In an effort to organize all the Japanese-related (study) materials I use, I thought I’d create this list.
You might already use some or all of these, and if you have ones you’d like to share, feel free to let me know!
First up is the indispensable rikaichan, an add-on for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. It allows you to hover over Japanese text with your mouse and displays a pop-up with readings and definitions for each word (or phrase, if it happens to be something that appears in a dictionary). Rikaichan is not to be used as a translator because it’s not, it’s more like a dictionary tool, or an aid in reading kanji you’re not familiar with. Rikaichan also seems to take its cues from WWWJDIC, which, while a very useful dictionary, occasionally has some strange choices for definitions so I’d recommend a cross look-up if you’re unsure about something. On its own (i.e. just using a standard Japanese-to-English/German/French/Russian (sorry no Spanish for some reason..) dictionary set) rikaichan doesn’t know names from random kanji being squished together. You need to specifically chose to install the names dictionary for that. Certainly rikaichan will tell you how to read the individual kanji, but it doesn’t list all readings, just the most common ones, or ones used when you see the kanji by itself, which means you probably won’t know how to read the name. Rikaichan will however, tell you the possible forms in which a verb is conjugated (I say possible because in many cases the passive form is identical to the potential and it’s only context that would tell them apart. Rikaichan is smart, but not that smart.) which can be useful in a pinch. It’s not the end-all-be-all of reading aids because, as you might’ve guessed, it’s no better at reading very casual or slang speech than a normal dictionary. Phrases like そんなことねぇよ (normally そんなことないよ) or かわぃぃ (normally かわいい) won’t show up properly. Overall it’s quite useful, but don’t rely on it too heavily.
Recommended for all levels with the above caveat.
As mentioned above, WWWJDIC is an online dictionary that does both Japanese→English and English→Japanese. In addition to giving you both the meaning and the reading of the word or phrase, it also gives links to a number of other places so you can cross-reference the definition or usage – Google, Google Image search, goo.ne.jp, alc.co.jp, and, if available, the verb conjugation table, and/or example sentences. WWWJDIC seems to have a fairly decent track record for looking up names of places/things, and it does have a specific name dictionary so you can find Japanese names by kana or kanji. It also has a kanji dictionary in which you can look up individual kanji by a variety of methods including number of strokes and readings, as well as just plain copy & paste. As I said before, some of the definitions feel like strange choices to me, but are probably technically correct in most cases. (I’ve yet to find a definition that was flat out wrong, anyway.) However, as with all dictionaries, proper usage may not immediately be apparent, so asking a native/fluent speaker or cross-referencing on somewhere like alc for completely unfamiliar words would probably be a good idea. (English→Japanese search results especially.)
Recommended for all levels with the above caveat.
While we’re on the subject of online dictionaries, alc.co.jp is a fine source of information. Being designed for Japanese students of English, the interface is entirely in Japanese. English→Japanese lookup is available, but readings will not be provided (use rikaichan for help on that front). The main benefit for alc, at least for me, is the ability to check for proper usage of words or phrases. alc is very good about providing partial or whole sentences to illustrate their point. The down side is that searches must be exact – unlike WWWJDIC, which will find the word you’re looking for whether you enter it in kana or kanji, alc will only provide results for what you put in. (This is connected to the fact that it does not give readings for words with kanji in them.) That said, it’s an invaluable resource for intermediate and above learners, especially for use in translation.
Recommended for intermediate (2級) and above. Beginners would likely be overwhelmed.
Dictionaries are all well and good for looking up words, but if you want to know how to say something sometimes you need grammatical information, which is partially why jgram.org exists. Lookup can be in either romanji or kana, although the database feels lacking to me. This isn’t to say it’s not useful, and if you’re in a pinch it’s worth a look, but I wouldn’t rely on it heavily. It seems to be user submitted and edited content, which also brings up a level of trust issue in the final results. Generally speaking, if you need a reminder, that’s fine, but beyond that ymmv, prettymuch. Additionally, jgram has JLPT-specific grammar study aids, as well as a grammar quiz. I haven’t used it much, but it seems all right for the most part.
Recommended for all levels although advanced learners probably won’t find a lot of use in it beyond studying specifically for the JLPT or something.
Otherwise known as “Kanji sono mama rakubiki jiten” or “that kanji dictionary for the Nintendo DS.”
Rakubiki is available on play-asia, which will ship it internationally.
If you’ve considered buying a 電子辞書 , consider Rakubiki instead. If you already own a Nintendo DS – and any model will do – your cost is a mere $50 + shipping, and even if you throw in the cost of a new DSi, your total only barely approaches the more basic electronic dictionaries, with the added bonus of being able to write in the words you want to look up. (Yes, some denshi jisho have that ability, but they tend to be more expensive as well.) Not to mention the fact that you’ve opened yourself up to the ability to use other Japanese language software for study and leisure.
Being able to look up kanji as they are, without having to first count strokes or guess at radicals (both are useful skills to have, by the way, but it’s not an efficient way to search), is obviously one of rakubiki’s big selling points. The other is the ability to look up whole words in one go, rather than searching for each kanji used individually and trying to piece together the puzzle that is “which reading do I use?”
Rakubiki is designed for native Japanese speakers who are learning English so the interface is not English-friendly at all. Bearing this in mind, once you get the hang of the input it’s fairly easy to use. Additionally, this helps to reinforce stroke order a bit since even though it will give you nine possible characters that you may have meant to write, if you’re completely off the character you want won’t appear. There are other fun little features like kanji quizzes but they’re obviously just omake to rakubiki’s comprehensive library of dictionaries. Lots of sample sentences, phrases and compound words make rakubiki an invaluable resource as a dictionary.
Recommended for intermediate and higher learners of Japanese. Beginners might be overwhelmed by the all-Japanese interface.
Read The Kanji
A great way to waste time while learning study kanji is Read The Kanji, which quizzes you using words and phrases within the parameters that you set. It’s fairly customizable – JLPT 4 thru 1 available and all can be selected at once, number of cards shown, level of repetition, etc. Unfortunately this once-free site has become pay which I am not entirely happy about even though it doesn’t affect me personally because I already have an account. Anyway, it’s a very useful site for study purposes and they have a nice clean way of displaying your progress (ahhh I love stats <3). The automatic conversion of typed romanji into kana is nice, although remembering just what combination turns into づ or ぢ (I believe it’s du and di) can sometimes be annoying although those don’t appear a whole lot.
Recommended for all levels unless you already know all of the 常用漢字 in which case it won’t tell you anything new. If you’re 漢検 bound, it likely won’t help you beyond 3 or pre-2 and even that’s debatable since it generally covers the most common stuff for readings. (No name kanji testing.)
Drill the kanji (a.k.a. japanese-kanji.com)
Before Read the Kanji there was japanese-kanji.com, a French-run site that tests (in both English and French) kanji individually on both on (Chinese) and kun (Japanese) readings as well as meaning. A very simple interface – you select a subsection of the 1945 common-use kanji (divided into blocks of 60), and for each quiz section you’re presented with a kanji (or a meaning), and you have five different choices for answers, mapped to 1-5 on the keyboard. If you get the answer wrong, you’re able to try again although your score decreases with the number of wrong answers so guessing is not advisable. Scores are only kept as long as you have the applet open although you can easily copy&paste the results into a txt file should you desire to save them.
Tentatively Recommended for all levels because it’s never too early to learn kanji, but the by-rote method of readings/meanings may not work for everyone. Additionally, this should not substitute for written practice.
Kanji in Context
Kanji in Context is a set of two workbooks and one reference book, able to be purchased from The Japan Shop. The books are aimed at intermediate to advanced learners who have a good grasp on Japanese grammatical structure and a moderately-sized vocabulary, but low kanji comprehension. Since this pretty much described me completely, I found the workbooks to be immensely helpful in exponentially increasing my kanji knowledge. The workbooks are broken up into lessons (143 in total between the two), of a varying number of kanji each (I’d say maybe 15-20 on average?). KiC covers all of the common-use kanji and further divides the lessons into levels, 1-6, with 6 being the final and hardest. Each lesson contains three sections: the first is a phrase illustrating some compounds using the kanji in the lesson; the second also uses just phrases, but does so in a comparative setting – sometimes there are antonym pairs, for example; the third is a number of sentences that uses vocabulary based on the kanji in the lesson.
For workbooks, there’s not actually a lot of work that you the learner have to do – no fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice that you may be expecting. The most effective way to use these is probably to create flashcards using a program like Mnemosyne and review the cards as frequently as required. As you may be thinking, with 143 lessons and a number of examples and sentences per lesson, this is a fairly time-consuming process. But, like most flashcard systems, they work best if you create them yourself – you know what you will need to do to format the cards in a way that makes sense to you and will help you learn most effectively.
I’d recommend entering a lesson or two and reviewing them before adding more.
I’ve not found the reference book to be especially helpful so far – I used mainly WWWJDIC and Rakubiki to look up the kanji and definitions.
Recommended for intermediate and above learners of Japanese. (Beginners would not be able to understand the example sentences without a fair bit of help, thus greatly reducing their usefulness.)
Also known as “Nazotte oboeru otona kanji renshuu” or just “otona kanji”. I reviewed the “complete version” (kanzenhan) of this software back in 2008, and it appears they’ve released yet another version, (making the previous two obsolete and out of print, naturally) which can be purchased on play-asia.com, which ships internationally. I can’t speak to any changes from kanzenhan to kaiteiban (other than the fact that 改訂版 means “revised edition”), nor from the original software which was apparently not “complete” (完全版 = complete ver.) to kanzenhan, but I imagine the overall interface and use are the same.
This software is designed for native Japanese speakers who are weak in kanji comprehension, so that means there is NO ENGLISH. No words are defined – the user is expected to have a fairly well-rounded Japanese vocabulary, even if they can’t tell 取る from 撮る. This isn’t to say you can’t use it if your comprehension or vocabulary is less than advanced, although I imagine you’d get less out of the whole process.
The basic flow is levels containing anywhere from 10 to 20 lessons, each containing a set of 20 kanji that you are tested on both reading and writing in the context of a phrase. This is to get you used to not only knowing how to read and write the kanji but when to read and write which particular kanji. Each level has a cumulative test that selects random kanji from the level for a total of 50 questions – 25 reading, 25 writing. You are not allowed to move on to the next level without passing (75% I believe is passing on the final tests but it might be 80%…). Should you get a question wrong, that problem (either reading or writing) for the particular kanji will go into a review test that you should probably go over before attempting the quiz again.
There are some other side quizzes involving four-character idioms, place names and other subjects. Otona covers all of the common-use kanji plus a few more (I believe the total is 2261, 常用 is 1945).
Recommended for advanced or really adventurous intermediate learners of Japanese.