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May 25, 2013

Never be stumped by kanji again!

If you've ever come across a kanji that you couldn't read, but that you wanted to look up, then you've probably had that moment of “how the heck do I type the word into the dictionary to look it up when I can't look it up to see how to type it!” Yeah, that feeling sucks. Luckily, there are several ways to work around this problem that don't involve pulling out a print dictionary and spending ten minutes trying to find the kanji.

Use the Asterisk:

This first method is useful for kanji compounds where you know all but one kanji. If you go to and type in the kanji that you know, then replace the kanji that you don't know with an asterisk (*) to search, the dictionary will treat the asterisk as a “wild card” and pull up all words that match. In case that's not clear, here's an example:

Imagine that we come across the word 微分積分学. You might not know the first or third kanji, but you probably recognize and . So type those kanji into Jisho and then replace the two kanji you don't know with asterisks:

In this case there is a single result, how convenient! In a lot of cases you'll have to go through a page or two until you find the specific word you were looking for. In some cases you'll get five or more pages of results, so I'd recommend using one of the other methods to find the kanji.

Jisho Kanji Radicals:

Radicals are extremely helpful for looking up kanji, but the old paper dictionaries just aren't worth the effort. Instead, use's “Kanji By Radicals” page. Radicals are the parts that make up a kanji, essentially the same as the elements found in James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji books. So find a major element of the kanji you want to look up, then click on that radical, and then pick the kanji from the list that appears. You can select multiple radicals to narrow the results. Note that everything is ordered by the number of strokes. Example time!

The kanji we're going to search for is this: from the word 鬱蒼.

The easiest radical to pick out is , so we'll start there.

So we've got 600 kanji that contain that radical. Instead of searching through those 600 kanji, let's pick another element out of the kanji. Note that the radicals that are grayed-out are ones that do not appear in combination with the radical we already selected (highlighted in yellow), while the radicals in white do appear with it. So how about . Once the second radical is selected the list narrows.

And there is our kanji! Clicking on the kanji in the list pulls up a page with all of the information you could possibly want, including stroke order and words containing the kanji. You can also copy/paste the kanji from the page to use in another search.

IME Pad Interface:

This last tool is built into most (if not all) IME programs. An IME is “input method editor,” and it's what allows you to type in Japanese. If you don't already have an IME on your computer, then I recommend doing a quick search online for how to activate the one that comes with your operating system or you can download the Google IME.

With that done, it's time to learn about the IME Pad. The IME Pad allows you to write kanji into a small window using your mouse. The IME then produces a list of likely matches to your written kanji. The exact method for opening the pad will differ based on OS version, but it will be located on the IME bar and is usually called either IME Pad, IMEパッド, or 手書き.

Here is what the window looks like once it's open:

Now let's try searching for a kanji using the IME pad. So we go to again (or any other dictionary) and click in the search bar, then open the IME pad and begin writing. Let's search for . Now, an important thing to remember when using the IME pad is that stroke order matters! So as a general rule of thumb, start at the top left and draw every line moving to the right or down. A more detailed post on stroke order will come later.

If you look closely, you'll see that the kanji we're looking for is already in the list. You can click on it in the list and it will be input into the search bar. If the kanji didn't appear, however, you may need to draw more of it, so let's continue on for the sake of the example.

Once completely drawn in, the desired kanji appears at the top of the list. As you can see, my drawing is pretty awful, but because I got the pieces in the right spots and had good stroke order, the IME was able to understand what I was drawing. So click on the kanji and it appears in the search bar.

As a final note about IME programs: If using the Windows IME, try pressing Alt+Shift to switch between English and Japanese input and Alt+Caps Lock to switch from Hiragana to Katakana.

So there you have it, three different ways to look up words that have you stumped. With these techniques you'll find it much easier to read materials that don't have furigana, because now you can look up words even if you don't know how to type them!


  1. Great post. Useful tools. A+++ would read again.


  2. Great overview! I've just shared it with our Facebook and Twitter followers.

  3. Love the IME directions!

    1. That IME pad has saved me so much trouble with finding strange words; I hope it's helpful for you as well!