Two tourists and a German Shepard walk into Ueno Park.
Where’s the punchline? There isn’t one, expect for the fact that neither tourist can determine if the sign at the park entrance “犬の出入禁止” (いぬの でいり きんし) reads, “No Dogs Allowed.”
At the time, myself and a colleague (the two tourists) didn’t know how to use a kanji dictionary. Besides, who’d lug a dictionary to the park anyway? Neither of us were willing to sacrifice our frisbee or trade up our picnic basket for a two-inch paperweight. #PreSmartphoneProblems.
Luckily for anyone who has been in the same boat, times are changing and now you can easily fit your travel guides, maps, bus schedules and tickets, phrase books and dictionaries into a few small apps on your phone.
Finding a phone app and downloading it takes but a few seconds, but how do you know if your dictionary lives up to expectations when you need it most? Will your new dictionary define the poisonous pufferfish sushi you’re about to order? Can it translate the sign, “Japanese onsen are enjoyed naked. Swimming suits and underwear are not allowed,” at the hot springs?
If you answered, “Yes, my dictionary already does those things,” then you are one smart cookie who has done their research. If you answered, “Can dictionaries actually do that?” then you still get a gold star for reading this article. Check out some of the best dictionary applications to use inside or outside of Japan.
Apps with a Japanese name written beside it have an interface in Japanese. After mastering hiragana and katakana and learning the essentials of Japanese kanji, try to challenge yourself by downloading an all-Japanese app. Even if it’s just for play.
10 Must-have Japanese Dictionary Apps
Japanese Dictionary Apps for Study and Reference
三省堂国語辞典 第七版 (さんせいどう こくごじてん だいななはん – Sanseido Language Dictionary The Seventh Edition)
Android || iPhone
Japanese dictionary apps don’t come cheap, but they’re great tools for anyone who wants a little challenge or extra practice while studying Japanese. What’s awesome about this app is how nicely it integrates with your phone. Sanseido Language Dictionary acts similar to iOS’s built-in dictionary, where it gives users the ability to select a word while web-browsing and displays its definition in a pop-up box. iCloud synchronization lets you bookmark useful words on one device and display it on another.
例解学習国語辞典 第九版 (れいかいがくしゅう こくごじてん だいきゅうはん – Learning Language Dictionary The Ninth Edition）
Are you a beginner, intermediate or anywhere-in-between Japanese learner? Great! This is the dictionary app you’ve been waiting for. Learning Language Dictionary has a camera function that reads kanji from a picture that you’ve snapped (or one sitting in your albums) and defines it. No more #LivingInTheStoneAge woes. Did I mention that this app is child-friendly (as in great for beginners)? Definitions are kept on the elementary-level side while kanji can be converted to hiragana. Learning Language Dictionary also includes a kanji-trace feature, stroke order and includes the number of strokes in kanji to strengthen your reading skills. More advanced speakers might enjoy 大辞林 (だいじりん), which is regarded as the Japanese Webster/Oxford dictionary for your iPhone!
Imiwa? is one of the most popular dictionaries available on your iPhone. This app is great for those of us who aren’t quite sure how to search kanji by radicals. Users can search for kanji characters simply by drawing the character directly on the screen (or if you want to look up a word by its radicals, stroke order, kana or romaji, you can do that too). Imiwa? also lets its users practice writing Japanese characters. Kanji is provided with furigana, and definitions come with example sentences. By tapping a new word, users can hear native pronunciation. Other features include verb conjugation charts, notebooks to keep track of your favorite words, JLTP vocabulary lists and more.
Imi is another brilliant dictionary that allows you to search for vocabulary using kanji, kana or romaji. Imi provides example sentences with new vocabulary, and verbs and adjectives come with a conjugation list. Imi can work as a study tool for those learning kanji with its built-in kanji flashcard tool or by making good use of its animated kanji stroke order feature. Imi plans to release more features in the future that include quizzes and mini games, and the ability to sync study collections across multiple devices.
Japanese Dictionary Apps for Travel
GogoNavi Japanese is a pretty straight-forward dictionary with a lot of useful features, the most outstanding of which is its ability to operate offline. This may not seem like a big deal, but despite Japan’s high-tech toilets, punctual bullet trains and eye for all things cute (have you seen those owl cafes?!), you can spend an entire day searching for free wifi. Along with saving you hours of wifi hunting (which you can now use to test out your Japanese shopping phrases at Shinjuku’s uber chic boutiques), GogoNavi lets you search for words by kanji, kana and romaji. Each word is accompanied by audio pronunciation and example sentences. Users can tap on kanji to quickly look up its meaning, and words saved on your “favorites list” can be synchronized between all of your devices.
Akebi Japanese Dictionary
This app is a great all-around dictionary. Its powerful kanji tools can be used for study, and the fact that it works offline will prove to be extremely helpful. Words can be searched for in different conjugations (eg: You can search for 買います/かいます and be directed to 買う/かう, the plain form).
Each kanji character is broken down by its radical, difficulty, JLPT appearance, stroke count and animated stroke order. In case that wasn’t enough, Akebi Japanese Dictionary allows you to create kanji sets and quiz yourself with flashcards.
関西弁イントネーション (かんさいべん いんとねーしょん – Kansai Dialect Intonation)
The Kansai area contains two of Japan’s old capitals, crazy-amazing food and a wild yet warm dialect. Why not try taking it up a notch and chat up the locals in 関西弁 (かいさいべん – Kansai dialect)? Kansai Dialect Intonation lets you do just that (or at least helps you understand what’s being said around you). Not only does this app teach you new words, but you can listen to audio to learn Kansai-ben’s unique intonation as well.
Japanese Food Dictionary
Japan has hundreds of delicious specialties. Although so much delicious food can seem like heaven, having so many mouth-watering plates can make it difficult to memorize what’s what. The Japanese Food Dictionary provides you with hundreds of common restaurant and street food from 塩ラーメン (しお らーめん – salt ramen) to キクラゲ (きくらげ – a mushroom-like fungi found in tons of delicious soup dishes).
Kanji and kana appear in each entry with a picture of each food item. To save you the embarrassment of holding up and pointing to the screen of your phone to order, this app will have you ordering Japanese food like a pro by using the audio provided with each definition. Food items are split into restaurant types (eg: ramen shop) and categories (eg: seafood). You also have the option to browse or search by input. Admit it, this is basically the best thing ever.
Android || iPhone
Next to “the best thing ever” is the sushi dictionary. Many casual sushi restaurants like 回転寿司 (かいてんずし – rotating sushi) have menus in English, however if you’re not in a big city, or if you’re in a fancier establishment, then you may need some assistance. You can browse through sushi easily by categories and pictures. Upon making a selection, you’ll be provided with the Japanese and English name and definition.
Yomiwa – Japanese Camera Translator
Not at a sushi restaurant? Fear not, Yomiwa is just the app you need to read anything in Japanese. This is an app that allows its users to snap a picture of text with their camera cell phone, and then defines words and characters – whether they’re in kana or kanji. Having no sense of direction or knowledge of station names, I love using this app while trying to read sign boards and street signs. A similar app for Android users is Waygo. The best part about both these apps? They work offline!
You’ve got this! Now you’re ready to read and define just about anything that comes your way. Don’t know what all those buttons mean on a Japanese toilet? Pssh. Easy. Your phone can tell you that with a simple snap of the camera. Just make sure the shutter is on silent!
And One More Thing…
If you’re looking for a way to actively practice Japanese with a more interactive dictionary app, then you’ve got to try FluentU. FluentU might just be the most contextual, contemporary and innovative Japanese dictionary out there.
FluentU is a language immersion program that takes real-world videos—like commercials, anime, dramas, music videos and home videos—and uses them as powerful Japanese learning tools. These are videos that Japanese people actually watch on the regular, so you’ll learn how native speakers use the language in their everyday lives. Dictionary entries are drawn from and attached to these videos.
The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos—just take a look at one small sample:
You’ll get reading practice too, as every video is subtitled. FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive captions. These interactive captions will show you the definition of a word (and simultaneously pause the video) whenever you hover your mouse over it. Here’s where the dictionary feature comes into play.
All definitions have multiple in-context usage examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. You’ll also find audio pronunciations, synonyms, helpful images and more. Tap again to add words you’d like to review later to your running vocab list.
And that’s not all. FluentU’s learn mode lets you learn Japanese even better by turning your selected videos into personalized language lessons. You’ll go through exercises that show the video clips as the prompts, multimedia flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
The best part?
Every time you use FluentU, the site keeps track of the grammar and vocab you’ve learned and the words you struggle with, personalizing video suggestions and learning sessions based on your unique set of knowledge.
It’ll then recommend the natural next step in the progression of your learning. You’re delivered a 100% personalized experience.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.