As a beginner in Japanese, knowing where to find dictionaries or how to search for definitions can be confusing. Knowing where to find reputable information is essential for good study habits, and to minimize mistakes when speaking in Japanese. Here are a variety of resources to start you on your way.
The Most Popular Dictionary
Firstly, the most popular dictionary needs to be discussed - and you’ve probably already used it. It’s called by a variety of names, like EDICT, JMDIC, or WWJDIC, and is used in a variety of websites like Jisho, applications like Japanese Readifier, browser extensions like YomiChan, and phone applications JED. This is a Japanese-English dictionary, curated by community effort and made available by Jim Breen. This dictionary uses a “shot-gun approach”, by combining the various uses and definitions of terms together in one entry. It is a great way to jump into understanding sentences, and the aforementioned programs make it easy to save and export definitions for other applications like Anki.
The downside to this shot-gun approach, is that the listed definitions lack context, and in fact, may be misleading. This is especially evident for the term “feeling”, where English synonyms are confusingly used. Fortunately, as a community effort, the dictionary can be improved (application form here, or here) by your edits (and perhaps the definitions for ‘feeling’ were already improved by the time you’re reading this). However, unless applications that make use of this dictionary update to the latest version, the latest changes will not be displayed.
Often bundled with EDICT, is Tanaka Corpus, a sentence database. Originally, the database was supposedly written by students of English and Japanese, and has been left to the community to maintain. However, it is error-ridden, which problems are explained by ManyThings.
It would then be best to consider whether the shot-gun approach is ideal for you. One could focus on the quality of every word, perhaps even wasting time, or one could focus on quantity and excel much further in understanding, if only surface-level. In fact, check out Japanese Text Analaysis and Readability tools to make more efficient use of your learning time.
Recommended Beginner Dictionaries
Onto the recommended beginner dictionaries, these will help aid understanding of nuance, albeit they may be lacking.
Cambridge Dictionary (English → Japanese):
A simple dictionary that can be searched in English. Definitions are clearly separated by usage and easy to understand. For comparison to WWWDIC, here are the results for “feeling“. In order to search in Japanese, use the following phrase in Google (replace “SEARCH_TERM” with a Japanese word):
Recommended Advanced Dictionaries
The following dictionaries contain definitions primarily in Japanese, and words are properly explained. Beginners may still find these dictionaries useful, by translating the definitions using WWWDIC or Google Translate. Although this method will not be completely reliable, the definitions come with context.
Weblio (English ↔ Japanese):
A collection of various dictionaries and example sentences (including WWWDIC and Tanaka Corpus), viewable in one place.
ALC (English ↔ Japanese):
Primarily a sentence corpus. Examples of grammar structure for expressions, and detailed examples are displayed.
Goo & Yahoo’s Kotobank (Japanese ・ English ↔ Japanese):
Similarly to Jisho, Goo also shows whether a Kanji is commonly used: “×” (Not used), “▽” (becoming less used), and “△” (commonly used). Goo also offers a dedicated Japanese-only lookup for distinguishing synonyms. Additionally, Goo has an English only page, but it has too many issues similar to EDICT. Yahoo’s Kotobank is an alternative.
Recommended Non-Standard Dictionaries
E-words (Japanese ↔ Japanese):
Dictionary for computing terminology.
Dictionary for slang dating back to the 1900s.
When Dictionaries Aren’t Enough…
Ask questions to Japanese people: HiNative.
Try searching for differences between words on Google Japan, using these terms:
Likewise, it is possible to search for the meaning or translation of phrases from English:
Or, the meaning of a word:
Remember to also check the meaning of Kanji in the word you want to understand, although this isn’t always helpful.
Good luck with your studies!