Well, here’s one distinction: NTC’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary is definitely my largest dictionary. It weighs in at 3 lbs, 13 3/8 oz, and it made my life a lot easier in the late 1990s.
I acquired this book my first year in Japan. I believe the recommendation came from my brother, who took some Japanese in college. He might have actually bought it in the U.S. and mailed it to me. Thanks, Bruce!
I needed a dictionary I could use to look up kanji, the characters borrowed from Chinese that carry most of the meaning in Japanese writing. Japanese writing mixes three character sets. One is hiragana, a phonetic alphabet of 48 syllables–a i u e o, ka ki ku ke ko, sa shi su se so, and so on. You can spell anything in hiragana, but if you read a text written for grownups and all you know is hiragana, you’re going to be reading a lot of verb endings and grammatical particles.
Then there’s katakana, a second phonetic alphabet that has all the same sounds, but is used for different purposes–words borrowed from foreign languages and animal sounds, for example.
When you start out in Japanese, you memorize all the hiragana and katakana, and you’re done thinking about them.
Kanji are a different animal. There are thousands. Most convey about one concept each, but they can be combined into words to mean all sorts of things. And the vast majority have at least two pronunciations. The common character 日, “sun,” can be pronounced nichi, jitsu, hi, bi, or ka. And it doesn’t only mean sun. It also means day and Japan. Japan is called “Nihon” or “Nippon” in Japanese. The “ni” is this character. It’s also in the names of all the days of the week, and it’s the counter you use to count days.
The problem is, kanji are hard to look up. Say you’re reading a text in Japanese and you come across the word 紅茶. If I’m reading online, I copy and paste it to the WWWJDIC. But let’s say you’re reading on paper. What do you even do with that?
The traditional way to look up kanji is based on the radical, an element of each character. I never learned how to use radicals–it takes a lot of knowledge about kanji to even be able to use them.
This dictionary’s system is based on figuring out the general pattern of the character, then counting the strokes it would take to write each side. Let’s start with the first character in 紅茶, 紅. Its two elements are side by side, so that means you look it up in the left-right part of the index. Then you count the strokes it would take to write each side. The rules for writing kanji are something else you learn in the first few weeks of Japanese class–they aren’t hard–so I’ll tell you: The left side is 6 strokes and the right side is 3.You go to the left-right part of the index, flip to 6-3, and skim until you find this one.
It’s character number 1277 in the book, so flip to that entry and you learn that 紅 means red, deep red, or crimson. It’s used in the word for lipstick, for example. You could look up the second character the same way (it’s divided top to bottom), but you don’t need to, because 紅茶 is listed in the entry for 紅. It means black tea. Fun fact: black tea is called red tea in Japanese.
This probably sounds kind of laborious, but I tell you, it’s a heck of a lot easier than just staring at the characters and not knowing what they are. Thanks for saving me, NTC.
Dictionary Stats: NTC’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary
publisher: NTC Publishing Group, in association with Kenkyusha Limited
length: 1992 pages (relatively thick pages – it weighs 3 lbs, 13 3/8 oz.)
characters on p. 485: 禅 – pronounced “zen.” Meanings: Zen Buddhism, abdicate (the throne). That’s unusual, a character with only one pronunciation. 腸 – pronounced “chou” or “harawata.” Meanings: intestines, entrails, bowels, mind, heart
introduction: Amusingly, it starts by telling you you’d better read it. “ARE YOU IN A HURRY? No sensible person would attempt to operate a sophisticated device like a computer without first reading the instruction manual. Yet many people think nothing of using a sophisticated tool like a comprehensive dictionary without as much as a glance at the front matter.” Wow, that paragraph hasn’t aged well. But the rest of the 226–page introduction is great, with sections on the history of Japanese writing and how to look up words in the dictionary. There’s another 300 pages of useful appendices at the back, too.
obscenities: I wouldn’t even know how to find any in this dictionary.