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This paper was published in "The Language Teacher" (Japanese Association for Language Teaching) Volume 25, Number 9, September, 2001.

Mary Sisk Noguchi
Associate Professor, Meijo University


For Japanese As a Second Language (JSL) learners, a Japanese-English character dictionary is much more than a reference tool: It is also the most comprehensive self-instructional tool available for learning new kanji and vocabulary. JSL learners in the 1960's, 70's and 80's relied on the "grandfather" of modern Japanese-English character dictionaries, Andrew Nelson's The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary, (1962). Owing to the appearance during the 1990's of three new Japanese-English character dictionaries, however, JSL learners today can tailor their choice of a dictionary to their own particular learning needs. The three new dictionaries are: Jack Halpern's New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, (1990), Mark Spahn and Wolfgang Hadamitzky's, The Kanji Dictionary,(1996), and John Haig's, The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, (1997).

JSL learners can save themselves both time and money by being well-informed when choosing among these four dictionaries. Not only are they relatively expensive, but a considerable investment of the user's time is also required in order to become proficient at using the unique indexing system of each. At first glance, the four-- all thick, heavy tomes-- may appear similar, but in fact they differ in a number of important aspects. The purpose of this paper is to detail differences in the following features of Japanese-English character dictionaries: indexing system, treatment of compound words (jukugo), number of entries, as well as a variety of other minor features. All of these differences are summarized in a chart for easy reference at the end of the paper.

What is a "Japanese-English Character Dictionary"?
The four dictionaries to be examined in this paper are the only Japanese-English character dictionaries currently in print which provide:(1) exhaustive lists of compound words, and (2) kanji entries extending well beyond the 1,945 general-use characters. Other portable kanji learning materials which use the words "dictionary," "handbook," or "guide" in their titles include: Sakade's A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese (1959), Hadamitzky and Spahn's Kanji and Kana, a Handbook and Dictionary of the Japanese Writing System(1981), and Kodansha's Compact Kanji Guide(1991). Books like these are used as kanji reference tools by many JSL learners, particularly at the beginning level, but their entries are generally confined to the general-use characters, their common pronunciations, and a few example compound words for each character.

Four Unique Indexing Systems
The indexing system of a character dictionary is of critical importance because, assuming the pronunciation of the character is unknown, it determines the speed at which desired characters and compound words can be located. Each of the four Japanese-English character dictionary designers, in seeking to create a user-friendly dictionary for foreigners, has devised his own alternative to the traditional radical indexing system used to organize character dictionaries designed for native speakers of Japanese. In Japanese, radicals are called 部首 (bushu, "section heads").

These radicals were introduced in 100 A.D. in a 42-volume Chinese dictionary, called the 説文解字 (setsumonkaiji), that listed 42,000 characters. In 1713, a character dictionary called the 康煕字典 (koukijiten) was published in China, in which the number of radicals was reduced to 214. These 214 radicals and approximately 150 variants ( and are variants of 人, for example) are still in use today, nearly 300 years later, for the purpose of organizing characters in dictionaries.

The "correct" organization of a character dictionary has always been a subject of debate among Japanese kanji scholars. Even native-speaking Japanese may have difficulty locating their desired kanji in a Japanese character dictionary (kanwajiten) on the first try. The difficulty lies in the fact that most kanji contain from two to eight radicals and the dictionary user does not know under which of these radicals the character will be listed. For example, the character 副 (fuku, secondary) is composed of the following four elements, all of which are radicals: 一 , 口 , 田, and . Most Japanese character dictionaries consider the radical to be the part of the character which is most closely associated with its meaning, putting the user in the paradoxical predicament of having to know the meaning of a character in order to look up its meaning in the dictionary.

(i) Nelson
Andrew Nelson's trailblazing work, The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary, first appeared in 1962. It replaced Rose-Innes' Dictionary of Chinese-Japanese Characters, which had first been published nearly fifty years earlier, at the turn of the century, as the most widely used character dictionary for foreigners. Nelson managed to compile the most comprehensive list of characters and compound words available to non-Japanese at the time: approximately 5,500 characters and 70,000 compounds. The compilation of the Nelson dictionary, produced before the age of computer lexicography, was a notable achievement, and it received numerous awards and accolades.

In designing his indexing system, Nelson retained use of the traditional 214 radicals and their 150 variants, but he created arbitrary rules, called the "Radical Priority System," for determining under which radical a character would be listed, thus eliminating the time-consuming trial and error process of guessing. To determine the radical for the desired character, Nelson users progress through his 12 Steps and stop at the first question which can be answered affirmatively: ("Step 1: 'Is the character I am looking for itself a radical?' Yes? Then that is the radical it is listed under. No? Then move on to Step 2: 'Does it have a completely exterior enclosure radical?' Yes? Then that is the radical it is listed under. No? Then move on to Step 3: 'Is there a clearly defined left radical?'" and so on). After identifying the radical under which it is listed, Nelson users then count the number of strokes in the rest of the character (the "residual stroke count") in order to find the character in the body of the dictionary.

(ii) Haig
Nelson's dictionary was well over a quarter of a century old before John Haig updated it in 1997. In compiling The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, Haig revised the entries to make the definitions more up-to-date, and added a number of new compound words. As opposed to the 5,500 of the original Nelson's, the new version contains over 7,000 main-entry characters. Any character which can be generated by JIS levels 1 and 2 on a word processor can be found in the Haig dictionary. Haig, like Nelson, based his indexing system on the traditional radicals. He added three "radical-like" elements, (マ, ク, and ) to the traditional 214, for a total of 217. Haig abandoned Nelson's Radical Priority System and replaced it with the Universal Radical Index (URI), which cross-indexes each character entry by every radical in it. This allows for efficient look-up based upon any known radical within the desired character. Each character is thus referenced one-eight times in the URI (depending on how many radicals it contains) to the place it occurs in the dictionary. The URI alone comprises over 2,000 pages, substantially increasing the bulk of the original Nelson's.

(iii) Spahn and Hadamitzky
Mark Spahn and Wolfgang Hadamitzky's The Kanji Dictionary appeared in 1997. Like Haig's dictionary, it includes over 7,000 kanji, but contains a smaller number of compounds (48,000, as opposed to Haig's 70,000). The Kanji Dictionary has a unique look-up feature: every kanji compound is listed under the entries for all of its component characters instead of only its first. For example, 誕生日 (tanjoobi, birthday) can be found under the entries for 誕, 生, and 日 in Spahn and Hadamitzky, but only under its first character, 誕, in Nelson and Haig. Thus, knowing any character in the compound allows the user to locate it quickly in Spahn/Hadamitzky. The second innovative feature of Spahn and Hadamitzky's look-up system is that it utilizes a streamlined 79 radicals, as opposed to the traditional 214 retained by both Haig and Nelson. Spahn and Hadamitzky have eliminated, for example, all radicals with only one stroke, and have reduced the number of radicals with 9-15 strokes from the traditional 39 to only 6. In reducing the number of radicals, these lexicographers have also compiled a group of approximately 275 characters which they consider to have no radical at all. Like the original Nelson's, The Kanji Dictionary uses a set of arbitrary rules for determining the radical-- a concise seven rules, as opposed to Nelson's twelve.

(iv) Halpern
As detailed above, Nelson, Haig and Spahn/Hadamitzky have each modified, in three unique ways, the traditional indexing system found in Japanese character dictionaries. Jack Halpern, in his New Japanese-English Character Dictionary (1990) takes a more revolutionary approach: he uses a look-up system totally unrelated to knowledge of radicals. Halpern's scheme, called the "System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns" (SKIP), is based instead upon the direct identification of geometrical patterns of characters. Each of the approximately 3,500 characters compiled in his New Japanese-English Character Dictionary is classified under one of four patterns, as detailed here:

SKIP Pattern Examples

left-right 相、代、情
up-down 示、二、響
enclosure 進、可、問
solid 自、子、重

Halpern explains his reasons for choosing these four patterns: they are in harmony with the way the characters are intuitively perceived; they often coincide with etymologically meaningful parts; and the distribution of characters among the four patterns, in terms of occurrences in newspapers, is fairly uniform (1990, p.111a). His system eliminates the need for knowledge of traditional radicals, but SKIP users must still be able to count the number of strokes in the desired character. For kanji dictionary users who are not interested in learning SKIP, Halpern also provides a Radical Index. Like Nelson, Haig, and Spahn/Hadamitzky, Halpern includes a pronunciation index. This lists the characters alphabetically, by both their on and kun pronunciations, alongside the page number where they may be found in the body of the dictionary. Utilizing these pronunciation indexes, dictionary users who happen to know any pronunciation of the desired character can avoid entirely the task of looking it up based upon its radical or shape.

Halpern's Listing of Compounds: Focus on Meaning
The principal function of the Nelson, Haig, and Spahn/Hadamitzky dictionaries is to enable the user to look up unknown characters and compounds as quickly and efficiently as possible. To expedite the search for a compound, both Nelson and Haig systematically list compounds in the following manner: compounds beginning with the entry character are listed based on the number of strokes in the second character, in ascending numerical order. Using the same ordering system, the Spahn/Hadamitzky dictionary first lists all compounds beginning with the entry character, and then goes on, in separate lists, to provide compounds that contain the character in secondary and tertiary positions.

While Halpern's dictionary also functions as an effective look-up tool, its primary aim is to address the intricate meanings of characters. For this reason, instead of simply listing compounds in the most systematic order, Halpern illustrates each of the various meanings (and shades of meaning) of the character entry with compounds that provide maximally useful examples of that particular meaning. Halpern's scheme for arranging compounds allows JSL learners to grasp how each sense of the character, often subtle in difference but dramatic in importance, serves as a unique building block for producing compounds. Each of the kanji used in written Japanese can have several distinct meanings, as well as a variety of shades of meaning; Halpern provides an in-depth exploration of the interrelationships between these meanings. Here, for example, is a sampling of the compounds he selects to illustrate each meaning of the character 野 (YA, no "field"):

(1) uncultivated field, open country, wilderness
野外 (yagai,field),平野 (heiya, plains), 野菜 (yasai, vegetables)

(2) sphere of action
分野 (bunya, field/sphere), 視野 (shiya, field of vision)

(3) baseball field
野球 (yakyuu, baseball), 内野 (naiya, infield)

(4) wild, undomesticated, savage, vulgar (growing or occurring in the field)
野生 (yasei, wild nature), 野蛮 (yaban, savage/uncouthness)

(5) non-governmental, outside the government
野党 (yatoo, opposition)

(6) audacious, inordinate
野望 (yaboo, ambition/treason)

Following the compound listings in each character entry, Halpern provides various examples of how the character can function independently. Beyond a simple listing of the character's kun readings, the other three dictionaries deal only with compounds. Two additional features in Halpern help JSL learners confront the myriad meanings of characters. First, Halpern provides one core meaning (or two, in cases where a character has two widely divergent meanings) for each character entry. This core meaning can be useful as a learning tool because it conveys the essence of the character in one concise thought and is easy to memorize. Halpern's core meaning for the character 野, for example, is "field."

Second, this dictionary provides a list of synonyms (characters which have the same or nearly the same meaning) for each of the individual meanings of each character. For example, the following are synonym lists provided for two of the meanings of 野, "range," and "vulgar/unrefined":

界 field
場 field
域 area
範 range
程 extent

粗 coarse
里 rural
俗 vulgar
蛮 barbaric
卑 mean

An appendix at the back of the dictionary gathers together all the synonym groups appearing in individual entries. By browsing through this synonym appendix, which serves as a simple thesaurus, JSL learners can gain insight into the semantic relations between characters.

Selecting the Character Dictionary Most Appropriate for Your Learning Needs
To summarize, in terms of scope, the number of characters and compound words presented in Halpern is the lowest of the four dictionaries. (See chart for detailed comparisons). According to Halpern, his compounds were selected on the basis of their ability to illustrate the entry character's meaning as well as on frequency statistics, and in principle, all high-frequency compounds in contemporary usage have been included. (1990, 40a). Kanji learners who are reading everyday, non-technical material may find that the value of Halpern as a tool for learning the meaning of characters makes up for its relatively limited number of compound word listings. On the other hand, translators, or anyone who is reading technical or otherwise high-level material, may at times be unable to find the character or compound they are looking for in Halpern, (or in Spahn/Hadamitzky). The exhaustive range of entries in both Nelson and Haig virtually guarantees that their users will find the desired compound without having to consult another reference.

With regard to indexing systems, the 214 radical system can be especially frustrating for beginning learners with no knowledge of kanji etymology. Nonetheless, as one becomes increasingly familiar with it, the radical system provides great insight into how the meanings of characters are intimately associated with their construction. Relatively advanced kanji learners who can easily recognize parts of characters as being radicals may find Haig's Universal Radical Index, which allows character look-up based on any known radical, easier to use than the Radical Priority System of the original Nelson's. Dictionary users who, while recognizing the value of learning radicals, prefer a streamlined (79 radicals) version of the traditional 214 radicals system, or who appreciate being able to look up an unknown compound based upon knowledge of any of its characters, may find Spahn/ Hadamitzky best-suited to their needs. Those who have no particular interest in learning radicals have a savior in Halpern's SKIP indexing system, which is based instead upon geometrical patterns.

A number of JSL kanji learners today supplement their printed Japanese-English character dictionaries with portable electronic ones. One of the dictionaries discussed above, Halpern, is already available in electronic book form. Free character dictionaries are also accessible on the Internet. These modern resources, as well as the advanced computer lexicography which made the three new printed dictionaries possible, are all good news for today's JSL kanji learners. As they select the reference tools which will best serve their own particular kanji learning needs, they have more choices than ever before.

View a chart detailing differences in the four dictionaries.
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Hadamitzky, W. and Spahn, M. (1981). Kanji and kana: a handbook and dictionary of the
Japanese writing system.
Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.
Haig, J.H. (1997). The new Nelson Japanese-English character dictionary. Singapore: Charles E. Tuttle Company.
Halpern, J. (1990). New Japanese-English character dictionary. Tokyo: Kenkyusha.
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Rose-Innes, A. (1959). Dictionary of Chinese-Japanese characters, 4th edition. Tokyo: Meiseisha.
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Spahn, M. and Hadamitzky, W. (1996). The kanji dictionary. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.
----------- (1991). Kodansha's compact kanji guide. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.