Kanji Dictionary Publishing Society

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Jack Halpern




The Kodansha Kanji Dictionary


Editor-in-chief: Jack Halpern

Revised and Expanded Edition Published!

Originally published in 1990, this revised and expanded edition of The Kodansha Kanji Dictionary is the most complete, linguistically accurate, and up-to-date dictionary of its kind. The culmination of more than a quarter of a century of labor—over 100 man-years—this authoritative and easy-to-use dictionary has been celebrated the world over by students and teachers of the Japanese language for its wealth of detailed information on the meanings and usages of Sino-Japanese characters.

"Unrivaled in terms of both quantity and quality … this dictionary will satisfy the needs of kanji learners the world over."
Shigeko Miyazaki, Chair of the Board, Association for Japanese-Language Teaching (AJALT)

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A New Dictionary Approach

The primary goal of this dictionary has been set high: to create a practical tool that enables the learner to gain an in-depth understanding of the most frequently used kanji in contemporary Japanese. This was achieved by making full use of the most recent advances in linguistic science, computational lexicography, and digital publishing technology.

Based on a systematic approach and a firm theoretical foundation, this dictionary is designed to meet in full the specific needs of non-Japanese users. We have avoided the path of least resistance taken by other works: that is, compiling lists of words and presenting only dry facts such as readings and stroke-counts, while sidestepping the difficult task of presenting accurate character meanings. This dictionary not merely accurately records the linguistic facts about kanji, but also strives to present them in a manner that gives the user insight into how they function as a system.

This dictionary offers various unique features that clearly distinguish it from past works. It departs from tradition in three important ways.

Accurate character meanings

The core meaning, a concise keyword that provides a clear grasp of the most fundamental concept for each character, is followed by clear and detailed character meanings arranged in a manner that shows how they are interrelated. Each meaning is followed by compounds and examples that show how they are formed from their constituents. Moreover, the degree of importance for each meaning is indicated for four levels of study.

Efficient indexing system

The SKIP indexing system enables even beginners to locate entries quickly and with ease. Since it can be mastered in a very short time, this dictionary is an extremely convenient lookup tool. In addition, five other lookup methods, such as the Radical Index and the On-Kun Index, assure maximum convenience to the user.

Precise distinctions

A unique feature of this dictionary is the detailed treatment of the differences and similarities between closely related characters. This includes the fine distinctions between kanji synonyms (形 ‘shape’ vs. 状 ‘form’), usage notes indicating the differences between homophones (あく written 開く ‘open’ or 空く ‘become vacant’), and labels that show the differences between orthographic variants (希 vs. 稀 in the sense of ‘rare’).

Many other features, such as traditional and Chinese character forms, detailed stroke order diagrams, an attractive user-friendly design, and appendixes that give a wealth of reference information distinguish this as the most in-depth Japanese-English character dictionary ever compiled.

Coverage and Sources

This dictionary offers a detailed treatment of the meanings and functions of the most frequently used kanji in present-day Japanese, with particular emphasis on contemporary usage and newspapers. It contains 4408 main entry characters and approximately 65,000 senses for some 50,000 words, word elements, and illustrative examples.

Entry Characters

The entries include (1) the 2136 characters in the official Jōyō Kanji list, which are widely used in the media and education, (2) the 861 characters in the official Jinmei Kanji list, used in names, (3) 345 non-jōyō and radical entries, (3) 1066 nonstandard forms, and (4) 1050 cross-reference entries. These cover more than 99% of the most frequently used characters, which is adequate for meeting the needs of the serious learner.

Compound Words

Our general approach in selecting compound words has been to include the ones most useful to the user, based on the following criteria:

  1. High-frequency compounds based on statistics compiled by the National Language Research Institute in the official survey A Study of Uses of Chinese Characters in Modern Newspapers.
  2. All compounds normally written in kanji that are listed in Ten Thousand Graded Japanese Words (一万語語彙分類集), published by Senmon Kyōiku Shuppan.
  3. Thousands of additional compounds necessary for illustrating the meanings of (1) the new characters added to the revised Jōyō Kanji and Jinmei Kanji and (2) the many characters not in those lists.
  4. Numerous other compounds, including rare ones, useful to intermediate and advanced learners, selected on the basis of their ability to illustrate the entry character’s meaning.

In principle, the above criteria ensure that all high-frequency words and word elements important to the learner are covered. However, to keep the dictionary from getting too bulky, the following limitations were applied:

  1. Kanji can be combined to form countless compound words by affixation. Only typical examples of these innumerable compounds (e.g., 校正済 こうせいずみ ‘proofreading completed’ from 校正 + 済) are given, since it is easy to infer their meanings.
  2. Many nouns are turned into verbs by adding する, into adjectival nouns by adding な, into adverbs by adding に, and so on. The part of speech selected was based on importance and on its ability to illustrate the entry character’s meaning.

This policy is sometimes misunderstood by those who compare dictionaries on the basis of the number of words included. Let it be clear: the primary emphasis has been on completeness in terms of quality, rather than comprehensiveness in terms of quantity; that is, to include compounds that directly contribute to an understanding of character meaning.

Character Readings

The following types of character readings are given:

  1. All approved readings (those in the Jōyō Kanji list) and their derivatives when necessary.
  2. Unapproved readings (those not in the Jōyō Kanji list), including many rare ones.
  3. Name readings, used exclusively in proper names.
  4. Numerous common as well as many rare readings for characters not in the Jōyō Kanji list.

An important feature of this dictionary is the descriptive approach it takes to the selection of readings, which includes validating occurrences in the living language while avoiding the common practice of including readings merely on the authority of sources. For example, though various dictionaries claim that 茄 has the on reading ケ, this is nothing more than a historical ghost copied from outdated dictionaries. On the other hand, we have included readings, such as マン for 幡 and ジャン for 雀, that rarely if ever appear in dictionaries but are actually frequently used in contemporary Japanese.

Character Meanings

The analysis of character meanings was inseparably linked to the analysis of kanji synonyms. As Ladislav Zgusta, the world-renowned authority on lexicography, has pointed out, the lexicographer cannot really know the precise meaning of a word unless it is examined in comparison and in contrast with its near-synonyms. In this dictionary, the analysis of kanji synonyms was firmly based on such a policy, which served as a powerful technique for establishing character meanings of high precision and clarity.

An important contribution of this dictionary is that it lists many compounds and character meanings, and sometimes even readings, that have never appeared in any character dictionary, including comprehensive dictionaries for native speakers. For example, character dictionaries report that 雀 means ‘sparrow’ and has an on reading of ジャク and a kun reading of すずめ. In actual fact, 雀 is frequently used in the sense of ‘mahjong’ in compounds such as 雀卓 じゃんたく ‘mahjong board’ and 雀荘 じゃんそう ‘mahjong club’. Neither the reading ジャン, nor the meaning ‘mahjong’, nor any of these compounds are recorded in any of several dozen dictionaries that were surveyed in the late 1980s. In another survey conducted a quarter of a century later (late 2012), we have still not found a single dictionary that lists ‘mahjong’ as a meaning for 雀.

Compilation Methods

There are two traditions in dictionary-making: the prescriptive approach, which aims to establish standards of proper usage, and the descriptive approach, which aims to objectively report what established usage is. Unlike most previous works, this dictionary is committed to the descriptive approach and modern linguistic theory. It aims to record usage as it actually occurs in the living language, not to report the results of previous works (though in the case of archaic meanings this is not always possible).

The compilation project was carried out through an interdisciplinary effort under the guidance of Japanese-language scholars from the United States and Japan. Great pains have been taken to ensure accuracy and clarity, while paying careful attention to detail. Each meaning was written afresh, the result of an exhaustive semantic analysis, using such techniques as componential analysis and the study of near-synonyms.

Although statistical data and other dictionaries served as our guidelines, the final authority in the selection of an item was the evidence of the living language itself. This has led to some very interesting results. For example, we have found that the heavy reliance of existing character dictionaries and textbooks on classical Chinese sources has resulted in their inclusion of many old and archaic meanings, while newer meanings are often inaccurate or totally missing.

The extensive use of computational lexicography at every stage of the compilation process has ensured a high level of accuracy and the implementation of editorial policy in a consistent manner.

History of Project

Years of struggling with self-study using traditional methods of rote memorization inspired the editor in chief to embark upon the compilation of a new dictionary based on a systematic approach. He began the work with the help of two assistants while residing in Kobe in 1974. Lack of funds brought the project to a halt several times. In 1980 a donation by Konosuke Matsushita enabled the project to proceed in earnest. This was followed by grants from Showa Women’s University and many private individuals and organizations. The editor then joined the Institute of Modern Culture at Showa Women’s University as a research fellow, and for several years the university provided financial assistance.

The first edition of this dictionary, the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary (NJECD), was published by Kenkyusha in 1990, and soon became established as a standard reference work for the study of kanji. This revised edition was published in 2013 by Kodansha USA under the current title, The Kodansha Kanji Dictionary (KKD).

The compilation project cost over two million U.S. dollars (which excludes publisher’s expenses such as printing, marketing, and distribution) and required nearly 100 man-years to complete. In all, some 120 persons have contributed in one way or another to the completion of this project over a period of nearly twenty years.

Scholars well versed in Chinese, Japanese, and English linguistics, experienced lexicographers, as well as other experts have directly contributed to the accuracy of its contents, and Japanese-language authorities in the U.S. and Japan have confirmed its scholarly accuracy and lent their enthusiastic support and recommendations.

The dictionary project has also benefited from the support of various government organs, educational organizations, and government officials such as Japan’s former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the Japan Foundation, the National Council on Educational Reform, the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, the Board of the Association for Japanese-Language Teaching, the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language, and the National Language Society of Japan.

Kanji Integrated Tools

The first edition of this dictionary (NJECD) was the first step in a series of computer-edited dictionaries and software applications for the study of kanji known as the Kanji Integrated Tools (KIT). The KIT project was first launched with the establishment of the Kanji Dictionary Publishing Society (KDPS) in 1993 under the auspices of the Institute of Modern Culture at Showa Women’s University. The Society, headed by Showa Women’s University president Professor Kusuo Hitomi, was financed by the university and other organizations. It was directed by the Editorial Committee, which included Japanese-language education specialists such as Professor Osamu Mizutani, the former president of the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language.

The use of the latest computational lexicography techniques ensures that all KIT dictionaries and applications are tightly integrated and of consistent quality. KIT derivatives spread over a wide range, including teaching and learning aids such as learner’s dictionaries, electronic dictionaries, and iOS applications. To date, the following dictionaries have been published:

1 NJECD Kenkyusha 1990 Japanese Domestic Edition
2 NJECD-NTC NTC 1993 International Edition
3 NJECD-EB Nichigai Associates 1995 Electronic Book Edition
4 KALD Kodansha International 1999 Learner's Edition
5 KALD-ED CASIO 2007 Electronic Dictionary Edition
6 KALD-RM POLIROM 2008 Romanian Edition
7 iKALD The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc. 2012 iOS Edition
8 KKLD Kodansha USA


Revised Learner's Edition
9 KKD Kodansha USA 2013 revised and expanded
10 iKKLD The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc. 2013 iOS Edition
11 aKKLD The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc. 2014 Android edition of KKLD
The Kodansha Kanji Usage Guide
KKUG Kodansha USA 2015 First edition
13 iKKUG The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc. 2015 iOS edition of KKUG
The Kodansha Kanji Synonyms Guide
KKSG Kodansha USA 2018 first edition
The Kodansha Kanji Synonyms Guide for iOS
iKKSG The CJK Dictionary Institute, Inc. 2018 iOS edition of KKSG
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