In Japanese, there are three syllabaries. There is the angular alphabet, Katakana and the cursive alphabet, Hiragana. These two are very easy to use; each character represents a syllable, and, to write out a word, you simply write down the characters that match the spoken syllables.

Sigh. And then there's Kanji. Kanji are a gigantic set of ideograms imported from China by the Japanese. They are legion. To simply read a newspaper (which, I've been told, many Japanese highschoolers can not do), one must know about two thousand Kanji.

That's why having and being able to use a Kanji dictionary is very handy. Sure, it's slow and painstaking, and sure, they are really expensive, but it really is the only way to go when you're starting out and can't recognize the primitives.

Let me say this right off-the way Kanji dictionaries are organized is crazy. Really crazy. Like "what the hell?!" crazy. I mean, think about it-they'd have to be in order to logically index thousands and thousands and thousands of characters, each of which can be composed many different strokes.

I've seen a few variations on the way they are indexed, however the most common method is to do it by a Kanji's radical. A radical is like a primitive or prototype stroke (or set of strokes) by which a Kanji is indexed. Recognizing a radical can be tough because they are composed of multiple strokes, and therefore it is hard to tell what is radical and what's not. Most Kanji dictionaries have a grid or something somewhere in them that shows all of the radicals.

Once you're able to distinguish radicals, you have to move on to find by which one the character is indexed. There are many steps, of which I will list a few here (these are paraphrased from The Original Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary by Andrew N. Nelson). You follow the steps in order, and the first radical to answer one of them is the one you're looking for:
  • Is all the character a radical?
  • Does one radical enclose the entire character?
  • Is there a radical on the left?
  • Is there a radical on the right?

And so forth. Once the character's radical is found, you count the number of strokes in it. Once this is done, the dictionary will generally have some kind of method to correlate the number of strokes in a character's radical with the number of strokes in the non-radical part of the character. This will lead to a section that has a list of full characters and character definitions that have the radical you found coupled with another part that has the number of strokes in the non-radical part of your character. You then read through there until you find the right one.

I told you it was crazy.

For the English speaker interested in learning to read Japanese , beyond a firm commitment to learning radicals and a high tolerance for feeling like an idiot, I recommend a system designed by Jack Halpern, and used exclusively in dictionaries for which he is the editor.

The best place to start is the quite reasonably priced "Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary" (ISBN 4-7700-2335-9)

Designed for the English learner of Japanese, the dictionary does not assume that its user knows lots of radicals and their various pronunciations. Halpern's SKIP system organizes kanji first by general shape, then by stroke count. This produces a three-number code. Once you know the code, it becomes much less tedious to find the kanji you want. The dictionary gives pronunciations for kanji, in both Japanese and Chinese readings, stroke order diagrams, and several common usages. Halpern even considers that for many kanji it is easy to miscount the strokes. For such kanji he includes pointers to the correct stroke count.

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