When studying Japanese, a good kanji dictionary is essential to every serious student. A kanji dictionary actually functions much differently than a regular Japanese dictionary, so it is very important to have both.
The main use of kanji dictionaries is to look up a kanji that you know but do not know how to pronounce (or what it means in English). Sometimes it can be difficult to look up a kanji in a dictionary, especially for beginners. One easy way to get used to how kanji dictionaries work is to become familiar with the three basic ways to locate a kanji in a dictionary.
The first way, which is also the easiest method to understand, is to look up the kanji by number of strokes. Each kanji symbol has a stroke order which demonstrates how the kanji should be written and which lines should be made first. These stroke orders also show the total number of strokes it takes to make a kanji. If you are fairly experienced with kanji, you should be able to use this method without a problem. All you have to do is count the number of strokes in the kanji you want to look up. After you count the strokes, look in the kanji index at the front of the dictionary and find the list matching the total number of strokes you counted. If you are not quite as familiar with kanji, this could prove to be a little difficult. If you still want to use this method, I recommend just taking an educated guess and check the lists in the front of the dictionary that are a few strokes more and less than the amount you guessed. You should be able to locate it this way, but there are easier methods! Remember, typical kanji dictionaries have at least four thousand entries, and stroke counts range from one to thirty!
A less difficult and more reliable approach is to look the kanji up by its radical (“bushu” in Japanese). This is the most common method for looking up kanji in Japan. The radical method was first introduced in the Kang Xi dictionary from China and is a very effective way for looking up kanji (as long as you know the radicals). The radicals of kanji are pieces of a kanji symbol that are the same within different kanji, such as related words sharing pieces of each other’s symbol. The radical of the kanji is usually found on the left hand side or the top. You can identify the radical of the kanji, and then consult the radical list in the front of the dictionary. This list will tell you what pages that radical is found on. You can then turn to the correct page and look at the list of kanji with that radical—this list will increase by the number of strokes found in the kanji symbol. This is a complicated method, but it is much more reliable than the stroke count method. After practicing, you should be able to master this more effective method.
One way you can increase your chances of success with the radical method is to learn the names of the radicals. This process is time consuming, but may be well worth the effort for serious students. There are a little over two hundred different radicals! Learn a few each day, starting with the easiest ones and working up towards the more difficult radicals. For example, you may learn these radicals at first: 一 which is called “ichi,” 丨which is called “bou,” 丶which is “ten,” 丿which is “no,” and 乙which is “otsu.” These are some of the one stroke radicals. After learning all of the one stroke ones, move on to two, three, and so on.
A third method for locating kanji in a kanji dictionary is to go by the pronunciation of the kanji, if you know it. Kanji can have several types of pronunciations, and there is usually an on’yomi and a kun’yomi for each kanji. Kanji dictionaries usually have a list of pronunciations somewhere in the book. These list both the on readings and the kun readings. On readings are typically displayed in katakana characters while kun readings are listed in hiragana characters. You may know the on reading but not know the kun reading or vice versa. In this case, you can look up either the kun or the on reading in order to get the other reading.
You may be wondering: Why do some kanji have more than one pronunciation? Any individual kanji symbol can have multiple readings. When a kanji has both an on reading and a kun reading, the difference lies in the origin of the reading. The on’yomi came from the original Chinese readings of the kanji. Before kanji (Chinese characters) were brought to Japan, Japanese was only a spoken language. When kanji came to Japan, the Chinese pronunciations followed. Kun’yomi, on the other hand, is used for native Japanese words. These readings were assigned to symbols that meant what the kun’yomi meant in the spoken Japanese. Any given kanji can have more than one on’yomi or kun’yomi. For example, if a kanji has more than one kun’yomi, the difference will lie in the kana that follows the kanji. Let’s look at the base kanji for “go” (行). One reading of this kanji is 行く(“iku”), and a second reading is 行う(“okonau”). The difference is that “iku” has this symbol after it: くand “okonau” has this one う. That is why they are read differently and subsequently why they can have more than one meaning.
No matter what your experience with kanji has been thus far, you can definitely benefit from having a kanji dictionary. Learning to use the dictionary may be difficult, but it is definitely worth it in the long run! You can also use your kanji dictionary to expand your kanji vocabulary. These specialized Japanese dictionaries have many great uses. Best of all, you can find them in paper and online versions!