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KANJI LEARNER'S DICTIONARY
Jack Halpern, Editor in Chief
Kodansha, 1999 ISBN 4-7700-2335-9

Reviewed by John Milanese
info@mrjohntours.com

The well-known Japanese scholar Takeo Suzuki calls this dictionary "a work of art," and I would find it hard to disagree. Beautifully presented, with five kanji lookup methods and three indexes, the effort and work which was required to produce this milestone in kanji lexicography is quite extraordinary. The condensed version of Halpern's earlier New Japanese-English Dictionary (Kenkyusha, 1990), it covers 2,230 kanji, including all of the Joyo Kanji. The compounds presented for each kanji are also carefully chosen according to their frequency and relevance.

Core meaning(s) assigned to each kanji convey concisely the character's fundamental meaning. There are also a number of other features, including stroke order diagrams, distinctions made between similar looking kanji (#2055 —ธ@"captive" and #2057 —ถ "consider," for example) and similar sounding (homophone) kanji. (Example homophone: As Halpern explains, "fear of failure" is written Žธ”s‚ฬ‹๑ rather than Žธ”s‚ฬ‹ฐ‚๊).

Also, compounds are often listed under several of their comprising characters instead of just under the initial character. For example, •‚˜QŽาivagabond,drifterjcan be found listed under both •‚ and ˜Q (although not under Žา).

Compounds are grouped within a character entry according to how they reflect a particular meaning of that particular character. For example, entry #648 myaku , "vein" or "pulse," is divided into:

1) artery, blood vessel
“ฎ–ฌ@artery
2)something resembling a vein in shape or structure
ŽR–ฌ@mountain range
3)distinctive thread,vein,thread,line
–ฌ—@logical connection
4) pulse ,pulsation @@
•ฝ–ฌ @regular pulse

For recognizing subtle distinctions of meanings of kanji, and how they serve as building blocks of vocabulary, I believe this is a most worthwhile feature. (Note: This feature is also discussed at length in Column #10, "Halpern's vista offers a panoramic view of kanji meanings").

Another unique feature of this dictionary is The System of Kanji Indexing By Patterns (SKIP) method of dividing kanji into 4 patterns for indexing purposes:

1) Left-right ‘Š ŠฟC‘ใ
2) Up-down@‚,@บAิ
3) Enclosure@”—A“ฏA‘
4) Solid @‰บCใA’†@

SKIP is certainly a new and welcome approach to looking up kanji in a minimum amount of time. For example, ’ฌ@is classified as Pattern 1, a left- right character. The pattern number is followed .by stroke count of its left component “c@(5 strokes) and then the remaining stroke count of ’š, which is 2 . Hence the SKIP number, which tells its location in the dictionary, is 1-5-2.

Another useful indexing feature is the listing of kanji in subgroups, according to SKIP classifications, on the outside edge of the page. Thus in the case of ’ฌ, once you identify the subgroup of 1-5 you can hone in quickly on this kanji, regardless of its remaining stroke count, by looking at the listing on the edge of the page.@

While I have effectively used SKIP, I would suggest that the new user carefully peruse the SKIP explanations and also memorize the stroke count of important radicals, a listing of which is featured in the dictionary. Also included is a radical index catering to those who prefer the more tradtional radical lookup system.

A list of the most frequent 1000 Kanji is given. I would have preferred to have had this extended to include at least 2000 characters. I would also have liked to have had included the list of kanji synonyms which was presented in Halpern's original dictionary, the New Japanese English Character Dictionary.

For mastering kanji and speeding up reading comprehension skills, I have found the frequency table invaluable, and would recommend copying it from the book and scanning through it whenever you have some available time.

Of course, those eking a living as a translator or pursuing Japanese on a more advanced level would probably need a copy of the New Japanese English Character Dictionary, as it covers 1300 more characters than this one. Or, alternatively, the New Nelson or Spahn and Hadminsky dictionary. I would like to see Jack Halpern update his first dictionary to a format similar to Kanji Learners Dictionary in the near future, if possible, due to its far greater detail and more attractive format. All in all, the Kanji Learners Dictionary boasts many essential and valuable features and I would highly recommend it to the beginner or intermediate student of Japanese.

Postscript

There are three dictionaries now widely available for the English speaking learner of Japanese, (not counting the original Nelson's). They are: Jack Halpern's New Japanese English Character Dictionary (the condensed version is the Kanji Learner's Dictionary, which was reviewed above), Spahn and Hadminsky's Kanji Dictionary, (which also has a condensed edition), and the New Nelson Japanese English Character Dictionary, which is a complete revision of the original Nelson by John Haig.

Concerning which dictionary is most suitable, I would like to make the following comments. All three dictionaries have their respective merits. For sheer number of characters (7000 plus) and compounds, and for its unique Universal Radical Index where a character can be searched from any of its component radicals, the New Nelson is still a worthwhile purchase.

The Kanji Dictionary by Spahn and Hadminsky takes a different indexing approach through its simplification of the traditional 214 radicals to a mere 79. The listing of all compounds under all of their component kanji is a particularly useful tool for quick search of compounds. The overview list of all the kanji that contain a particular radical at the start of each chapter is also a useful learning and memory tool.

Halpern's New Japanese English Character Dictionary, with the innovative SKIP system and other features, such as 2000 plus kanji listed according to frequency, and compounds listed according to each specific meaning of the kanji (as explained above) also make it a valuable and scholarly work.

As I believe each dictionary's approach has its own respective merits, I resolved the quandary of which one to buy by purchasing them all! Just as a good photographer or artist would want to view his subject from various angles to properly appreciate and observe it, I believe the same is true with the aforementioned kanji dictionaries and the slightly different approaches or angles they take to Japanese/English kanji lexicography.

Note: To read a paper comparing the features of major Japanese-English character dictionaries, including this one, go here.