Software for students of Japanese

Christopher Glick, The University of Tokushima

This article will look at some of the Macintosh and Palm software choices available to students of Japanese as a second language. The world of shareware, freeware, and donationware (meaning payment is nice but not required) tends to provide highly specialized choices, which, when used in conjunction, can often provide comprehensive solutions for users of both the Macintosh and Palm operating systems. Both platforms offer speedy English-Japanese dictionaries and flashcard programs. The latter even offers a kanji writing practice application. In short, you can be ready to study the Japanese language anywhere.

While computers are not crucial to second language learning, they can facilitate the process. Desktop and handheld computers typically offer access to multimedia courses and Internet tools, as well as traditional dictionaries and flashcard programs. However, handhelds offer far greater mobility and convenience to let you study nearly anywhere, anytime. Foreign language students should consider these choices if they wish to maximize their opportunities to learn a foreign language, especially as language learning software can be difficult to find or use because of operating system (OS) language constraints.

Macintosh software

For many people, desktop and laptop computers are probably what come to mind when thinking about language-learning technology. Such machines offer great speed for inputting, outputting, and processing massive amounts of data. While there are complete home language training solutions such as those marketed by Rosetta Stone or Audio-Forum, for many users a flashcard program and bilingual dictionary can go a long way toward meeting one's needs. Kotoba is a donationware, automatic flashcard program for Macintosh OS X. The program's window can be set to float above all other windows or behave like a normal application window. Its transparency can also be adjusted so windows beneath it can be partially seen when in floating mode. The font face and size can also be freely set. Open the program's file editor (or import a pre-made list) to add your words for training. In short, although it does not collect statistics about which kanji you know, Kotoba shows you, at user-defined intervals, the kanji of your choice, followed by some more text (e.g., the onyomi or kunyomi), and finally yet more text (e.g., the definition or an example). Kotoba can also be used to study other languages.

Bilingual dictionaries in most European languages are readily available for many operating systems from vendors such as Ultralingua However, bilingual Japanese-English dictionaries targeted at non-Japanese speakers can be another matter. One possible choice for Macintosh OS X is WordLookup, a free program that provides multilingual translation through downloadable databases. This program will likely satisfy your basic translation needs, but for only $25 JEDict for Macintosh OS X is well worth a look. In addition to its bundled databases, from its website you can download a variety of free supplemental dictionaries covering topics on anything, from Japanese place names to forestry terms to medical vocabulary. Dictionaries can be toggled on and off easily depending on your reference needs. Leaving all dictionaries on (i.e., loaded) does not noticeably slow search speed, but it can produce overwhelming numbers of suggested and near hits. To search for kanji, you can assemble them from their component strokes, radicals, and bushu. You may also select them in Cocoa applications, then select Send to JEDict from the Services item under the File menu to look up kanji quickly (e.g., in an email).

For those with fulltime Internet access, NetD is a free multilingual dictionary that uses online dictionaries to translate between English and Japanese, as well as a few other languages. This handy application sits in your menubar, so it is accessible at all times.

Palm software

Unlike desktop computers, PDA systems have until quite recently been greatly limited by the cost of flash memory, as well as the limitations of their operating systems. One result of this is that Japanese language Palm OS applications will not display legibly on English Palm OS devices without the use of third-party software that consumes large amounts of operating memory. However, Japanese Palm OS should run most English and other 1-byte Roman alphabet languages without trouble.

For those with $25 to spare, Gakusoft's KingKanji (for Windows as well) replaces your pencil and paper by letting you write kanji onto the PDA's screen. The program's download includes several kanji databases taken from various textbooks (currently eight). These databases are loaded into memory to become flashcards with three fields: In the top field, English words or phrases appear; in the large bottom field, you write kanji. When you are finished writing, you click a button to show the correct kanji, then mark whether you drew it correctly. The program's own kanji can usually be clicked to show short animated sequences that draw the kanji in proper order. KingKanji can usually recognize when your strokes are nearly correct (such strokes are colored blue) or flat-out wrong (colored in red), although some strokes seem almost impossible to write correctly. Upgrades are increasingly improving the program's accuracy in detecting writing mistakes.

Walking JE (; search for Walking JE) is a fast, bilingual, Japanese-English dictionary. Using romaji input, the program will work on both Japanese and English Palm OS machines. It displays kanji by itself independently of the OS. Inputting romaji for Japanese words yields English words that can in turn be clicked to yield Japanese hits, inputting an English word yields a kanji (a graphic, not text, so a Japanese OS is unnecessary) and its reading in romaji, which can also be clicked to translate in reverse. It is not the most comprehensive of dictionaries, but for daily use, Walking JE is very useful, and is only $20. Its sizable databases can be moved to external memory cards, thus freeing up valuable working memory.

If you do not know the reading of a kanji and must resort to another method (such as counting strokes), the freeware Dokusha is what you need. It can search kanji by stroke count, radical, bushu, yomikata (reading), four corner, and SKIP and JIS codes. When the desired kanji appears, you can click it to see its component radicals, various data, and common characters with which it commonly appears in combination. For many users, the most useful function will be the Find First button that appears when you find a kanji. Clicking this button yields a list of kanji with the target one appearing first. Users scroll down until they find the two-character combination they were searching for. Dokusha also allows translating from English, but this function is far slower than Walking JE, and thus not recommended. In addition to its core kanji-searching functions, Dokusha has a flashcard option and the ability to read EUC-encoded Japanese Palm DOC files, meaning you click on a kanji in a document and you get the English for it almost immediately. For Macintosh OS X, the donationware application PalmDocConverter can make the needed conversion. As with Walking JE, the majority of Dokusha's dictionaries can be moved onto external media to keep the PDA's working memory free for other applications.

For those who have Japanese Palm OS devices, one bilingual dictionary choice is RoadLingua, which contains 78,912 entries.


Whether you are a serious student of Japanese or merely in need of occasional translations, many software choices, some of which have been described here, exist for users of Macintosh and Palm OS computing devices. Digital dictionaries can speedily assist you and let you store commonly sought words. Other applications can teach you kanji through flashcards or even how to write. In short, technology gives you fewer reasons not to be able to study and learn Japanese at your convenience.