Update, 01/11: Here is a list of the features of Canon Wordtank S502 and C50, as well as Casio models.
For general advice about electronic dictionaries, go to Reader Response, (March-April, 2003)
Reviewed by Idris Magette, kanji learner
I've looked around online, and I've realized that "electronic Japanese
dictionaries" is a big field. First of all, there are impressive online
ones like David Todd Rudick's Rikai.com and Jim Breen's Edict online dictionary.
Rikai even has a free, stand-alone download that is currently experimental
but provides a useful glossing and dictionary service that you can use
on your home computer.
Second, there are handheld ones, but this is still a broad category that includes palm pilots (with the right software), dedicated denshi jisho, and things like the apparently faddish "Zaurus" that I've never even seen. What's more there are hundreds of models of dedicated handheld electronic dictionaries: Sony, Casio, Canon, and Seiko, to name a few.
Handheld dictionaries can be extremely useful as most models contain several dictionaries, and are powerful and portable. I've used mine in such settings as the library, a ramen-ya, the classroom, and on an airplane. The ones I've seen all have J-E, E-J, J-J ("Kokugo"), and Kanji (Kanwa) dictionaries. Basically, for the Japanese learner on the go, such a dictionary is indispensable because lugging around three or four paper dictionaries is just not practical for most of us non-sumo types with bad backs.
Some dictionaries also have E-E (e.g., Longman's Advanced English Dictionary or the abridged Oxford English Dictionary), an audio mode that actually pronounces words/sounds for you, memo storage space to help you remember words you look up, and so on. These are all nice features, but the major impediment for non-Japanese who want a J-E electronic dictionary is that they are designed primarily for Japanese users. This means that the user interface is in Japanese, as are the definitions, owner's manual, and just about everything else. Most confounding, what this means is that when there are too many kanji that you can't read in a definition, the definition ceases to be useful. In fact, it may simply be a source of added confusion or, worse, more stress in your ongoing battle (love affair?) with kanji and Japanese.
Enter the jump-search feature of the gaikokujin-friendly Canon Wordtank. (I got the Wordtank IDF-3000 two years ago, and I am writing about that particular make and model, so I can focus my comments on what I know from my own direct experience.) This feature allows you to highlight text on the screen and jump to dictionary entries for that text residing elsewhere in the dictionary. This lets you jump the hurdle of words you can't read or don't know in definitions. Finally, you can just hit returnEand go back to the definition you were reading, providing for a pleasant lexical excursion kind of experience. This kind of hyperlinked dictionary (with lots of up-to-date and useful example sentences and explanations) can also make for hours of plain reading, if you are truly a nihongo bookworm or simply have nothing better to do.
Other features that make this model stand out are its fast kanji dictionary, its usage explanations, and its memo-storage capacity. In the kanji dictionary, you can enter all you know about a kanji and really limit the search field that way, so you donft have to wade through options: for example, all the kanji pronounced "tou." For example, to look up "oya" (parent), I could simply type the component parts of this kanji, "tatsu" (stand) and "ki" (tree) and "miru" (see). This seems in-line with the component approach to learning kanji advocated both by Heisig and Kanji Clinic. Overall, Wordtanks are excellent tools for users at all levels who have mastered the kana and most basic Japanese grammar.
Canon Wordtanks are also nonnative-friendly in that the interface can be set in English or Japanese, and often you can also get an English-Language instruction manual when you buy one. I have never seen or heard of another dictionary as user-friendly for English speakers, but they may very well exist. And, if they do, they too will undoubtedly have hyperlinked definitions (jump-search, example sentences, and a fast kanji-search feature. Another dictionary might even be an improvement over the Wordtank if it had pitch-accent notations of how to pronounce Japanese words. Wordtanks donft, so if I just look up "ame,"I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood as saying either "rain" or "sweets."
Finally, I certainly donft want this review to read like an advertisement. I bet the best dictionary with all these features and more-- and a price under $200--is yet to come.
New York City