Denshi Jisho: Are they still worth your time?

With the rise of smartphone technology, the market for electronic dictionaries (J. Denshi jisho 電子辞書) has gradually shrunk. When I first moved to Japan in 2012, I remember seeing electronic dictionaries everywhere, but nowadays I only see them when I visit the correct aisle in the electronics store, at the odd meeting, or in the hands of one or two of my students. Websites such as jisho.org, Kotobank, Weblio, dictionary.goo.ne.jp, and even Google Translate, as well as apps such as Imiwa and Japanese have taken over the functions of electronic dictionaries, but I believe there are still reasons that those engaged in Japanese studies should consider purchasing one.

Firstly, it isn’t always possible to use our phones and computers. Electronic dictionaries do not require internet access and unlike phones their use in meetings, in Japan at least, isn’t frowned upon. Japanese archives and libraries too may allow visitors to use electronic dictionaries whilst proscribing the use of other electronics. Indeed, it is within the archives that I have found most use for my own denshi jisho. Sometimes we may find it easier to use an electronic dictionary even when we can access the internet through a computer or phone. For example, during the 2021 Cambridge Summer School in Early Modern Japanese Palaeography I often found myself turning to my electronic dictionary rather than attempting to navigate away from the zoom sessions or images files we were using to search for terms in my browser. This often proved to be much quicker than my usual methods. Although the spaces where we are unable to use computers and mobile phones are in decline, electronic dictionaries provide a means to quickly access dictionaries in these locations and may even provide a more direct means to search for terms than using our browser.

Secondly, electronic dictionaries allow us to carry multiple dictionaries in our pockets and at much cheaper prices than using them on our computers or mobile phones. It would, of course, be difficult to embark on research trips with a collection of physical dictionaries in tow, but being just larger than a phone carrying an electronic dictionary allows us to continue to carry all these resources wherever we go. I own the now severely outdated Casio Ex-Word Dataplus 3 XD-SW6400 (from 2007) which includes over 100 different resources including the Kōjien 広辞苑 (5th Edition), Zenyaku Kogo Jiten 全訳古語辞典 (3rd Edition), and Kanjigen 漢字源, three dictionaries that I regularly use in my daily work. At present, the XD-SW6400 costs less than 2,000¥ second hand and much newer models can also be purchased for comparable prices. On the other hand, at the time of writing the combined cost of getting the newest editions of these three dictionaries on my mac is 14,258¥ and on my phone is 15,380¥ (these dictionaries are not searchable on the web), and this wouldn’t provide access to the other resources an electronic dictionary might offer. One might be lucky enough to have institutional access to a platform like JapanKnowledge, but with a price tag of 16,500¥ per year for a personal membership even this extensive resource is much more expensive than the humble electronic dictionary. If one purchases an electronic dictionary that includes references to page numbers (the XD-SW6400 does not), which would allow the user to easily cite the information that they search for, the hardware could even replace reliance on physical dictionaries! Use of an electronic dictionary certainly reduces the time we would spend trawling through the pages of dictionaries, and therefore they increase our workflow albeit marginally.

Whilst it is certainly true that I first turn to my phone or computer to search the meaning of words, I believe that there is still a place in the world for electronic dictionaries. Denshi jisho can be acquired for alarmingly cheap prices on the internet and in second hand shops, and provide a useful reference tool when one is researching in the archives or library, travelling, or in a space where one can’t access their computer or the internet.

Acknowledgements

Cover image by tripu (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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