Dictionaries and Related Books 辞典と関連の本

Below are some dictionaries I think Japanese language learners might find useful, though they are only a tiny fraction of all the materials available out there––kanji dictionaries alone could probably fill several library bookcases. Think of these as a good start.

Beginners 初心者

I didn’t use any of these dictionaries when I was a beginner, probably because they weren’t around back then, but I wish that I would have had them. Whatever I had for the first year or two (some “beginner” dictionaries) never had the words I needed. The sooner you master the Japanese hiragana and katakana alphabets, the better; it only takes a few days of practice if you put your mind to it. If you rely on dictionaries that only have the English language alphabet (romanization), it’d be just like someone trying to learn English without knowing the alphabet, or playing the Legend of Zelda with only the wooden sword–it can be done, but it’s not recommended, and it’s a severe limitation. If you don’t feel comfortable yet with these alphabets, though, or you are only looking for an introduction to the language, something like the Tuttle Pocket Japanese Dictionary: Japanese-English English-Japanese Completely Revised and Updated Second Edition would work fine.

Intermediate 中級者

Henshall’s dictionary is enjoyable, and the mnemonics are a helpful way to remember the characters, even if the explanations included with each entry aren’t necessarily accurate.

Nelson and Spahn are more conventional dictionaries. I prefer Nelson, but they both have their strong points, and I would recommend choosing the one that works best for you. As for Japanese-English / English-Japanese dictionaries, I can’t think of anything in paper at the intermediate level, because you need to know a lot of characters in order to make use of anything superior to the ones introduced above for beginners. In the Legend of Zelda, when you have the white sword, you are strong enough to make your way around the board, but you still stumble a lot. At the intermediate level, in particular, electronic resources become quite useful (writing a character with your finger in your iPhone to find it, or highlighting unknown characters to learn their meanings).

Advanced 上級者

At the advanced level, you gain access to amazing resources that will be invaluable for years to come–I still use them on a regular basis. It’s like playing the Legend of Zelda with the magical sword and most of your opponents on the screen become no more than minor nuisances. And, the price tag for the “Green Goddess” (the Japanese English dictionary) is about what you would expect for an item that is the equivalent of the magic sword.

Online オンライン

Of course, there are also dictionaries available for free online. I find that reading a paper dictionary gives me a better sense for the full range of expression, usage, and related words. However, even though they are no replacement for paper ones, when you just want a quick and concise equivalent of a word, it’s tough to beat the online resources.

Essential Books for Learners (Grammar)

As a beginner, I can remember reading through the first volume in this series and being floored by the explanations — “so that’s how the phrase works!” When I later went to Princeton as a graduate student, I was thrilled to be in the same department as Professor Makino, and tears came to my eyes when he completed the final volume and handed me a copy of it. Looking back to the early days of my studies, I never imagined I’d reach a level where I could comfortably sit in the author’s office and carry on a conversation in Japanese with him. In truth, it’s thanks to these books that I overcame many of the grammatical hurdles I encountered.

Essential Books for Learners (Power Japanese)

I’m a big fan of the Power Japanese series. The levels fluctuate, and some are better than others, but they all have something to offer learners. In particular, I vividly remember how Jay Rubin’s book helped me overcome several conceptual difficulties I was having in my early years of study.