Here’s where it starts to get fun. You have yourself some kanji that’s not typed out. Perhaps it’s a handwritten letter. Perhaps it’s manga. Maybe it’s Japanese subtitles. Whatever it is, you’re not going to be able to copy/paste yourself to kanji identification victory. So now what do you do? There’s a few options, some more free than others.

Jisho.org Radical Search

Back to Jisho, again. On Jisho there’s a radicals search option. Now, keep in mind that the radicals that jisho uses may be different from the ones you’ve seen in other places. Jisho uses the official radicals plus a few extra. For the most part you should be able to find what you need to look up any kanji, though.

Depending on your level of Japanese, this may be fairly easy or somewhat difficult. Don’t worry, with practice it gets easier and easier. Let’s say you have the kanji . This kanji is made up of a few radicals. The hardest part for beginners is knowing what constitutes a radical, though. The best way around this is to start off with something simple… something you know is a radical. For example, in the kanji , is a pretty obvious radical. It’s simple, it’s off on its own, and it’s to the left, which is sometimes a good sign. Let’s then click on the radicals chart, then see what happens.

Wow, that’s still a lot of results! But, you can see that we’ve narrowed down the radicals at least. Now you can see all the radicals that never show up in a kanji with the radical have grayed out. This means there are fewer radicals to choose from, making it easier. At this point you have two options. 1) You can find the kanji in the list results down below (count the strokes and find the corresponding number to make the search faster) or 2) you can put in another radical. Let’s do option number two, just for the sake of practice.

The next radical is up in the top right. It’s there twice, but you only need to click the radical one time in jisho and it counts for both. When you do that, you’ll find the kanji you’re looking for. No other kanji uses the and radicals together in one kanji, meaning it’s the only result.

Click on the kanji and you’ll find the droids you’re looking for. That wasn’t too bad, was it?

Physical Kanji Dictionary

There are times, though, when you don’t have access to a computer or smartphone. When those end-times come, you may find yourself with a physical kanji dictionary and a kanji that you don’t know.

To look up a kanji using a kanji dictionary, there are three strategies that you can use. They are:

  1. Look up the kanji via a radical
  2. Look up the kanji via its reading
  3. Look up the kanji via the number of strokes it has

All three of them can be somewhat tedious (especially number three) if you’re used to using a computer, but 貧乏s can’t be choosers, as they say. Let’s go over each one:

1. Looking Up The Kanji Via A Radical

When it comes to paper kanji dictionaries, you only get one shot at choosing the correct radical. With every kanji there’s a single official radical. Although this is completely different to how we teach it here (sorry for being confusing now), this is the way most people do it. In fact, when talking about “radicals” most normal people think of it this way. Just one radical per kanji, and its only real use is to look up said kanji in a paper dictionary (whereas we use the radicals to learn the meaning of the kanji and to create a more solid memory).

But how do you know what the radical is for a kanji? That’s a good question, esteemed Tofugu reader. Usually you can identify it by looking for one of three sections:

  1. The left side of the kanji. For example, has the “water” radical on the left side, which is those three splashy drops.
  2. The top of the kanji. If something covers the entire top part of the kanji, that’s probably the radical. For example, the bar on the top of would be the radical used to look up that kanji.
  3. Something that surrounds a kanji. For example the whole top left thing that makes up the outside of that kanji would be the radical.
  4. Or, sometimes the radical is just about anywhere. Seriously, radicals are evil sometimes. Look for a simple yet distinct part of the kanji. If you’re lucky, this will be the radical you’re looking for.

A lot of this also comes down to experience as well. The more you look up, the easier it will be to identify radicals. Most kanji dictionaries will list all the radicals somewhere and order them by stroke order. Then, you find the radical, see what page it starts on, then jump to that page in the dictionary. Once there, you flip through the kanji that use that radical and find the kanji you’re looking for (usually these will be ordered in terms of stroke order as well).

For a list of these types of radicals, check out here or here.

2. Looking Up The Kanji Via Its Reading

Also in a kanji dictionary is the ability to look up a kanji via its reading. In the case you know a kanji’s reading (or are able to guess it based off the radicals it uses), you can look up a kanji in a kanji dictionary via the reading-lookup section. This will have various readings and then list out the kanji that use that reading. You can then simply scan through the listed kanji to find what you’re looking for.

3. Looking Up The Kanji Via The Number Of Strokes It Has

Last but not least… okay, it’s least… is looking up a kanji via the number of strokes it has. Most kanji dictionaries will have a section that just lists out every kanji with X number of strokes. Is looking up a kanji this way incredibly tedious? Yes. Is it good for when your radical radar fails you? Also yes. Hopefully you don’t have to do this too often, because it’s a pain, but it is there just in case you need it.

Write It In

The last way to identify handwritten kanji is to write it in yourself. There is unicorn powered software out there that will take what you write and then try to identify it. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It really depends on what you’re using and how good your kanji looks. Let’s look at a few options, though this certainly isn’t all that’s available.

1. Ben Bullock’s Handwritten Kanji Recognition

This website lets you write in a kanji with your mouse. It actually doesn’t do too bad of a job figuring out what you’re writing, so long as you don’t butcher the kanji too badly. Stroke order is taken into account too, so be sure you know the basic stroke order rules. One particularly nice feature is the “look ahead” check box. This means it’ll spit out kanji that you could be writing well before you’re done writing it. For example, you can see I was writing in the box, but kanji like also come up, just because I could have been writing that kanji too (but the best result, still shows up first).

Visit: Ben Bullock’s Handwritten Kanji Recognition website

2. Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten

If you happen to have a Nintendo DS, this is a pretty sweet “game.” Well, actually it’s a kanji dictionary, but whatever. Besides just being a dictionary, it also lets you write in kanji to look up what it is you’re looking for. Using the stylus and the stylus pad, this is actually really good experience, definitely one of the best “write in kanji” apps out there.

It is however a Japanese game (will still work on your non-Japanese DS) so it’s harder to come by. You can get it on Amazon or Play-Asia.com (currently sold out). If you already have a DS of some kind this is cheaper than shelling out for a “real” electronic dictionary, though less full-featured.

3. iPhone, iPad

You can add new input keyboards onto your iPhone or iPad in the settings section. Just go to Settings > General > Keyboard > International Keyboard. Although it’s not a Japanese input, technically, adding the Chinese Handwriting keyboard will allow you to actually write in any kanji using your finger. Then, when you write it in you’ll be able to input it into whatever app you’re writing on (let’s say Notepad for this example). This is a nice easy way to identify a kanji you don’t know if you’re an iPhone owner. Just copy the kanji you’ve written into a Japanese dictionary and you’ll have your answer.

Can you do something like this on Android? I don’t know, so put it in the comments and let us know!

4. Electronic Japanese Dictionary

Many people also love their electronic kanji dictionaries. If you’re serious about studying Japanese, you’ll want one of these (many people say). I don’t totally agree, and I think most people can live without, but if you’re in the market for an electronic Japanese dictionary, you can consider getting one that has a stylus that lets you write in kanji, kind of like with Kanji Sonomama (up above) but fancier.

That about does it. With these strategies, you should be able to identify just about any (legible) kanji out there, whether it’s written down or typed down. Any other forms of Japanese lookup that you recommend to your fellow Tofugu readers? Any kanji dictionaries that have done you good over the years? Share them in the comments below and the great Tofugu will surely look kindly upon your souls.

P.S. Oh, and if you’re just more interested in knowing the kanji without having to look them up, go sign up for our WaniKani beta invite list. We’re sending out a lot more of them now, so your turn could be soon!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I don’t use any fancy software.
    If it’s not on the computer, but on a real document, then I just use my IME Pad and write the kanji in there.
    If it’s something handwritten … and it’s not a beautiful handwriting … I usually end up giving up because I just can’t figure it out. *g*

    Often it’s not that I don’t know the kanji, but the reading of compounds of names of people or places. In that case I try to use google and hope that Japanese Wikipedia has it somewhere with Hiragana. I often run into that problem as I travel to various places that have pamphlets only in Japanese .. when I write a travel log in my blog I try to translate everything, also the names of the places into English. Can be tough sometimes.

    Thanks for this awesome article! Will spread the word! :)

  • Dy~

    Who’d a thought that what my high school Chinese teacher taught would come in handy one day – I remember she always said, “If you don’t recognize the character, look at the radicals, you’ll get the general concept sooner or later.”

  • アダム ザマン

    There’s also an app for IOS (no idea about Android) called Japan Goggles it lets you show it the kanji with the camera and tells you what it is.

  • Lorenzo

    If you have a smartphone, you can also download the Google Translate app. With this app, you can take a picture of any kanji you want to know the meaning of, then highlight the kanji with your finger and the app will show you what kanji you’re probably looking for. Because it’s Google Translate, you can even directly translate it. Very easy! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Lawnmower16 Daniel Fawson

    Sometimes when I come across a kanji compound that contains a difficult kanji paired with a familiar Kanji (餓死, for instance) I just look it up by *死 etc. Using the familiar one plus a wildcard. Then I just scroll down the list until I see a messy black lump of seemingly random strokes and see if it matches up. I can usually find them pretty fast that way.

    I used to use Jisho.org a lot, but then I got this iOS app called “Midori.” It can look up kanji by radicals, it has its own separate handwriting-recognition that is much better than the built in iOS one, and a lot of other awesome features. Much better and faster than any dedicated electronic dictionary device, in my opinion. If you have an iPod touch or an iPhone, I highly recommend it.

  • lightroy

    On Android, a number of apps will let you search by drawing.
    I personally stick with Jed, which has the kanji radical lookup and to me, it is the best one around.
    I’d also recommend testing out google translate, as it lets you write kanji (which you can then copy to Jed to look up), and in the future will also possibly support the camera-recognition (works with other languages.)

  • http://twitter.com/testyal1 William Sumners

    You mean, if my wonderful technique of drilling Kanji into my head doesn’t work? °O°

  • http://www.facebook.com/MrIdowhatIlike Jupiter Bullet

    I dunno about iPad but Android got two of the best Kanji look-up apps out there. One is JED, I think it’s like Jisho. Even the meaning and results are really similiar to desktop computer jisho. The other app is called Kanji Recogniser. You draw it on your screen and it would show the predicted results, quite accurate. With this combo, I don’t really have a problem with identifying kanji :)

  • piderman

    The Microsoft IME also has a write-in option. To access it, right click the task bar near the JA icon, choose “restore the language bar”. It will now appear in full form on your screen. Now click the bucket-with-pencils (IME Pad) which will open a new screen with several options. Top most is handwriting, third is by stroke count and fourth is by radical. Pretty tedious method though, but it works if all else fails. Get the language bar back where it belongs by clicking the “minus” at the top right of the bar.

  • Follower of Koichinism

    You are a hoopy cool frood and you know it. Koichi, the Japanese Learning Industry Destroyer.

  • Tora.Silver

    Either a hardcore Koichi fan, or Koichi himself.

  • http://www.myjapanesegreentea.com/ Ricardo Caicedo

    Thanks for the extra resources, especially jisho.org.
    I use an add-on for firefox called moji, an iphone app called imiwa, and I own a Canon electronic dictionary.

  • niru

    Anyone any suggestions for a good physical Kanji Dictionary?

  • HatsuHazama

    Koichi’s greatness has penetrated the souls of his followers…

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    eww, this sounds dirttty

  • Koichi’s Brother

    Nothing is dirty if it comes from your Highness, symbol of all that is pure, clean and perfect.

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    I was going to mention JED and Kanji Recognizer, too. JED does English to Japanese or Japanese to English really well. If you’re confused by kanji, JED lets you look it up by the radical (and the interface for doing that is really slick and easy). It also lets you search for phrases, but I’ve never used it so I don’t know good that feature is. My favorite part about JED is that it doesn’t require an internet connection, unlike so many apps these days. If I brought my American smartphone to Japan, I could still at least use the dictionary if I needed it.

    One other thing I use for figuring out an unusual kanji is Rikaichan. Rikaichan is a plugin for Firefox. You just hover your mouse over a kanji (or several kanji), and a little box will pop up. It will give the reading of it in hiragana or katakana and an English definition. If there’s more than one reading/definition (and there are usually several), it’ll list those, too. If it is a compound kanji, like 明日, it’ll give you the reading/definition of 明日 followed by the reading/definition of 明。Rikaichan can also translate Japanese into some other languages, but I can’t vouch for how well that works. Rikaichan installs a little button in your Firefox browser, so you can turn it on and off easily. If you use Firefox, you should absolutely check out Rikaichan. If you don’t use Firefox, this a good reason to switch.

  • Jon

    You guys do realize that Windows comes with a little thingiemabobber that allows you to ‘write’ in the kanji with the mouse, and it identifies it, right? It’s also built right in. I think it’s called the IME pad or something.

  • Kiriain

    I think you meant Hashi.

  • Lovely

    Japanese ime on the computer also let’s you handwrite the kanji and so if that works you then you can Paste that kanji somewhere to search it. The only thing is if you do the wrong stroke order or wrong number of strokes or you really suck at drawing/ writing on he computer then it might not work

  • http://mobobe.com 13xforever

    There’s also nciku.com that had a Japanese version too before. Their handwriting recognition is the best I’ve seen. You can scratch it like a geese and in the wrongest stroke order ever, but it usually have no problem to suggest you the right kanji.

  • Paul Hammes

    Hi, I use Kabuto on Android phone and tablet. It has all the mentioned search features for kanji and word search via entry in English or romaji. Best is that it works without internet connection. Uses about 2 MB of storage.

  • Aquariia

    I always write the Kanji on IME Pad from Microsoft IME. Fast and easy.

  • http://www.survivingnjapan.com/ Ashley

    There are some issues with Japan Goggles, though. It’s ok sometimes, but not perfect and can’t pick up calligraphic type and characters without high contrast.

  • Gentlementleman

    i want to recommend my favorite iOS app to you. Its called “Imi wa” and it is a free japanese – multilanguage dictionary, with SKIP and Radical Search methods. Please go ahead and try this. ^^

  • Carlos De Los Santos

    One tool I like to use based on number of stroke types is Kanji Kansuke (
    http://nereid01.cl.ait.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kansuke ). I wish they’d make a more stable site, but I think it was an academic project. Basically when you come across an unfamiliar kanji, you break it down into number of horizontal, vertical, and “other” strokes. From that, it looks up kanji that fit that criteria.

  • Carlos De Los Santos

    Comment got accidentally deleted:

    One tool I like to use based on number of stroke types is Kanji Kansuke (http://nereid01.cl.ait.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kansuke ). I wish they’d make a more stable site, but I think it was an academic project.Basically when you come across an unfamiliar kanji, you break it down into number of horizontal, vertical, and “other” strokes. From that, it looks up kanji that fit that criteria.Some examples using the Kansuke website method: 東 would be composed of 4 horizontal strokes, 3 vertical strokes, and 2 “other” strokes for a Kansuke code of (4-3-2).子 (2-1-1)
    四 (2-2-2)
    攵 (1-0-3)
    京 (3-4-2)Anyhow, check it out.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    That was our fault, not yours. Our spam filter caught your first comment, I guess just because it has a link in it. I approved both, sorry about that!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    We’ve been a big fan of Imiwa for years! It used to go under the name of Kotoba and we’ve recommended it for a while now

  • guyhey

    In Windows “IME Pad” is your friend.

    For the Droid I cannot recommend Kanji Recognizer enough. (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.nick.kanjirecognizer&hl=en) The developer answered my questions about the app, and even a few things about kanji, quickly. He also added a few features at my request. Most importantly the app works incredibly well.

    I also strongly suggest learning the stroke order for the top 100 most used kanji (http://www.kanji-a-day.com/100kanji.php) I got to about 20 or so really fast, and even with those few I find there are very few kanji I can’t guess the stroke order for on sight.

    I’m still working my way through the 100, because knowing the most frequently used kanji is the epitome of the 80/20 rule, but if you’re lazy 20-50 should be enough to intuit a kanji’s stroke order 90% of the time.

  • guyhey

    JED saved my bacon in Japan. I didn’t have data access, but I made a friend while I was there, and we could communicate because of JED.

    I agree Rikaichan is incredibly useful, but if you’re not careful you can rely on it too much.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Haha, I know right!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Whoa, I didn’t know gTranslate had a picture option. I’ll have to check this out, thank you!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That’s a really good idea, actually – never thought of that, though I do it all the time. Usually within a compound there’s one that you can figure out, then it’s just a matter of some results scanning…

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Nice, good to know, thanks piderman, pidermannnn, he’s the man, pidermannnn ♬

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    “The Learner’s Japanese Kanji Dictionary” ain’t bad, I think, though depends on what you’re trying to use it for.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I did not, coolio, thank you!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, that tends to be the problem with most “draw it in” solutions, sadly :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Oh nice, that’s a pretty good way to do it, especially if there’s a lot. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Sweet, I’ll have to give it a shot, thank you!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Whoa, that’s a fancy way of doing things.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    The religions clash!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I have a brother now??? Where have you been my whole life, brother??

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    ha ha har har

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Thanks!

  • guyhey

    I’ve had that app work exactly zero times. It always come back with garbage characters like “ÇÄ╟╙”. I’ve even thrown softballs at it like very simple characters, that were printed out as huge fonts, plain black text, plain white backgrounds. It just doesn’t seem to return results. I’m kind of surprised they released the app in that state.

    Then again Google doesn’t seem to know what Japanese is. When I go to select Japanese as a language on my droid it only has Chinese and Korean.

    Note to Google: Chinese is not Japanese. :p

  • guyhey

    How do you do a wildcard search for kanji? What tool are you doing this in? I’ve wanted this, but don’t know of a tool that does it.

  • guyhey

    I’ve found the Windows IME Pad is surprisingly forgiving. It’s the best hand writing detection tool I’ve personally seen. I actually avoid using it for that reason. It makes me sloppy, so I only pull it out if my droid recognizer fails me. I’ve found as a result I’ve gotten better at guessing strokes, and drawing them. Ultimately that means I get better results from IME Pad as well.

  • Sade

    i don’t have an ipad, but on the itouch/iphone, if the kanji/word is just written as text, you can also hold down on the word like you’re going to copy and choose to define it instead. if it’s just one character, it shows the readings, but the rest of the explanation is also in japanese so probably not something for beginners. but if it’s a word, then it gives the reading, definition and example sentences! pretty handy for a quick lookup!

  • http://twitter.com/KimonoMagazine Tańczące Kimona JP

    schism

  • http://twitter.com/KimonoMagazine Tańczące Kimona JP

    both descriptions of your posts say ‘parent’ though

  • Mark

    That was very informative AND clever. Thank you

  • Akenabi

    I don´t know whether it´s the same or not, but personally I really like “The Kodansha – Kanji Learner´s Dictionary” if it absolutely has to be a physical one.

  • klanae

    Great article…I think you mean paste instead of past in the second sentence after the first picture. Looks like commenters listed some great resources too. Thanks for all you guys do!

  • lalala

    I’m Chinese, so how i know a lot of kanji……the only problem is the pronunciation… which i usually base off of chinese pronunciations XDD
    but thanks for the tips tofugu! :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/PeterStanton Peter Andrew Stanton

    Paragraph 2: there’s -> there’re
    Paragraph 3: past -> paste
    Paragraph 6: there’s -> there’re

    Please thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/tomrsvr Tom Roseveare

    Apologies if been said, but Google Translate for Android is pretty amazing for Japanese since the latest update. You can draw in multiple kanji at once and the app has no problem getting the result. And of course, it translates on the fly, let’s you listen to the result too. I would assume kanji writing rules apply, but they’re fairly easy compared to mastering kanji itself!

  • Ilovesummer

    a million thanks to you

  • http://www.learnihongo.com/ karolla

    very good :)

  • Mohammed Bastaki

    Thanks that’s an awesome article!!

  • bryce

    I want to know the symbol for family over everything. Can anyone tell me the specific symbol

  • Mike Carpio

    I have some kanji characters which I found inscribed on a stone in our lot. Please, I needs someone to interpret these symbols for me. Thanks. Below is my email address:

    mikiiicarp@hotmail.com

  • clausangeloh

    Please -insert comma- thank you.

  • Peter

    lol
    Perhaps I should have made the intended reading clearer by using “plzthnx”.

  • clausangeloh

    Perhaps that would have been more appropriate.

  • jonesy974

    I have a question about Kanji maybe someone can answer: I’ve read some comments in Kanji on Facebook pictures and whatnot and when I click the little translate with bing link, a lot of them have the phrase “month sauce”. Is this a literal translation that means something else in Japanese or is that a mistranslation of some sort?

  • AndromedA

    Just discovered this place. Thank you!

  • Sofia Rodrigues

    I tried pretty much all the steps listed above, but sometimes the font is being so tricky that it just doesn’t work at all to try to track it through radicals or drawing the kanji. The only way that worked for me was through the program kanjitomo that identifies Japanese characters from images. @_@

  • claire

    Hi I’m not a language student at all, But I have this bracelet that I would like to get identified. I’m not certain it is Japanese, but I was hoping you could help identify the symbol. I can’t seem to find any site that can help me identify it. Please help.

  • Beibii

    Guys can you understand those words in the image? I really can’t read it