Learning Japanese on the computer

 
Most of these tips will apply to Windows machines. The next best supported platform would be Linux.
Last update:  3/2012

Contents

Getting started

Japanese language programs

Dictionaries

Hardware

Webpages

Other computer-related media

Conclusion

Introduction

The computer may be single most useful source of Japanese extension learning material. With just a few skills at being able to install Japanese reading software and searching the web it becomes apparent how convenient it is to have unlimited reading material and its translation all on the one screen (quick example here). Plus,  most of the software is free. People who spent their time on the materials had one goal in mind, to make translation an attractive process, where searching is as transparent as possible so that you may choose and read freely. Breaking through the motivation hurdle (めんどくさいハードル) may be the best thing learning Japanese on the computer has to offer.

Getting started

(see also this guide if you would like pictures or detail)

Displaying Japanese characters

First thing is to make sure that your computer has been installed to read Japanese characters. Please skip this section if you are familiar with Japanese input already. The Windows XP installation disc has all the necessary files to do this, but may not copy them the first time you install.

To check, you can go to Control Panel and open “Regional and Language Options”, click on the “Language Options” tab, and click on the details button. In the window below “Installed services”, if there is no entry for Japanese, then it hasn’t been installed on your computer yet. To install it, click on “Add...”, select Japanese for the input language, leave the “Keyboard Layout” as it is, and click ok. Back in the Regional and Language options window, also check that “Install files for East Asian languages” is ticked. Click ok again and follow whatever on-screen prompts appear on screen.

(If you are looking at the pictorial guide you may ignore the 'set Japanese for "Language for non-Unicode programs"' bit; read the Application Locale section here if you need it to install certain programs).

When the process is finished, the taskbar on the bottom of the screen should have the letters “EN” displayed. If you click on it, you will be able to select Japanese. The only confusing thing here is that there are a few “modes” for entering Japanese in your programs. Whenever Windows starts, it will be in “Direct input” mode. To start typing in Japanese, you have to click “Input Mode” in the taskbar and change it to hiragana/katakana etc.

If you ever find that you have selected Japanese in the taskbar but only Western text is coming out when you type, it is because Windows is still in this useless “Direct Input” mode. When this happens, change it to hiragana again.

Big tips: 

Keyboard shortcuts

It is a hassle to keep using the mouse to change English/Japanese while you are typing. Try to use the keyboard shortcuts instead. Hold down the left “alt” and then press the left “shift” together. You will notice that the language selection in the taskbar swaps. This is a quick way to toggle English/Japanese. To get around the “input mode” flaw, press the left alt plus the “~” key (located beside the “1” key). This swaps the input mode. You may need to only do this once the time you open each application.

After typing a string of characters, pressing “ctrl-i” (the key stroke normally used for italics) will change it into katakana, although in most cases pressing “space” to convert it usually detects the correct hiragana/katakana spelling.

See this page for lots more power shortcuts.

Handwriting recognition

In the language bar set to Japanese hiragana input mode, it is possible to click the "toolbox icon", go to "IME PAD" and select the little brush icon from the menu to bring up a handwriting input panel. Now you can draw kanji characters (and others) and have them recognised for you! It takes a little playing around and hopefully correct stroke order, but for touch screen machines especially this is like a tool made in heaven ^^;  For more instructions see this page.

Other Japanese reading tips:

Once you have installed Japanese support on your machine, you will be able to read Japanese web pages. If you want to find some, search for something obscurely Japanese in culture or type in some Japanese characters into a search page. If you find that you get garbled text when you try and visit a Japanese page, it is because the correct “page encoding” was not automatically detected. Again, for now this is one of the other computer skills that will need to be familiarised with. Right click on the page you are trying to read, and choose “Japanese auto-detect” or “Japanese Shift-Jis” for encoding.

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How to write Japanese characters

tutorial for typing (short)

Using Japanese for the input method in the taskbar try typing “a” and press enter. You will see it comes out as “. In general, the computer will translate your romaji into hiragana automatically. After you type words, you must press enter to paste the text into your word processing program – this is required because later we’ll see some words could be translated into kanji instead.

 For long vowels, you should use the hiragana version for spelling – i.e. to write もう type in “mou” not “moo” and press enter. The subject particle is typed in “ha”, the subject pointer is typed in “wo”, the direction marker “is “he” and is typed “nn”. Everything else is how you write it in romaji, including double consonants for the small tsu eg. がっこう is typed “gakkou”. Another way to make some characters small is to type 'x' in front of them, i.e. the small yocan written separately by typing 'xyo' and the small tsu can also be typed 'xtu' (though not by 'xtsu').

Check out the Windows Japanese Input help anytime for these key conversions plus others.

2) Try typing in the following words in hiragana:

1. gakkou

2. asagohann

3. benkyou

4. okaasann

5. otousann

6. tooi

7. chikai

8. omoshiroi

3) Practice the following sentences. Don’t forget to type in the ‘full-stop’ at the end of the sentence. 

  1. tanaka sann ha nihonnjinn desu.

  2. daigaku no soba ni ookii kouenn ga arimasu.

  3. senshuu tomodachi no yamada sann to banngohann wo tabemashita.

  4. kono kyoukasho ha sannzenngohyaku enn deshita.

  5. watashi no shusshinn ha hokkaidou no wakkanai no chikaku desu. 

4) Katakana 

Type in characters as you would for hiragana, press “ctrl-i” and then press enter. You will see the typed text turn into katakana. For long vowels, use the “–” key for ― eg. コーヒー is typed “ko-hi-“. The katakana spacer "dot" ( · ) is typed by pressing "/". Everything else is the same. 

5) Kanji 

If you can read kanji, you can write kanji, at least so long as you are using a computer. Type “daigaku”, press the spacebar until the correct word is highlighted, and press enter. Try this for some words you know, eg. gakusei, sensei, nihongo, okimasu, kikimasu 

6) Practice the following sentences.

  1. toukyou no kikou ha amari samuku nai desu.

  2. tokkaidou daigaku ha yuumei desu.

  3. nihonngo no waapuru ha totemo kanntann da.

  4. Kinou kyannpasu no nashonaru banku he itta.

  5. rainenn no sanngatsu ni daigaku wo sotsugyou shimasu.

OK! Now you can communicate. Now get some programs which make the most of this.

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Software

Japanese language programs

Wakan (wakan.manga.cz/)

This is my favourite reading program. It is available for Windows only. It has been in short development with no update since the end of 2006 and can be unstable at times, but is still workable enough. What this program will let you do is copy a passage of Japanese text into it and have furigana (hiragana pronounciation of Kanji) as well as the English meaning of words written in between the lines. You will be able to make sense of long passages extremely quickly this way and find the sections which are relevant. Compare this with reading the text book: you get to choose whatever reading material interests you from the net, and you don’t have to stop and look up each word you don’t understand. It’s motivational pleasure on two fronts.

Installing it of course is the hard part. Visit the homepage (wakan.manga.cz/) and click on the download link. Download the “Wakan Complete Package” file. Also, scroll down a bit until you see the the “Japanese Example Sentences” link. Download this file too.

Double click the Wakan install file, follow the prompts and choose a folder to put it in, like "c:\program files\wakan". After it is done, open the example sentences zip file you also downloaded (double-clicking it will open a window with its compressed contents) and copy the contents into the wakan folder you just specified.

Now you can open the program. You can navigate the start menu to find the shortcut to Wakan. Once it has opened, in  the top toolbar click on “Editor / Translator”. You will see a word processing window appear. Try and get some Japanese text from any source such as the web and copy and paste it into this window (if you want copy some quickly try here). Then, make sure the two “じんand “buttons in the second toolbar are pressed in. Okay, now click on the lightbulb button in that toolbar.

After a while, you should see furigana and English translation written in between the lines. Quite neat I think. The two “じんand “buttons in the toolbar let you choose to show furigana and English. Good for testing memory.

At the bottom of the text processing area (not the toolbar above) is is a button marked “Dictionary”. Click on this and the currently positioned word will have it’s dictionary search displayed in full. You can also search here in Japanese and English, it will even accept conjugated typed words. Cool! The best part of the dictionary is that some of the words will have example sentences (check the “Examples” button below the dictionary area). Incredibly useful for understanding new word usage. One tip for reading: ctrl-h will turn furigana on/off, so you can not let it distract your concentration until you need it :)

This is the best all-round Japanese language software I know of. You will have an endless supply of vocab from Japanese articles you paste in and you will see for yourself which words you consider “useful” or “common”. I first used this to translate conversations on a Kobe daigaku BBS board. I will never forget how this program gave me the first step in having (mixed-langauge ;) conversations with Japanese speakers.

Check the Wakan homepage for other abilities of this flexible software, in particular the specialised dictionary sets available for download. Due to ambiguities in kanji readings, the furigana will not always be 100%. Also be aware that some people find it triggers a Windows bug which can be fixed here. Wakan uses the free “edict” dictionary by Jim Breen of Monash University for its translations. It is a terse Japanese to English (English to Japanese does not work so well) dictionary with around 100,000 entries. If you have heard of this dictionary then now you know you have a copy of it in Wakan. All free.

Popjisyo (www.popjisyo.com)

This is not a program in that you don’t download it and install it on you computer, but a “web portal” that allows you to type in any other page url and view it with the aide of explanation “popups” over any Japanese word you highlight (hence the “pop”, and “jisyo” which is じしょ, Japanese for “dictionary”). For simplicity this website cannot be beat. Go to the page (www.popjisyo.com) and type in a url to a Japanese website in the space below “Browse the web with pop-up hints” (quick example here). Hover the mouse over any Japanese text and see that it detects the word and shows the English translation and reading information for any kanji present.

This is probably the easiest way to surf Japanese web sites, but if you are starting out you may feel it is quicker to copy and paste text into Wakan and translate the full text to avoid having to highlight individual words with the mouse. Popjisyo appears to use edict again for its translation.

 Rikaichan (http://www.polarcloud.com/rikaichan/)

Related to Popjisyo, using the same edict dictionary and similar lookup technique is Rikaichan, a Firefox extension. This will allow you to quickly toggle automatic dictinoary lookup a lot quicker than entering an address into Popjiyso all the time - just access it via your right click menu! Rikaichan is based on Rikai, a webportal that behaves in a similar way to Popjisyo. My most used Japanese software in addition to...

Personal Dictionary (PDIC) (homepage3.nifty.com/TaN/)

This is the default dictionary reader for Eijiro (see below). Although the original reader is limited to Windows and WinCE machines, to me it is the most intuitive, merging multiple dictionary entries into a single word look up. It also includes a handy clipboard popup search. Furthermore, it is the only choice for machines which support only unicode as a means of displaying Japanese applications. Finding PDIC format dictionaries outside of Eijiro and edict (versions available here) is uncommon, but they can be converted with various methods. My method for converting Kenkyusha dictionaries from epwing to PDIC format can be found here.

Japanese Application Locale

This add-on for Windows XP is convenient only if you are interested in running programs designed to run on Japanese-version Windows machines. Usually, Japanese-made programs (such as dictionary software) come up with garbled text when run on a Western Windows machine. Please visit this page if want a partial solution to choosing which region locale should be used when running applications: home.cfl.rr.com/animemusouka/Kiminozo_Install_Guide.html (scroll to the bottom of the page for a right-click menu option to use Japanese locale).

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Dictionaries

The power of the electrionic dictionary is its instant look-up and ability to accept copied text from computer sources, as we see in Wakan. Having to look up kanji in a book dictionary is a pain. By copying and pasting from electronic texts, or using handwriting recognition, we avoid that pain. These dictionaries are supported through software readers on a wide variety of platforms. edict is the only good free dictionary available, used in Wakan and also on-line here: www.csse.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/jwb/wwwjdic?1C. You will find though that the commercial software dictionaries are cheaper than their book counterparts, and of course cheaper than buying a dedicated electronic dictionary. Most of the other dictionary pages are going to be in Japanese, so handle it ;) This is because electronic dictionaries are big business in Japan but not anywhere else in the world.

Eijiro (www.alc.co.jp/)

A cheap dictionary with a huge amount of entries is Eijiro. In many ways it is the perfect dictionary to complement edict, because it was written by Japanese translators for culturally and scientifically specific English to Japanese translation (though it is has a converted Japanese to English version Waeijiro as well). In contrast, edict is Japanese to English and very basic. Eijiro has no English help manual, however, and will not have furigana in any of its definitions. Hence, to go down this path you must be a person who doesn’t mind copying and pasting texts with computers (i.e. so you can look up words in edict to find pronounciation and meaning). It is free to use online at www.alc.co.jp/ (type in a word beside “英辞郎on the web”). You will find here many amusing entries and colloquialisms not found in commercial dictionaries.

If you want to download it it will cost 2000, which is cheap compared to dictionaries of similar size, from here: www.eijiro.jp/download/down820dic.htm. The files are immediately available for download but are password protected. Not all credit cards may be accepeted. You will then install a dictionary reader PDIC. Considering that you can use the Eijiro database on any machine you like, such as a handheld computer, it is quite flexible. If you keep going down this path, you can convert edict and the examples sentences into to a readable format and use all of these dictionaries at once. This combination shines, if you can get around the complex converting process involved (see my PDIC page).

Kenkyusha (www.excite.co.jp/dictionary)

Kenkyusha has a reputation of being the most comprehensive English-Japanese dictionaries around. Like Eijiro, they are geared for Japanese speakers and not furigana friendly. If you can get past the copy and paste aspect, an electronic version of the Kenkyusha dictionaries will be your second-last stop in dictionary shopping (the definitive of all being a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, like Kojien...). The middle-size versions of the Kenkyusha dictionaries are free to use here:
www.excite.co.jp/dictionary (英和 [えいわ] is English to Japanese, 和英 [わえい] is Japanese to English)

Purchasing your own copy has its benefits like being able to use them on handheld PCs and simultaneously with other dictionaries in the one program. However, most Japanese companies do not accept international credit cards, so it can be a problem. This situation is thankfully changing every year, so it's worth a shot. Assuming you can find someone with the means to make the payment (and means to receive it if you aren’t downloading the software), or opt to use a go-between type web service to purchase the goods on your behalf for a nominal fee (see www.ffmusic.info/yjtutorial.html#middle for some examples), go to this site for Kenkyusha and some other publishers:
www.logovista.co.jp/product/product_jiten.html (click 商品検索 at the top and under 商品名 search for 研究社 [kenkyusha])

At the above link you can get the “Shin Eiwa” and “Shin Waei" Chuu Jiten (in English released as "New College" or "New Collegiate") Kenkyusha middle-size dictionaries together for 5000. You can download the two dictionaries separately from other Japanese stores for around 3000 each if you google. The difference between the middle "chuu jiten" and big "dai jiten" versions, is mostly in the layout and huge amount of example sentences in the larger version. On the other hand, the popular English-Japanese dictionary “Readers” differs mostly in that it contains thousands of encyclopedia-like entries including the names of historical figures which would be more useful for Japanese native speakers translating English texts than English native speakers, and surprising has fewer example sentences than even the middle-sized Shin eiwa, making it a poorer choice for learning Japanese. The larger dai jiten dictionaries are available from some sites for around 6000 separately.

You can demo entries from various Kenkyusha dictionaries starting with A () here.

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Hardware

I have never owned a dedicated electronic dicitonary (denshi jisho) so web-search for “Canon WordTank” and the like for more info. They often include 5 or more dictionaries similar to the ones above and can be as advanced as to offer kanji handwriting recognition like the Canon WordTank V80 and G90 models and the Casio XD-GW9600 and XD-GP9700. Which would be cool. They cost anywhere from $60 to $600 USD.

I have used three handheld computers with edict, Eijiro and Kenkyusha installed, a Psion Revo, HP Jornada 720 (the non-free dictionaries were not easy to install, see PDIC in the software section above) and a Toshiba K01 smartphone. I prefer models with keyboards for larger text entry but all handhelds have some kind of support for software dictionary readers. Considering that: secondhand PDAs, smartphones are from $10; software dictionaries files can be found free or from $40 for good quality; some handheld pcs can support kanji handwriting recognition; you can copy words from external documents; PDAs have many more functions (like smsing :P), it’s no wonder that many users have been searching for options to learn Japanese with the aide of these devices.

Check Jim Breen’s Japanese page hosted at Monash for a rough idea of what has been ported to different handheld devices: www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/japanese.html

If I wanted to spend $20 or less on a basic electronic dictionary with limited ***kanji handwriting recognition*** support I think I would go to ebay for an old resistive touchscreen smartphone (ala Windows Mobile 5/6) and install a Japanese SIP such as ookii's, or a Palm V and download padict (padict.sourceforge.net/v0.3.2/index.html). Mileage may vary with free programs like like padict and jpensip who’s kanji recognition is based on javadict and not as good as Japanese-made recognition software. These stylus devices also lack a proper keyboard. But the software is free and you get a PDA in the bargain.

If I wanted the most convenient denshi jisho solution at around $250 I would get a Japanese version of a Zaurus, Windows CE Handheld PC (no longer in production, have to get it secondhand) or an all-in-one smartphone with keyboard and touchscreen running Windows Mobile or Linux. If you get a Japanese version of one of these devices (some are available from the web) you will save yourself the trouble of trying to install Japanese support on the devices and get a dictionary included. Most importantly, you will get excellent kanji handwriting recognition built-in. Try searching for a Zaurus SL-C760 or similar at www.conics.net for an English translated version or use a go-between web service to purchase one on your behalf (see www.ffmusic.info/yjtutorial.html#middle) off Yahoo Japan Auctions, this is the cheapest bet.

In general, if you are thinking of getting a device and it has an Epwing dictionary software reader available for it, after some conversion you will be able to use any Japanese dictionary on it. Installing Japanese support is easy for many English devices if you search before you look. For some discussion focusing on mostly Windows CE have a look here:
www.greggman.com/japan/ce/ce.htm

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Webpages

More than you can poke a stick at, thanks to the open-source nature of many Japanese learning software and diversity of Japanese popular culture.

Free online dictionaries:

edict – a basic mainly Japanese to English dictionary. Linked to this page is the passage translate section which is good if you don't have Wakan installed. Similar to this and also using edict is www.popjisyo.com.

www.alc.co.jp/Eijiro, a specialised mainly English to Japanese dictionary

www.excite.co.jp/dictionaryKenkyusha medium dictionaries, 英和 is English to Japanese, 和英 is Japanese to English

tool.nifty.com/globalgate@nifty translation, another useful translation portal which will add translated English/Japanese beneath the original webpage text you are looking up. Another page to add to your Firefox keyword searches.

 

Other learning aides:

Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese – Seemingly a massive undertaking, complete guide to learning Japanese written in a discussion-like tone. The main resource here is his Japanese Grammar guide.

www.jgram.org – very interesting, concise grammar site, with a huge database of sentence examples. Offers categories like JLPT 4-1 and e-mail situations

www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/japanese.html – Jim Breen’s somewhat technical, but comprehensive, listing of Language links and hosted software

www.jref.com/forum/ – a big discussion board I came across, with some Japanese speakers who participate

http://www.aozora.gr.jp/ – The well known Aozora Bunka Japanese classical literature collection. If you’re looking for Japanese stories which you can copy the text into Wakan for reading practice, this could last you a lifetime. Site is in Japanese. Also see “Things to Read with ‘Help’” in the manythings.org links page

電 子書籍を読もうDenshi Shoseki o Yomou, a guide on acquiring Japanese e-books. Now, if only DRM would go away so we could paste unknown words and look them up directly in our software jishos... or use a method similar to that described here to hook into the text output!

www.manythings.org/japanese/links – great learning tools, study sites and practice reading material. Includes links to viewing complete web pages in furigana, Kanji flashcard software and hiragana/katakana learning tables

www.google.com – an imaginative way of perhaps checking your sentence usage is to copy and paste a phrase in question into google and checking to see how many hits it gets. If you can see it used in a serious looking page, it is serious grammar.

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Other computer-related media

Computers are now used as media boxes for viewing as well as gaining access to music and video. The hub of all this is mainly the internet. If you know how to use p2p programs like bittorrent you will be able to invidually pick out Japanese music and video with subtitles which interests you. Watching subtitled anime and dramas is a helpful way of picking up fluent pronounciation and understanding where to put in all the particles. One way to start off practicing is to listen out for the particles in spoken sentences first and then match up the unknown vocabulary with the English translation. Many p2p links are available for the web, but be aware of where the media is being sourced from and be responsible for what you watch.

A lot of the video from p2p programs will require a decoder like ffdshow.

This guide has aged through the years, but there seems to be no lack of progress on the software translation front - as a small update I have been inspired to add this guide by Aaeru for a summary of Japanese text detection and translation software. Not just for Japanese Visual Novels, I can see the same techniques using Interactive Text Hooker, Translation Aggregator and Jparser applied endlessly for all sorts of computer media.

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Conclusion

These are the fundamentals of communicating in Japanese through computers. Combine this with some experience with using search engines on the web and you find all the information you want and more creative Japanese language examples than you will ever need. Unfortunately I don’t have good experience with finding Japanese discussion forums on the internet. That is definitely the best use you could put all this computer knowledge towards. Through forums and e-mail you can talk through the forgiving interface of the computer and not feel guilty for making anyone impatient with your translation.

In the end, using computers to discover Japanese is all about . You can choose the words you look up faster, choose your dictionary, choose what online texts and video you would like to look at, choose which words are cool or relevant to today’s culture, choose to stick to copying and pasting from documents or use kanji handwriting dictionaries with printed texts. Assume that anything is possible and know what to search for. These are ways Japanese language learning had not established before because computers themselves never had those choices. Through the hard work of students making the bits of computer language talk to each other we might find other cultural languages naturally connect as well.

-islisis ( luffy (at) diamondsky.org )

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Comments

islisis: haha, if you are a geek maybe @_@
somehow i had the patience to learn kanji but not to get into rpgs...
my advice for kanji learning? @_@ let the characters speak to _you_!
looks neat tho, thanks
(17.04.2006, 19:05)

Axle Valentino: thank you so very much islisis :)
It is so cool of you to share this info in here. It's also refreshing.
Would you believe it, the students in my university tear down pages of library books so that the other students won't have access to the reference material. Yaaaiiiiks!!!!
I was starting to lose faith in humanity and was about to go settle in the heart of a remote volcano somewhere when I stumbled unto your site. I'll send the links to all of my classmates and to any learner of Japanese I meet henceforth. honto ni arigatoo gozaimasu (bow).

matane and may the Great Wielder watch upon you :)
(08.01.2008, 23:46)

islisis: That's why the end of paper books is near :P
Well not really why but as good a reason as any...
どういたしまして・・・ぜひみんなに教えてあげてくださいね
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