How do you look up a kanji?
Here’s something that was never really explained to me, and a topic that I think many could benefit from knowing a little more about – and that is the topic of looking up kanji. Specifically, I’m referring to looking up one or more kanji when you come across an unknown word in a source without furigana or vocal aid, such as (for instance) in a video game or seinen manga.
Quite a few options are available, but most are more than a little brutal and archaic by today’s more convenient, digital standards. Lucky for us 日本語 learners of the present day, we no longer have to jump through the hoops of cumbersome SKIP indexing or prod through dictionaries sorted by seemingly arbitrary dominant radical. Of course, these options are available should all else fail, but chances are, it won’t come to that. And if it does, then may the gods have mercy.
Systems such as Heisig’s iconic Remembering the Kanji certainly aid tremendously in this process – the ability to recognize a kanji by an English keyword and look it up instantly – but not all of us are RTK graduates. Besides that, it can still sometimes be difficult to recall a kanji’s RTK keyword, especially with all the synonyms and confusingly ambiguous keywords. Luckily, it’s still pretty quick and easy to look that sucker up, especially compared to the medieval, ol’ fashioned ways…
The next best way I’ve discovered is via the all-powerful WWWJDIC’s multi-radical kanji lookup. There are a few ways of using this badboy, but I’ve found that the easiest way goes something like this… say you wanted to look up 男:
- Choose a radical from the kanji. The 田 part of 男 seems like a good candidate.
- Count the number of strokes in chosen radical. In this case, 田 has 5. So far, so good!
- Navigate to the 5 stroke radicals, find 田 and check that mutha.
- Count the total number of strokes in the kanji and enter that number in the “Optional stroke-count (nn) or range (nn-mm):” box. In this case, that’d be 7.
- Hit find, and chances are, your kanji will be among the results. Huzzah!
Checking “Limit to Jouyou/Jinmeiyou kanji” couldn’t hurt for its self-explanatory effects, although you’ll obviously want to keep it unchecked if your kanji falls outside of those groups. You may also ignore step 4, and instead simply check 力 in the 2 stroke section, leaving the stroke-count box empty. This will give more accurate results, but it’s not always easy to discern which exact radicals make up a kanji. Plus, it’s just faster to do it my way, especially when the kanji is made up of a massive amount of strokes (that is, assuming you can count them all). For fun, try looking up 鑿! C’mon, you can totally count the strokes without enlarging the page 100 times, right?
When my RTK keyword looking-up prowess fails me, WWWJDIC is always there to give me a hand. Well, almost always – the most obvious downside is that looking up a kanji in this way requires Internet access. As of present, WWWJDIC does not have a standalone, offline counterpart, and although the KANJIDIC database is freely available, I haven’t found an offline interface to get the same functionality that WWWJDIC offers. If such a thing exists, by all means, let me know!
Many IMEs also feature “pad” options (built into most Windows operating systems), allowing you to unleash your kanji-fu one jagged stroke at a time with your mouse, which should theoretically find your character… maybe. In my experience, these sketch pads tend to be incredibly fickle and erratic, with results differing wildly depending on how the software detects strokes. If your mouse handwriting is anywhere near as blasphemously offensive as mine, you’re probably not gonna find this functionality very helpful.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of options where looking up specific kanji is concerned. Some are more convenient and reliable than others, capable of finding what you’re looking for in just a few clicks. Others, on the other hand, require something more akin to arcane rituals and Zen master levels of patience for accurate results. Regardless, whether offline or online, electronic or dead tree, it should never be beyond our grasp to look these elusive muthas up. Kanjilicious.
Which leads me to the originally intended point of this post: How do you look up a kanji? Do tell!