Kanji Dictionaries

For English speakers, I know of three heavyweights in the ``Kanji Dictionary'' arena:

When considering these and others -- which to buy, which are good, which to keep nearby on the shelf, etc. -- there are two primary concerns to keep in mind:

I'll address the second point first.

Information a ``Kanji Dictionary'' Provides

It is important to keep in mind that there are several completely different types of reference works called ``Kanji Dictionaries.'' In Japanese, this is usually written 字典 (jiten) which happens to be pronounced the same as 辞典, which is a more traditional ``dictionary.''

Works might have their PRIMARY GOAL to

I've never seen one work that encompasses everything.

If you merely want to look up words

For looking up words, S&H or Nelson are probably what you want. I have never used Nelson, but it has been ``the standard'' since long before I was born.

For the most part, these kinds of ``Kanji Dictionaries'' are really ``Word Dictionaries'' with the entries arranged via kanji. In fact, the Japanese title of S&H translates to ``Kanji-English Word Dictionary'', which is really more appropriate than ``The Kanji Dictionary''.

Often, these works limit their attention to jukugo, words composed of combinations of kanji, for the most part giving light or no treatment to the kun'yomi meanings of a character. For example, the character 掛 is the ka in `kakeru', `kake', `kakaru', and `kakari'. Yet the many meanings of these stand-alone words are often glossed over or ignored. Contrast this with Halpern below.

For the most part, English translation is simply a word or two -- this is usually enough to give a good indication, but once the reading is known, a ``real'' dictionary should be checked if there are still questions. This makes these works ``glossaries'', not ``dictionaries'', but few make the distinction (heck, I call my server a ``dictionary server'' but it uses edict, which is certainly a glossary).

If you want to study kanji

If you, as an English speaker, want to study kanji -- get a feel for their practical use across the span of the language, then you want Halpern. The purpose of Halpern is not to provide an exhaustive list of words, but to provide a representative ``feel'' for how a character is used in Japanese.

Halpern is not designed for bulk translation work; it is designed for study. He presents detailed ``core meanings'' of each character, and partitions a character's actual use in the language into senses that helps the student absorb usage patterns. He gives equal attention to all types of uses, including kun'yomi, on'yomi, independent, and special readings. Examples are a mixture of not only isolated words, but phrases and sentences with appropriate grammatical points of interest. (See the dictionary's home page for a lot more information on what it provides.)

To extend on the kakeru example from above, consider what S&H says about this oft-used word:

hang (tr.); put on top of; turn on, start; spend; multiply; (as suffix) begin to, start ...ing
Contrast this with Halpern's page-and-a-half on kakeru, giving 42 examples on this word alone (the entire entry for 掛 uses 132 examples). Here are a just few of the examples: None of these are covered in S&H.

He also provides synonyms and homophones, and occasionally includes interesting side notes on how interesting compounds have been formed. For example, the component characters of 傾国 (keikoku) tend to mean ``ruin'' and ``country'', yet the word means ``beautiful woman'' and/or ``harlot''. Halpern notes:

傾国 `beautiful woman; courtesan' derives from an ancient Chinese legend of a beautiful siren that brought on the downfall 傾 of a nation (国) with her voluptuous charms.

Halpern also provides generous usage notes. For example the four words 変える、代える、換える、替える are all pronounced kaeru and all generally mean ``to exchange''. Yet their meanings have some not-so-subtle differences. He gives examples using each word. Their English are:

(see page 930 of Halpern for the full treatment). I find these extremely useful.

Halpern also provides a stroke-order diagram, variant and old forms, various calligraphic (handwritten) styles (square, semi-cursive, cursive), common handwritten abbreviations, both Ming and Gothic typeface glyphes, as well as Chinese forms and readings of the character. Japanese readings are indicated as approved (by the Ministry of Education), unapproved but common enough to include, name-only, or special.

Other per-character information includes the traditional radical (with special notations for ``lost radicals''), the frequency-of-use in modern printed Japanese, and The Ministry-of-Education grade designation.

As I said, Halpern is for studying kanji. It is perhaps the one for which the name ``Kanji Dictionary'' is truly applicable. I often use Halpern merely to look up words because I like the indexing method (see below) better than S&H, but I realize that it is hit'n'miss for this. Halpern uses 30,841 distinct words as examples when describing the senses that a character can impart to a word, but the coverage is spotty. For example, 字典 is listed under 典 but not 字. He apparently found that other words better represented the meanings of 字.

How to Find What You're Looking For

A reference work that provides all the information you want is useless unless you can actually find it. To find the entry for a particular character, any one work generally has several indexing methods, with one main method that sets the ordering of all the characters.

All works should provide an index via reading. Thus, if you know a reading of the character in question, you can check the index at the back which will then point you to the proper entry.

The real question is, what if you don't know the reading but can only see the character? First of all, most methods require that you know how to count strokes when you see a character properly written. If you've never looked at this stuff before, you might be surprised to find that 口 has 3 strokes, while 市 has five (but not the five you might think at first glimpse -- the vertical line is actually two strokes!) Smaller works will often have a stroke-count index, but this is simply too inefficient for larger works. For example, Halpern has 266 characters with eight strokes, Nelson has 381, and S&H has 426.

Traditionally, kanji have been indexed via their radical and stroke count. Halpern's primary index is his SKIP method, which I find extremely useful (see further comments on the radical page).

Looking up words

S&H lists each word in the entry for each component character. For example, if faced with 世論 (seron or yoron), even if you had trouble finding 世 (S&H lists it in the five-stroke ``no-radical'' group), you could still find the word by looking up 論, which should be quite easy to find because the radical is obviously 言.

With Nelson (which I don't use, so maybe I'm wrong), I believe words are only listed via their first component character (as is common with Japanese-Kanji dictionaries). The traditional radical for 世 is 一, but Nelson lists it under |, neither of which I find apparent.

As I've noted, Halpern is not designed to be a dictionary of words, but as it turns out, you can find 世論 listed under three characters: 世, 論, and 操, this last one because of the entry 世論を操る (seron wo ayaturu) ``manipulate public opinion.''

Other Lookup Methods and Features


S&H has only its primary radical indexing, and a reading index in the back. It has a fair amount of internal cross references to ease common lookup errors. For example, 辛, whose radical is 立, has a cross-reference under the 亠 radical since it would be a reasonable mistake to make.

Other lookup features are


As I've noted, I don't use Nelson nor have one handy for reference. However, it appears the new Nelson has an index which will let you find a character via any component radical, even if it isn't the radical. This could be very, very cool.


Halpern's main indexing is his SKIP system, which is augmented by an extensive set of cross references for common lookup mistakes and character variants.

Of course, there is the standard reading index, and in addition, Halpern also provides a number of interesting index methods:

The new S&H has some of the above, and others, but inexplicably does not give the characters' index into the main dictionary. So although you can see the character in the list or grouping, you're no closer to actually finding the character's entry in the main dictionary. Too bad.


I bought S&H when it first came out (1989), and have used it a lot since. I also bought Halpern when it first came out (1990). I liked it so much, I spent three months of my life entering a lot of the information into kanjidic. When copyright worries came up, I tracked down Jack Halpern, to ask about it. He told me I was an idiot for spending so much time -- he would have given me a disk (which he did).

Since then I have become friends with Jack, and collaborate with him on some of his projects. Because our meeting was a result of my enthusiastic recommendation of his book, I don't feel there's any ``conflict of interest'' if I continue to enthusiastically recommend his book. Still, I mention our relation here because it seems the thing to do.

Comments appreciated
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