November 24


How to Look Up Kanji You Don’t Know (Without Copy and Paste)

By Charles Hoshino

November 24, 2020

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If you’re reading Japanese on the internet, looking up kanji is easy: simply copy and paste into your favorite dictionary app. But what if you aren’t reading on the internet? How can you look up kanji when copy and paste isn’t available?

This is a problem every Japanese learner will run into at some point on the journey to fluency. Sometimes, you’ll want to look up a kanji from an image, picture, or photo. Maybe you’re reading manga, playing a visual novel, or just looking at some strange characters during your latest vacation to Japan. It would be nice if all kanji had furigana, but this rarely happens (except when reading manga).

This means that, sooner or later, you will have to look up kanji for yourself! In this post, we look at three ways that you can look up kanji characters in an online dictionary.

Oh no, you can’t copy-paste from an image!

Look up kanji by drawing or handwriting

First, let’s look at (arguably) the most common method for looking up kanji readings used by Japanese people: looking up kanji by hand-writing or “drawing” them with a mouse, stylus, or finger.

For example, you can do this with the “Draw” feature on the jisho dictionary web app. You can also do so on most Japanese dictionary apps for Android or iOS.

Clicking “Draw” will bring up a window where you can draw your kanji “by hand.” This will output characters to your search bar which, hopefully, will allow you to look up the kanji.

Sounds easy, right? Not quite: personally, I do not recommend looking up kanji by drawing or handwriting. There are several reasons for this:

  • If you don’t get the stroke order right, you may fail. Many dictionary algorithms require you to draw the kanji in the correct stroke order. Make one mistake, and you may have to start all over.
  • It hurts my head. This method requires a lot of “look at the kanji, then look at the word, then look at the kanji.” Because the kanji is unfamiliar, you have to switch back and forth a lot to get the drawing right. This takes time, is frustrating, and saps away at your concentration.
  • Writing with a mouse or a finger is difficult. On a desktop or laptop, you’ll have to draw kanji with your mouse. In a phone, you’ll usually have to use your finger. Imagine having to look up the kanji for rose (薔薇)… what a nightmre!

Here is an image of me failing miserably at drawing some kanji:

Look up kanji by radical

A much better method than drawing by hand is to look up kanji by radical. As many of you know, kanji are made up of multiple, simpler components called “radicals.” You can use these to look up words in the dictionary.

Again, we can use radical lookup in the jisho dictionary app by clicking “Radicals.”

Doing so gives a pop-up with a set of radicals that you can click on. The radicals are sorted by stroke count.

In practice, looking up kanji radical goes something like this:

  1. Find the easiest component of the kanji
  2. Count its strokes
  3. Look for that component/radical using its stroke count (for example, the 口 radical has three strokes)
  4. Click on that component or radical
  5. Repeat until (a) you run out of radicals or (b) your kanji appears in the display bar

As you can see in the above image, looking up rose (薔薇) was much easier than using handwriting. I only had to click two radicals, each with a stroke count of three.

However, this method still has some downsides. It is sometimes hard to tell what is a radical and what is not. You can also fail to count the number of strokes correctly.

Look up kanji by image, picture or photo

OCR on kanji in the real world

My favorite way to look up kanji is to… let the computer do it for you! Technology has progressed to the point where computers can be faster than humans for looking up kanji (and many others things).

To do so, we can use OCR lookup. OCR stands for “Optical Character Recognition.” OCR takes an image and spits out the characters in text form. You can then easily copy and paste this text into a dictionary app. Today, OCR software is extremely powerful and often free to use.

Google’s note-taking app Google Keep has OCR functionality built in, so you won’t even have to download or install anything. I go into the details of how to do this in my post on OCR in Japanese, but here are the basics:

  • Take a photo
  • Upload it to Google Keep
  • Click “Grab Image Text” to transform your image into text that you
OCR on some panels from manga

Or… just read books with furigana

Too lazy to look up kanji? An even easier method is to read books that have furigana on the kanji characters. For our manga subscription service, manga books in our Beginner and Intermediate tiers come with furigana on every character. That means more time reading and having fun and less frustrating time fumbling with a dictionary app.

Good luck on your kanji learning journey!

Feature image by Joseph Younis.

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