If you want to look up a word in English, you probably don’t think about it too much as you reach for a dictionary or look up a word online. But if you want to look up a Japanese word or find a translation, you might not know where to look or what dictionary to use.
There are lots of different Japanese-English dictionaries out there, and it’s hard to know which ones you can trust, or what sets them apart from one another.
For most people, virtually any dictionary should work fine. Most people just want to look up a word and be done with it. But if you’re here, it’s probably because you do care about the differences among these dictionaries.
And make no mistake about it, there are lots of differences among all of the available
To start, Japanese dictionaries can come in a ton of different formats. There are the traditional giant, bound dictionaries that have been used for years and years, but thankfully, there are lots of smaller, more convenient, electronic options too.
The first electronic option is dedicated electronic dictionaries, or denshi jisho (電子辞書). You might have seen these before; they usually have a keyboard, and a small screen. Denshi jisho are typically fairly expensive, made in Japan, and created for a Japanese audience.
But you can get even smaller than a denshi jisho. The rise of the smart phone has made Japanese dictionaries much more widely available and cheaper. Nowadays, you can access Japanese dictionaries either on the web or as a mobile app.
Japanese dictionaries are also available in more abstract electronic forms. The most popular is the EPWING format, an electronic format for dictionaries used heavily in Japan. You can buy dictionaries in EPWING format and use them wherever – on a computer, in a dedicated electronic dictionary, or in a mobile app.
But apart from form factor, there are lots of differences in the content of the various Japanese-English dictionaries.
Dictionaries are vast stores of information, and it can be hard to inspect every single entry for accuracy. Some dictionaries are compiled and edited by volunteers, while others are done full-time by professionals. Occasionally, the difference between the two shows, and you’ll find words that are poorly translated or example sentences that don’t sound quite natural.
Another place where different Japanese-English dictionaries will diverge is in capturing the nuances of a word. A dictionary might capture the overall gist of a word, but miss its subtle meanings. For example, “sad” and “crushed” have the same sort of general meaning, but the differences in their connotations is a lot bigger.
Bearing all of those differences in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most common Japanese-English dictionaries that you’ll encounter and what sets them apart.
Jim Breen, a former professor at Monash University in Australia, is a bit of a demigod in the Japanese learning community. If you’re studying Japanese, you’ve no doubt either heard his name or, more likely, used his dictionary.
In the early 90s, Breen started the EDICT project, an effort to compile a free, electronic Japanese-English dictionary. Since its humble beginnings, EDICT has grown and changed a lot. It’s much, much bigger than it was in 1991, and the number of contributors has grown dramatically too.
There are several projects related to EDICT which complement it nicely, including a comprehensive kanji dictionary, and a dictionary of Japanese names. These related projects really help flesh out EDICT’s offerings, and make it a much more complete dictionary.
Because EDICT one of the few free Japanese-English dictionaries and has been around for a while, it’s used everywhere. Not only can you use it on Jim Breen’s official site, WWWJDIC, but it’s also used by the popular Firefox extension Rikaichan, the online dictionary jisho.org, and pretty much every mobile app available.
Technically, EDICT is more of a glossary then a dictionary. It doesn’t include any example sentences with its definitions, but instead pulls example sentences from the Tatoeba Project. Tatoeba is a project much in the vein of EDICT; it’s free, has many contributors, and subsequently suffers from the same downfalls as EDICT itself. The EDICT project itself even warns that the example sentences provided by Tatoeba “cannot be regarded as containing natural or representative examples of text in either language.”
But while EDICT certainly has its flaws, ultimately it’s free, widely used, and open to corrections.
- Free and open source.
- Open to contributors and constantly updated.
- Not thoroughly edited.
- Does not include example sentences.
Just like EDICT, Eijiro started out as the pet project of one man, and has since grown far beyond its initial vision. It’s since moved out of the hands of a single curator and into the hands of the Electronic Dictionary Project.
It’s a favorite dictionary for translators because it’s full of tons of colloquialisms, idioms, technical terms, and obscure terms that are sometimes hard to find in other dictionaries. It also includes a ton of example sentences for these to help you contextualize these words.
Unfortunately, Eijiro’s editing is often lacking, leading to a lot of confusing and inaccurate translations. Among Japan blogs, it’s easy to find examples of strange translations provided by Eijiro that have baffled native English speakers.
For example, Eijiro translates 精力的である as “John Wayne it” (it actually means “energetic”), and several words have bizarre examples sentences that don’t sound natural or make sense in English. The definition for the English word “wife” includes the confusing example sentence “Wife and children are bills of charges.”
Regardless, Eijiro is among the more popular Japanese-English dictionaries out there. You can order Eijiro as a CD-ROM, but it’s best known as the dictionary for the incredibly popular ALC online lookup service.
Eijiro can provide some strange translations and examples, but as long as you recognize Eijiro for what it is – a great resource for idioms – then it can prove to be an invaluable resource.
- Available for free (via ALC).
- Frequently updated.
- Tons of example sentences.
- Full of idioms, colloquialisms, technical and obscure terms.
- Editing can be poor, resulting in bad translations and example sentences.
Kenkyūsha has been producing its Japanese-English dictionaries for over 100 years, and it shows. It’s one of the most revered resources by Japanese language students, who sometimes refer to the giant, green dictionary as “the Green Goddess.”
Unfortunately unlike EDICT or Eijiro, Kenkyūsha isn’t available for free. You can use Kenkyūsha by either purchasing its massive green book (which usually runs around US$200), or buying an electronic copy of the dictionary, or subscribe to its online service at the rate of ¥5775 (US$71) a year.
But unlike EDICT or Eijiro, Kenkyūsha’s example sentences are all professionally edited by native Japanese and English speakers, so the chances of a mistranslations or unnatural sounding sentences are slim.
So while Kenkyūsha is better in a few regards than EDICT or Eijiro, you’ll definitely be paying much more for the quality.
- Thoroughly and professionally edited.
- All example sentences sound natural in both languages.
- Available as both a book and an online lookup service.
- More expensive than other dictionaries.
Obviously, this is just scratching the surface of the different Japanese dictionaries out there. There are many more Japanese dictionaries available in many different forms, but hopefully this guide will give you a good idea of the major dictionaries available, and the kinds of differences you should look out for.