The chronicles of Burrito's bizarre adventure into Japanese.

How do you look up a kanji?

with 11 comments

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:

  1. Choose a radical from the kanji. The 田 part of 男 seems like a good candidate.
  2. Count the number of strokes in chosen radical. In this case, 田 has 5. So far, so good!
  3. Navigate to the 5 stroke radicals, find 田 and check that mutha.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

For the last time, you stupid IME! I'm trying to look up the kanji for chilidog, NOT onion rings.

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!

Written by ritobito

February 17, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Posted in kanji

Tagged with , , , ,

11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I use my electronic dictionary to look up kanji. It has a field called 部分読み where you can type in the readings of parts of the kanji to help narrow the search. For example, if the kanji is 員, you could find it by typing くち&かい. I use this in combination with stroke count to narrow it down even more.

    I’ve gained a lot of speed by learning some names of radicals. Something like 陰 is quick to find if you know the left part is called こざと. こざと&いま bring it up as the first choice in my electronic dictionary. 躙 takes about 2 seconds to look up: あし&もん&ふるとり.

    Thomas (babelhut.com)

    February 17, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    • Nice! Once my Japanese is a little more solid, I definitely plan on picking up a decent electronic dictionary. Something to help fill the small holes that are currently still massive, gaping chasms.

      It would also be a good idea to learn the various radical names, wouldn’t it? I believe the Kanken DS games quiz you on those starting 7級 or so, come to think of it…


      February 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm

  2. For Chinese, there’s Pleco on iPhone, WinMo, and Palm. The handwriting lookup is amazing.

    Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll find a character with no definition. And that sucks. It took me forever to find a definition for 趖. I even tried the 康熙字典, and my Classical Chinese sucks (try THAT sometime). Finally some native speakers helped me out. Turns out it’s a rare dialectal character from Taiwanese.

    But yeah, for most purposes, Pleco is great.


    February 17, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    • Ouch! I can imagine how tricky looking up hanzi can be at times. Good to hear that not all handwriting lookup is junk, though. A reliable one would be a godsend.

      Classical Chinese… sounds like a challenge for another day. (汗)


      February 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm

      • There’s a demo of the handwriting recognizer here:

        He’s said that he may look into developing a similar app for Japanese, but we’ll see. I’m sure it would be quite a way in the future.


        February 17, 2010 at 7:53 pm

  3. I’m all about the multi-radical kanji look-up on denshijisho.org It’s essentially the same as Jim Breen’s, but I think it’s prettier! ^^ My technique on there is pretty much the same as yours.

    Really handy post, thank you!


    February 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    • You’re welcome!

      Wow, the multirad lookup on denshijisho looks a LOT nicer. I love how it gives you results instantly. Also, I don’t have to adjust the website’s background color to avoid it burning my retinas, which is definitely a plus. Bookmark’d, thanks!


      February 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm

  4. i use http://www.jisho.org radical lookup, which looks a lot like the wwwjdict one, but you may find it more aesthetically pleasing

    i also have a kanji dictionary that uses SKIP lookups, and i would imagine that once you learn the system to categorize a kanji according to their SKIP system it would be pretty quick to use to look things up. However, I personally am on my computer most of the time when i run across an unknown kanji, so i typically just use the website above to find it.


    March 26, 2010 at 7:51 pm

  5. I am just in the process of creating an offline radical lookup feature for my Kanji Sketch Pad. It currently looks up any kanji you find in the common-word version of the Edict dictionary, but I can add a bigger dictionary if anyone would find it useful…

    See: http://cerebware.pcriot.com/wordpress/2011/08/kanji-radical-lookup/

    It’s in beta phase, but that means I can add any feature you want! And it’s free.


    August 17, 2011 at 9:57 am

  6. Well, it’s over three years old but thought I would mention New Nelson (Haig) dictionary has multi-radical lookup (for offline/non-computer use).


    June 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: