Making the Most of Online Dictionaries

This is my eighth year of Japanese study, and over the years I have collected more than a few online dictionaries. I also own a Sharp Papryus PW-AT790, purchased in Japan in 2009, which I rather like. However, a lot of the time I’m reading Japanese on the computer or translating, so it’s more convenient for me to use an online dictionary. I actually use all of these depending on the situation and have ordered them from ones appropriate for beginners to ones for more advanced learners.

Jim Breen

Pros: Jim Breen got me through undergrad, where I started learning Japanese. What I like about this dictionary is that you can enter words in romaji, which is great for those times when using a computer that doesn’t have a Japanese language pack installed. The multi-radical kanji search is great, and the example sentences are useful. The fact that you can suggest entries is nice, too—I’ve added several that I’ve encountered at work, like くちこ、a delicacy made from sea-cucumber ovaries. (Japanese Wikipedia saved me, but more on that later.) Now the entry is in Jim Breen so you don’t have to guess. Especially useful is the “translate” function, although I use that for looking up lists of words at once instead of its intended function, which is defining all the words and some of the grammar in a given sentence. Finally, the kanji look-up function is extremely useful—find a new vocab word and want to learn the kanji? Input it and get a kanji-by-kanji breakdown!

Cons: The downside of Jim Breen is that the multi-radical kanji interface is not as nice as Tangorin’s, and can be really frustrating if you aren’t good at finding radicals or counting them. I prefer my denshi jisho to draw in the kanji directly, but for a non-touchpad dictionary, it’s a solid one.



Pros: The multi-radical kanji function is more user-friendly than Jim Breen’s. That is, when you click on a radical, it visually eliminates other radicals that do not appear in any kanji with selected radical(s), which makes hunting for the next radical of the kanji much easier.

Cons: I never use this as anything but a kanji dictionary because I have so many dictionaries already.

Note: Tangorin has a lot of functions I haven’t tried, like a vocab builder, bookmarklet (a way to save definitions), and a mobile device interface for smart phones. I use to make online flash cards, but having it all on one site might be convenient for others.



Pros: Rikaichan is a Firefox add-on that allows you to scroll over Japanese words so that a definition pops up. If you scroll over a kanji, the information for the kanji will pop up, and if you do a whole word, the definition and some of the kanji information will come up. This works for katakana and hiragana words, too, but will give you a list of potential meanings if the reading has multiple possible kanji. (E.g. こうよう could be 紅葉, 効用, 公用, etc.) This is great for helping intermediate-to-advanced students break into reading newspapers, blogs, and other information online, and it makes using Space ALC, another dictionary reviewed below, much easier.

Cons: Only available for Firefox and Thunderbird, not Safari or other browsers. [Edit: A reader let us know that this add-on is now available for Google Chrome too. Thanks to KW for the update!] Sometimes the pop-up is in a weird place, and you can move the location with the A key, but on occasion, you can’t see it. This may also make you lazy if you’re prepping for the JLPT, where you need to learn to gloss over words or guess at them to finish in time, or for the JET CIR interviews, where you need to learn to read aloud without looking things up (and practice admitting you can’t read a kanji!). Be sure to download both the program AND the dictionary files.


Space ALC

Pros: This is my favorite bilingual online dictionary because of the scope of words and expressions it has. This is a Japanese-English (and English-Japanese) dictionary and contains tons of sample sentences based on actual newspaper articles, etc. It’s great for advanced learners, especially for looking up nuanced vocabulary.

Cons: However, because it is geared towards Japanese speakers, it doesn’t have the reading of kanji in the definition, and you can’t enter words in romaji or kana like you can with Jim Breen. Because of this, you really need to use it with Rikaichan.



Pros: There is an English-Japanese dictionary (英和) on here, but I tend to use this for Japanese-Japanese (国語). If you are at an advanced level—studying for the N2 or N1—I highly recommend Japanese-Japanese when making flashcards or just looking up words. The Japanese-Japanese dictionaries can better explain the nuances of similar words, which occasionally are the same word in English. There are also specialized dictionaries, including one for business terms.

Cons: If the word is commonly written in kana, it will usually come up, but if not, you may have to figure out what the kanji is to get a definition.


Japanese Wikipedia and Japanese Google Image Search


GIS: (or click on 画像検索)

Pros: I often come across food words that are not in dictionaries, or the definition is something I have no visual context for. For example, I once came across the word  シュシュ in a fashion magazine I was translating for a class. My English-Japanese dictionaries could not tell me what this was, so I image searched it. It’s a scrunchie. Who knew? is good for the names of herbs, medicine ingredients (do you know what’s in your Japanese cold medicine?), and foods, and if you can’t figure it out from the Japanese, you can switch to the English version.

Cons: While looking at a Japanese Wikipedia entry, if you switch to English Wikipedia and just want a word or a brief explanation, you can usually get it. However, sometimes there may not even be an English option. As for GIS, some images may not be safe for work, and no, it doesn’t matter for what you are searching.

– Leah

This entry was posted in main posts, study tools, useful links and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Making the Most of Online Dictionaries

  1. Pingback: Making the Most of Online Dictionaries | JapanLike

  2. KW says:

    Actually, Rikaichan is available for Google Chrome, under Rikaikun:

  3. Ashley says:

    I love Space ALC too – my absolute favorite! Nice list here, by the way. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

    Also thought, even though these are all around dictionaries for any words, that MEDO (Medical English Dictionary Online) is often really useful for more medical/technical terms… (I’ve found it to be anyway.)

    • Paura says:

      Ooo I didn’t know about this specialty dictionary! I have a couple other specialist dictionaries online that I’ve bookmarked for later dates. Looks like it should be a new post in the works. 🙂 Thanks for the link! I’ll be sure to link and credit you for the suggestion!

  4. You can turn on kanji readings in ALC/Eijiro. I forget which setting it is, but it’s in there. 🙂 However, ALC/Eijiro + Rikaichan is a pretty unbeatable combo! There’s also a free ALC/Eijiro app for iOS. I use both that and Kotoba!, which I think is Jim Breen-based.

  5. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the great list and other very useful resources. Here are two more online readers that allow you to scroll over the kanji for instant translation. You can enter a website address or a block of text. If you enter a website, you can also navigate within the reader – very helpful! Be sure to set the translation tool to “Japanese to English” (or Spanish, Chinese, etc).



    • Paura says:

      Thanks for these! I apologize for the lateness of my reply. Since this was an old post the comment got buried. 🙂 I hope we’re able to provide another list for study resources sometime soon! Cheers.

  6. Pingback: Resource: | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  7. toranosuke says:

    Rikaichan is fantastic, and has been my go-to crutch for reading Japanese online. I’ve recently started studying Chinese, though, and was looking for a similar plug-in for Chinese. I don’t know if it’s the best one out there, but Peraperakun seems to do a fine job of it. It’s available for both Firefox and Chrome, works for both Chinese & Japanese, and has extra dictionary options for Chinese or Japanese to French or German (instead / in addition to C&J to English).

    When you mouseover a Chinese word, it pops up just like in Rikaichan, showing the characters, including traditional or other variations (e.g. highlight 会 and it will show you that 會 is an alternate version), pinyin including tones, and several meanings.

    It includes a variety of options for showing tones, including showing the characters and pinyin in different colors, and representing tones by either accent marks, numbers, or zhuyin, and will even recognize Japanese versions of characters, which can be quite helpful, if you’re trying to figure out the Chinese pronunciation of a Japanese word, or just to figure out the equivalent character in Chinese. To give an example, Rikaichan won’t recognize 乐 or pop up anything at all when you mouse-over it. Perapera Chinese will of course recognize it and show you it’s the Simplified version of 樂, but then it will also recognize the character 楽, telling you it’s the Japanese variant of 乐 or 樂, and that it’s pronounced lè.or yuè.

    Rikaichan and Perapera also have some nice extensiveness in their dictionaries, allowing them to recognize whole names, if the figure is significant enough. I found to my surprise that when I moused-over the name 郎世寧, it was able to tell me this is Láng Shìníng, also known as Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Jesuit painter who served the Qing court for 50 years.

    It’s been a long time coming that I should have been on the lookout for a Chinese equivalent to Rikaichan, and now that I’ve found one, it’s quite nice. I definitely recommend it, even if you aren’t studying Chinese but just need to be able to figure out Chinese characters and what their Japanese equivalent might be, or how to pronounce a Japanese word in Chinese, or the like.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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