As per my previous post, I far prefer using an electronic dictionary for studying Japanese over paper based dictionaries. Some advantages of electronic dictionaries:
- Handwriting input - by far, this is the easiest way to search for a character or a word - just write it, and the computer will recognise and automatically look it up. As a bonus, it allows you to practice your handwriting and also helps you remember the character (through motor memory).
- Ability to look up multiple dictionaries simultaneously - no single dictionary is perfect. Electronic dictionaries allow multiple dictionaries to be searched, and allow you to browse all matching results returned. I have encountered more than a few phrases that was made clear only on one dictionary but not the others.
- Ability to search by kana (or even romaji!)
- Speed - paper based dictionaries can take minutes to search for entries, on an electronic dictionary, the search is complete within seconds of completing the handwriting
- Cross indexing and searching - looking up the entry for one word allows related words to be looked up as well.
The following paragraphs summarizes various PC or PDA based electronic dictionaries I have tried, on various devices (sorted by increasing sophistication, usability but also complexity and cost.) I have *not* tried the dedicated 電子辞書 (those small handheld electronic dictionaries from Sharp, Seiko, Casio, Canon etc.) mainly because these are difficult to purchase in Australia and besides, why spend hundreds of dollars buying a dedicated unit that doesn't do anything else when I can leverage my existing gadget collection (PCs, PDAs, mobile phones)?
Firstly, let's cover off the software, then the devices supporting the software. I have basically used the following programs: JWPce, EBWin/WBPocket, zdict, zten and sljisho. There are lots of other good dictionary programs out there (including a few that support the PDIC format originally used on PalmOS handhelds), however, I have never tried them since I am perfectly happy with the ones I have tried.
This works on PC (Windows XP) and PDA (Windows Mobile). It doesn't require Japanese language support to be enabled in your computer/PDA, since it comes with it's own fonts and automatically translates romaji entered into hiragana/katakana/Kanji.
The author calls JWPce a "Japanese word processor" but I think that's a bit misleading, since its word processing features are extremely limited (it doesn't support character formatting capabilities and only has the most rudimentary paragraph formatting capabilities). It's probably more accurate to refer to it as "a text editor for entering Japanese text, with a built in user-extensible set of dictionaries."
The main advantage of JWPce is that it is extremely easy to install (it self installs the first time you run the executable) and doesn't require any additional libraries or fonts or text input support. I have it installed on just about every device I own: several PCs, including my company supplied laptop that I use for work, as well as my PDA and even my mobile phone (which runs Windows Mobile).
As a text editor, it's pretty good, but only has basic features. I use it a lot to input lesson summaries and notes, and also to compose email (I type it in Japanese on JWPce, then cut and paste into an email program).
It supports an extensive Kanji character reference lookup function, based on an early version of KANJIDIC2. You can find the Kanji character you are looking for in several ways: the easiest if you know the reading is to type the reading in hiragana, and then use JWPce's Convert function to convert it to Kanji. After that, you can select the character, and look up the information using "Kanji Get Info ..."
You can also look up Kanji using other wasy (Bushu lookup, SKIP lookup, Index Lookup etc.) My favourite is "Multi Radical Lookup" which allows you to select components that make up the character, and it will narrow down the search to characters containing these components (the list of components are basically the list of 214 Bushus).
It also has a built in dictionary. You can load as many dictionaries as you want (and it can search them simultaneously), and specify the search order, but they all have to be in EDICT format. There are several dictionaries available in this format (including EDICT, ENAMDICT) from the Monash Nihongo ftp archive.
I have heard a few negative comments about EDICT (the descriptions are too terse, and not subtle enough to differentiate between close synonyms, no example sentences, etc.) but for the money (free) I think EDICT is superb, and more than suitable for a beginner. I used EDICT and JWPce as my only dictionary for more than six months and I often had no problems with its definitions. Indeed, even now, EDICT sometimes surprises me by offering definitions for obscure phrases that the commercial dictionaries are silent on.
The main issue with using JWPce only as a dictionary is that the user interface is not really optimized for dictionary only lookups. It doesn't remember past searches, and it's very hard to do a cross search (you basically have to cut and paste text into the JWPce's edit buffer).
This is a great dictionary program, and one that I use just about every day. It reads any dictionary or e-book in the EPWING format, a popular format used in Japan. Best of all, the programs are free (or at least EBWin is - EBPocket has both freeware and shareware versions). EBWin is a Win32 application, and EBPocket runs on Windows Mobile (various versions).
However, to look up Japanese words (in Kanji or kana) you pretty much need a system that has Japanese text input enabled, since EBPocket/EBWin doesn't do any text transformations.
Sharp Zaurus dictionaries
These are dictionary programs that run the Sharp Zaurus line of Linux handhelds. My SL-C3200 comes with zdict and the Koujien/Genius dictionaries, which are in EPWING format (but encrypted, so I can't copy them to a PC and view them using EBWin). zten and ztenv are alternative open source EPWING viewers available for the Zaurus. Earlier Zaurus devices came with a different dictionary program (based on Gakken) called sljisho. It is possible to copy sljisho from an earlier device and run it on the SL-C3200 and that is what I have done.
zdict is also a generic EPWING viewer so it is possible to load other EPWING dictionaries onto the Zaurus, and if you are careful about the placement of these dictionaries, you can make them accessible by zdict, zten and ztenv simultaneously by installing the dictionaries into a common location.
There are some great dictionaries available in EPWING format, including all the major dictionaries used in Japan: 広辞苑 (Koujien - preinstalled on the Zaurus), 大辞林 (Daijirin), 研究社 (Kenkyusha), Eijiro etc. plus some great freeware ones: check out Maximilk, Hans Hloeffler's conversions of EDICT et al into EPWING format, FPWBOOK, http://homepage3.nifty.com/satomii/etc. Also check out Peter Rivard's http://www.japaneselanguagetools.comif you want to buy some commercial EPWING dictionaries (I bought Eijiro from him) - he even runs a nice service selling you a complete package including PDA, memory card and dictionaries of your choice.
I am a big fan of EPWING dictionaries, I have amassed a collection of nearly 2GB of commercial and freeware dictionaries.
And now for the devices for hosting these dictionaries. The main issue is getting a device that supports Japanese text input, there are various options for these, ranging from easy to install (but perhaps limited in flexibility/usability) to perhaps the ultimate in flexibility/usability (but cost $$$).
Any normal PC running the English version of Windows
The easiest option is just to install JWPce, which is what I have done on my work laptop (it's "locked down" which means I can't install any device drivers or anything that writes into the Windows directory. Fortunately JWPce is one of the few programs that I can install). Downside is no handwriting support.
Second option is to install Japanese language support, and the Japanese IME (Input Method Editor). This will allow you to enter Japanese in a way similar to JWPce, and run EBWin. Not only that, you can pretty much "Japanese enable" Microsoft Word, Excel, Access etc.
Depending on your PC, version of Windows and version of Microsoft Office, you may or may not be able to get handwriting support (using a mouse). If you can get handwriting support, I recommend buying a graphics tablet (such as the Wacom Graphire series) which is relatively cheap (I paid just over A$100 for mine) and allow you to write Kanji using a pen.
If you are a Microsoft MSDN subscriber, you can get access to Japanese versions of Windows, Office etc (depending on your subscriber level) so you can build your own "Japanese" PC if you like. I have loaded the Japanese versions of XP and Office on a spare PC as an experiment, and that was an interesting learning experience in itself.
PDA running Windows Mobile
Again, easiest option is to install JWPce, which is what I have done on my mobile phone (an i-mate JasJam supplied by work).
If you are feeling more adventurous, you can "hack" an English Language Windows Mobile PDA to support Japanese handwriting input. A poster by the name of "Bagoj" hacked the necessary system files (from the Windows Mobile SDK) and bundled them in a package in this forum. Subsequently another poster called Asukal has been creating "Localization .CAB"s for various devices and East Asian languages (for example, check out this link).
I have installed Bagoj's hack into my Asus A730W PDA running Windows Mobile 2003SE, and it works quite well, except for a few quirks (the most annoying being the appearance of a floating toolbar whenever text input is required).
After a few months, I became very irritated by this toolbar.
The best option is simply to buy a PDA running the Japanese version of Windows Mobile. Unfortunately, standalone PDAs (without phone functionality, which may not be usable outside of Japan) are becoming quite hard to find. Particularly since I was interested in one with a VGA resolution screen (480x640) which is optimal for displaying Kanji.
Again, for those who are feeling adventurous, it may be possible to replace the English ROM on your PDA with a Japanese ROM. Strictly speaking, this is not legal as different language ROMs have different licensing conditions, but some device manufacturers seem more willing to "bend the rules" for their customers (Asus, for example, will ship a "Language Unlock" program to customers of some of their PDAs upon request).
My PDA, the Asus A730W, was never sold in Japan, so there are no Japanese ROMs available for it. However, almost by accident, recently I discovered it was in fact rebranded and sold in Japan as the Fujitsu Pocket Loox v70. Even better, it's possible to download the Japanese ROM from Fujitsu (Version 2.2L10).
Comparing the Japanese ROM with the English ROM leads me to suspect it should be possible to load the Japanese ROM into my English device. So I copied it to an SD card, then tried booting the PDA into firmware upgrade mode. The machine complained that the ROM language (0411) did not match the device language (0409). So I inspected the ROM with a Hex editor, and change 2 bytes to "pretend" that the ROM is an English one. Repeating the flash process, the update program complained that the CRC check didn't match. So, in again with the Hex editor, searched for a sequence of bytes containing the original CRC (in little-endian sequence), changed them to what the firmware flash said should be the correct CRC, repeated the flash process, and voila! the PDA started to reprogram the Flash ROM with my "fake" English ROM (which was actually the Japanese ROM).
After a few tense minutes, the firmware upgrade completed successfully, and after a hard reset (and a few more anxious moments whilst the machine did some internal reorganisation) I was greeted with a "Pocket Loox" boot screen and the Windows Mobile hard reset initialization screen, in Japanese!
The "upgrade" was certainly worth it, because I now have, to all intents and purposes, a Japanese Windows Mobile PDA, allowing me not only to run EBPocket, but also Word, Excel, etc. in Japanese. Fujitsu also offers an alternative handwriting recognition input system called "Japanist." I found a trial version on the Fujitsu web site, and it's not bad (it supports recognition of cursive kanji writing) but I'm quite happy with the standard handwriting input panel so I'll stick with that for the time being.
Even better than a Windows Mobile PDA is the power of open source and Linux, in a pocket. Sharp produces a line of PDAs called the "Zaurus" that runs a version of Linux. These are powerful PDAs indeed, looking almost like miniature laptops complete with VGA screens, hard disk and keyboard. Sharp used to sell the Zaurus in English speaking countries, but all the latest models are for the Japanese market only.
I ended up ordering a Sharp SL-C3200 (the latest, greatest model) from PriceJapan. The strong A$ means I paid less than A$500 for it, even after shipping and surcharge - in Australia I can't even buy any VGA PDA for that price, let alone one that "speaks" Japanese.
The Sharp Zaurus is the ultimate portable Japanese language learning tool - it has the Koujien and Genius dictionaries built in, plus Japanese/English translation software, text to speech software (English only though), and it even comes with a browseable map of various Japanese cities, and an electronic guide to the rail system. Plus it runs Linux, and there are several really good Japanese learning programs available (like tomotko, the mio suite, Kanji Nirvana etc.)
There's also something to be said in terms of using a device that is completely in Japanese. All the menus and screen text are in Japanese, the manuals are in Japanese, it really throws the user into an immersive learning experience. I am quite comfortable using the device now, and have no problems with the Japanese user interface.
I'll try and create a separate post in the future showcasing the abilities of the Zaurus and specifically how it is helping me learn Japanese (my Kanji etymology stories and cross index reference posts were partly created on the Zaurus).
The ultimate: A Japanese mini Tablet PC
Of course, if you want everything: portability, usability, flexibility, and don't mind paying top dollar, the ultimate Japanese dictionary and learning tool is a tablet PC running Japanese version of Windows. You get everything: handwriting recognition (through the touchscreen), a keyboard that supports Japanese characters, a general purpose computing device, and portability (if you pick the right model).
There are tons of very small form factor tablet PCs available (usually called UMPCs) but few of these support Japanese natively. A company called Kohjinsha do make Japanese models, as does Fujitsu.
I didn't really like the super small form factor of the UMPC (these units are barely bigger than the Zaurus and almost impossible to touch type on), so I picked a miniature notebook/tablet PC from Fujitsu called the FMV-BIBLO LOOX P70 U/V (bit of a mouthful!) which I also ordered from PriceJapan. Despite it shipping from Japan, it still ended up being at least A$500 cheaper than the locally sold equivalent, the P1610.
I've only just received this, so I am only still playing with it. So far I have managed to get it connected to my wireless network, and it's been busy downloading lots of updates from Fujitsu and Microsoft, so when I become more familiar with it I may document my thoughts in a separate post. The P70 is supposed to come bundled with a copy of Koujien, but I haven't found it yet, so if anyone knows where it is let me know.