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.
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.
- Kodansha. Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary (Kodansha Dictionaries). New York: Kodansha America, 2012. 978-1568364575
- Kodansha. The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary: Revised and Expanded. New York: Kodansha International, 2013. 978-1568364070
- Kodansha. Kodansha’s Furigana English-Japanese Dictionary. New York: Kodansha International, 2013. 978-1568365060
- Kodansha. Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese-English Dictionary (Kodansha Dictionaries) . New York: Kodansha International, 2012. 978-1568364223
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).
- Henshall, Kenneth. A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters 2nd Edition. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1995. 978-0804820387
- Nelson, Andrew. The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1997. 978-0804820363
- Spahn, Mark. The Kanji Dictionary (English and Japanese Edition) . North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1996. 978-0804820585
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.
- Masuda, Koh. Kenkyusha’s New Japanese English Dictionary, Fifth Edition. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 2003. 978-4767420165
- Takebayashi, Shigeru. Kenkyusha’s New English Japanese Dictionary, Sixth Edition. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 2002. 978-4767410166
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.
- Makino Seiichi and Tsutsui MichioA Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar(日本語基本文法辞典). Tokyo: The Japan Times, 1986. 978-4789004541
- Makino Seiichi and Tsutsui MichioA Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar(日本語文法辞典 [中級編]). Tokyo: The Japan Times, 1995. 978-4789007757
- Makino Seiichi and Tsutsui MichioA Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar 日本語文法辞典 [上級編]. Tokyo: The Japan Times, 2008. 978-4789012959
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.
- Asahi Shukan. 「デキゴトロジー」を読む Strange But True: A True Life Japanese Reader (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1997. 978-4770020574
- Ashby, Janet. 日本語で読もう Read Real Japanese (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1994. 978-4770017543
- Bookman, Mark. 楽しく読む日本語 Living Japanese: A Modern Reader (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1995. 978-4770020352
- Brennan, John. 決まり文句の辞典 Common Japanese Phrases (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1997. 978-4770020727
- Brennan, John. 日本語ビジネス・フレーズ集―ビジネスは定番フレーズで始まる! Common Japanese Business Phrases (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1997. 978-4770020727
- Chino Naoko 茅野 直子 . Japanese Verbs at a Glance (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1996. 978-4770019851
- Fukuda Hiroko 福田 浩子. FLIP,SLITHER,and BANG―Japanese Sound and Action Words (POWER JAPANESE)>. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993. 978-4770016843
- Fukuda Hiroko 福田 浩子. T‐shirt Japanese Versus Necktie Japanese: Two Levels of Politeness (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1995. 978-4770018342
- Garrison, Jeffery. T‐shirt Japanese Versus Necktie Japanese: Two Levels of Politeness (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1991. 978-0870119552
- Garrison, Jeffery. 「気」の慣用句集 Communicating with Ki: The “Spirit” in Japanese Idioms (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1994. 978-4770018335
- Goshi Masahiko 郷司正彦 and Jeffery Garrison. 動物の慣用句集―日本語と英語はこんなに違う Animal Idioms (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1996. 978-4770016683
- Shōji, Kakuko 庄司香久子. 日本語の基礎ルール Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1997. 978-4770019684
- Kimiya Kayoko 木宮 加代子 and George Wallace. 日英 四字熟語 Kanji Idioms (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1995. 978-4770019431
- Rubin, Jay. 日本語の秘訣 Gone Fishin’: New Angles on Perennial Problems (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1992. 978-4770016560
- Shōji, Kakuko 庄司香久子. 辞書では解らない慣用表現 Core Words and Phrases: Things You Can’t Find in a Dictionary (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1999. 978-4770023889
- Stewart, Anne Matsumoto. All About Katakana カタカナ練習ノート (Power Japanese)>. New York: Kodansha America, 1993. 978-4770016966
- Vance, Timothy. Instant Vocabulary Through Prefixes and Suffixes (Power Japanese)>. New York: New York: Kodansha America, 1991. 978-0870119538