Wolfgang Hadamitzky

Japan-related Textbooks, Dictionaries, and Reference Works

Character dictionaries


A character dictionary is a dictionary that lists words that consist of one or more Chinese characters (kanji) each, arranged in order according to the words’ first kanji. Character dictionaries are used for the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages.

Synonyms: Chinese-character dictionary, kanji dictionary

Japanese terms: Kan-Wa jiten 漢和辞典, kanji jiten 漢字辞典, jiten 字典.


The usual Japanese dictionary lists words alphabetically, according to their pronunciation. But to look up a word written with kanji whose pronunciation you do not know, you will need a character dictionary, for only a character dictionary lists all the possible readings and meanings of a word written with one or more characters, and sometimes even the etymology and structure of characters and in what order their strokes are to be written — information that will not be found in an alphabetical dictionary.

Ordering systems

Conventional character dictionaries list multi-kanji words in order by the first kanji of the words, and some newer dictionaries allow one to look up a multi-kanji word by any of its kanji.

The head kanji in almost all character dictionaries are listed according to a component of the kanji known as the kanji’s radical. Rules determine which of the several components of a kanji is to be taken as its radical. The selection of radicals and the rules for determining the radical of a kanji are referred to collectively as a radical system.

In addition to a way to find where characters are listed according to their radicals, most character dictionaries also provide a way to find kanji via a readings index and a stroke-count index.

Japanese-English character dictionaries (in book form)

The following Japanese-English titles are on the market:

Andrew N. Nelson: The Original Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary. 2nd rev. ed. Tuttle 1974. 1112 pp.
Andrew N. Nelson: Japanese-English Character Dictionary. 1962. Completely rev. ed. Tuttle 1997. 1600 pp.
Andrew N. Nelson: The Compact Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary. Tuttle 1999. 779 pp.
Mark Spahn, Wolfgang Hadamitzky: The Kanji Dictionary. Tuttle 1996. 1748 pp.
Mark Spahn, Wolfgang Hadamitzky: The Learner’s Kanji Dictionary. Tuttle 1998. 906 pp.
Wolfgang Hadamitzky: Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Surnames and How to Read Them. Vol. 1, 2. Saur 1998.
Jack Halpern: New Japanese-English Character Dictionary. Kenkyusha 1990. 1992 pp.
Jack Halpern: The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. Kodansha International 1999. 1008 pp.

The second revised edition by Nelson and the three works by Spahn/Hadamitzky and by Hadamitzky follow a similar set of rules for determining the radical of a character. But while Nelson largely retains the 214 traditional radicals, Spahn/Hadamitzky use only 79 radicals. The 1997 and 1999 editions of Nelson follow closely the arrangement of the historical radicals system of 214 radicals, and the two works by Halpern follow his own system that arranges kanji according to their structure. Nelson and Spahn/Hadamitzky offer a significantly larger number of characters and multi-character compounds than Halpern, but Halpern has the advantage in providing more information about each kanji. On the other hand, the small number of compounds and their listing in didactic order make even the larger version of the Halpern dictionary more suitable for learning kanji than for quick lookup of unknown words. The dictionaries by Spahn/Hadamitzky are the only ones in the history of the lexicography of Chinese characters to list compounds under each of their constituent kanji, not just under their first kanji.

Electronic character dictionaries

Most electronic character dictionaries and glossaries are arranged in the same way as traditional printed works: the search for a character proceeds via one or more radicals, and then in order of increasing stroke count. The internationally most popular electronic dictionary that can be used as a character dictionary is WWJDIC, which is maintained by Jim Breen of Monash University in Australia and is available for free on the Internet.

The world’s oldest character dictionary, the Shuowen jiezi

The world’s oldest dictionary to have survived is the Shuowen jiezi (説文解字; in Japanese, Setsumon kaiji), which appeared in the year 121 A.D. Actually, this is not a dictionary in the modern sense of the word, but a collection of 9,353 characters whose analysis and arrangement in 540 categories were meant to support the theories of the scholar Xu Shen on the history of the Chinese language and writing. Each of these 540 groups begins with a character that, in the opinion of Xu Shen, is contained in the other characters of the group and gives them meaning. He referred to these 540 characters at the beginning of each group as bushou 部首 (in Japanese, bushu, literally, “group head”; this term today is almost universally rendered as “radical”). This idea of categorizing characters according to one of their constituent parts was taken up by lexicographers in China and Japan, was further developed for reference works, and was put into practice in numerous dictionaries. To date there has been no viable alternative to this basic idea.

The classic Kangxi zidian

In 1716 a dictionary titled Kangxi zidian 康煕字典 (in Japanese, Kōki jiten) was published at the behest of the Chinese emperor Kanxi. This dictionary, which has left its mark on all subsequent character dictionaries, arranges 47,035 characters under 214 radicals. Some of these radicals did not serve as radicals in the Shuowen; that is, the 214 radicals are not simply a subset of the 540 classical radicals of the Shuowen. Almost all modern character dictionaries use a form of the 214-radical system of this classic work, modified to one degree or another. For more about how to look up characters and compounds, see the article Radical systems (in preparation).

August 2005, W.H. with Mark Spahn

Wolfgang Hadamitzky

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