How To Choose A Good Japanese Dictionary

Do you suffer from music store amnesia? You think about the albums you want to buy all the time, and then when you actually manage to get yourself to a store, you completely forget what you wanted to buy? This kind of thing happens to me all the time — in music stores, grocery stores, book stores. I made up the following checklist to take with me whenever I decided I needed a new dictionary. By deciding ahead of time what is important to me in a dictionary, I have been able to focus my attention on my CURRENT personal needs (you need different dictionaries for different stages of your language development) and get the one that suits me best.

Can you read it?

What writing system is best for you?

  • All romaji (for people who are just starting to learn Japanese)
  • All hiragana (for beginners, preschoolers)
  • Some kanji (for intermediate learners, elementary school children)
  • All kanji (for advanced learners, junior high students, or adults)

What do you want to be able look up?

  • all words, or just easy words (elementary school level)
  • words in hiragana
  • kanji for the words
  • meanings in (easy) Japanese
  • examples of words in sentences
  • synonyms (similar words)
  • antonyms (opposites)
  • homonyms (words with the same sound)
  • kanji by themselves
  • number of strokes in a kanji
  • order of strokes in a kanji
  • radical of a kanji
  • history of a kanji (how it was formed)
  • meanings of a kanji
  • kanji compounds that start with this kanji
  • kanji compounds that include this kanji (not necessarily at the beginning)
  • examples of the kanji by itself in use
  • examples of the kanji compounds in use

What kind of index system do you want? (in the case of a kanji dictionary)

  • by stroke number
  • by radical
  • by reading
  • by grade in elementary school

What extras do you want?

  • pictures
  • explanations of words that are easily confused (eg. 病院 vs. 美容院)
  • explanations of homonyms (eg. 早い vs. 速い)
  • historical explanations (eg. where hiragana and katakana came from)
  • special readings (eg. 一日、七夕)
  • polite language (eg. 差し上げます)
  • charts
  • list of radicals
  • counters
  • elementary school kanji
  • Japanese eras (eg. Edo, Meiji, etc.)


  • Is it printed in colour? (i.e. Is it visually appealing?)
  • Is the font size too big / too small?
  • Does it look like a chore to read?
  • Can you really make use of it? (i.e. Is it practical, useful?)