The Japanese App Survival Kit for Newbies

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What are the 4 Japanese Apps for Newbies?  Read On and Find Out!You gaze across the black concrete plains in search of food, your eyes dampening from looking out into the brisk chill of the Tokyo night air. That’s when the sobering realization hits you. You aren’t in the classroom anymore. No more theory. You’re in Japan, out in the wild. At a second glance you see prides of Japanese men and women stampeding towards you, snarling, ready to pounce. Your heartbeat rises to maddening thump beneath your chest.

Okay, first of all (take a breath) it’s not quite that serious. You’re probably just standing at that big intersection in Shibuya and everybody starts walking when the signal turns green. You’ll be fine, Japan’s not as much of a jungle as you might think.

Though Japan came be significantly tamer than a many countries, it’s not always easy to live here when you know little to nothing about the language all around you.

If you’re moving to Japan or even if you’ve been here a while, I wanted to tell you about the four apps that I have found to be essential during my stay. Hopefully you will find them just as useful as I have. Oh and yes, there are affiliate links in this article, but I wouldn’t recommend any of these if I didn’t personally get some type of value from them. Cool?

Here we go:

 

1. Japanese by renzo Inc.

Want to Try the 'Japanese' App by Renzo Inc.?  Click Here!

  • Price: $7.99
  • Platform: iOS
  • App Type: Reference

How it works:  The core function of this app is to easily find Japanese definitions.

This app starts out on a cool “Discover” screen that has this steady stream of kanji floating by.  On that screen you enter in a word (in English or Japanese), hit search, and in an instant you get back a list of matching Japanese words.  It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s clean.

Here's a fun little screen to do your word searches on.  Notice any of these kanji?

Here’s a fun little screen to do your word searches on. Notice any of these kanji?

In addition you can choose to hit the “History” options to look at list of words you’ve recently searched by date.
Here’s Why I Like This App:
It’s organized in a way that makes perfect sense - Without an organized format, Japanese can be a real b*tch to learn.  I’m just being honest.  I like how this dictionary is organized in a way that make sense for the users and makes learning easy.

Need to focus on your JLPT words for N2?  Simply go to this JLPT option and you have a ready-made list:

 

JLPT lists are just one of the many cool features of the renzo Japanese reference app.

JLPT lists are just one of the many cool features of the renzo Japanese reference app. You can even study lexical categories: verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, counters, particles and more!

 

Constant Updates
In an ever-changing app environment, the mark of a good app is one that can adapt, change, and grow. That’s exactly what this app has been doing that for quite some time, constantly being updated and consistently improving.

 

Examples
With the vast majority of the vocabulary you get a load of examples of how the words you’re searching for are used in real, no-punches pulled Japanese sentences.  Got kanji you don’t quite understand?  This app also has furigana to show you the hiragana pronunciation of every kanji they show.

The Lists Feature
I use this function like crazy.  It’s kind of like having a built in, bare bones Anki (memorization) feature.  I can easily tailor my vocabulary studies by creating any list that I want:

 

It’s super easy to create lists:

This is an extended function of this Japanese dictionary, the 'list' function.  I can create any list I want from any dictionary terms.   There is a even a drip-fed study feature that helps you to memorize your lists over time.  SUPER HELPFUL!

This is an extended function of this Japanese dictionary, the ‘list’ function. I can create any list I want from any dictionary terms.
There is a even a drip-fed study feature that helps you to memorize your lists over time. SUPER HELPFUL!

 

The Kanji Search
Having a way to easily find the kanji you’re looking for is the hallmark of a good, bound, Japanese dictionary, so why should an app be any different?  If anything, it should be even easier because that’s what software like this is designed to do.  This app doesn’t disappoint:

I REALLY like how can browse kanji by components.   Let’s say you have a really complex kanji that you couldn’t figure out even if somebody had a pair of really sharp chopsticks to your throat.   You don't even have to know the kanji radicals, you can simply enter the components you see. Once you do, the dictionary show a list of only the kanji with the search components you’ve entered.

I REALLY like how can browse kanji by components. 
Let’s say you have a really complex kanji that you couldn’t figure out if somebody had a pair of really sharp chopsticks to your throat.
 
You don’t even have to know the kanji radicals, you can simply enter the components you see in the symbol. Once you do, the dictionary show a list of only the kanji with the search components you’ve entered.

 

The Downsides to This App:

The Handwriting Feature
While attaching this feature to an electronic, Japanese dictionary is pure genius, the feature just doesn’t work as billed.  I have had several occasions where I’d be trying to find out a mysterious kanji and the feature won’t recognize strokes properly.

Even in cases where the kanji doesn’t have a complicated stroke order, I seldom can get the kanji I’m looking for.  It’s a novel idea, it’s just not app-ready.

Here's an example of how the handwriting feature can fall a bit short.  I looked this up when I was checking the kanji for Hoken 保険 - insurance.  if you look at the the suggested symbols to the right of my handwritten symbol, nothing matches

Here’s an example of how the handwriting feature can fall a bit short. I looked this up when I was checking the kanji for Hoken 保険 – insurance. if you look at the the suggested symbols to the right of my handwritten symbol, nothing matches!

 

Another issue I would notice from time to time is occasions when entering something in romaji doesn’t get me as many results as entering the same term in hiragana. Using hiragana is fine by me, but if some is a true Japanese beginner, I could see how it might be an issue. The later versions of the app are much better at catching that, though.

 

The Japan Guy’s Final Take on the “Japanese App”
Why wouldn’t I list a $7.99 price tag as a potential negative for an app with a handwriting feature that doesn’t work?  Because I wasn’t buying kanji recognition software, I was buying a dictionary.  Even if you totally remove the handwriting app, this thing over delivers.

This is bar none, my favorite Japanese app dictionary! Unless I really decide to challenge myself, I often have it sitting right next to me when I’m studying Japanese or when I’m out and about. It’s number one on this list for a reason.

I highly recommend it.

Where Can I Buy This App?:

If you’re interested in getting this useful Japanese dictionary app, you can click below:


 

2. iKanji by ThinkMac

iKanji by ThinkMac

  • App Type: Japanese Kanji Study Tool
  • Price: $5.99
  • Platform: iOS

How it works:
On your main screen you have the choice to “search,” study by JLPT level, study by Japanese grade level (grades 1-6 and high school), look at Joyo kanji, or do practice set (that you can create or modify).

Home screen for the ikanji app

I spend much of my time in the JLPT options, but you have several options to choose from including search, grade level, Joyo kanji and even practice sets. You just select an option to get started.


iKanji iOS app

At your own pace, you can browse the meanings, readings, stroke order, and even example readings  of each kanji in the set.


training options for iKanji

If you need a more structured walkthrough of the the kanji set you’re perusing, simply hit the “Training” button, then “Teach me these kanji” and you the app walks you through a brief program to learn meanings, readings, and stroke order.


If you want to take it further, you can check your skills with one of the “test” options.

Here’s Why I Like iKanji:

It’s an effective mobile, kanji study solution…-

This app makes it easy to effectively practice your kanji on the go.  While I don’t think it’s the only thing you should use to learning kanji, it is one of the best solutions for helping you with kanji recognition, repetition, and memorization in a fun way

The kanji search feature – I know somebody else out there has struggled their butt off, often in vain, to find the meaning of a kanji you’ve never seen before.  With iKanji, if you can count the number of strokes, you can figure it out.  I’ll do an an actual example:

Say you were looking at an ad on the train for and you kept coming across this kanji over and over again:

Let’s assume you don’t know a thing about radicals either.

iKanji kanji search function

If you could manage to work out that the kanji had 16 strokes to it, you could the number ’16′ into the search field.

 

picture of the search function in iKanji

And you get a list of all the kanji with 16 strokes in them. 
It still takes a tiny bit of hunting, but there’s our character!
It’s the character “kan” or building in Japanese.
Good stuff, right?

Between this and the Japanese dictionary’s component search, I’m usually able to take any kanji that I have no clue about and be able find the meaning.

 

The Downsides to this App:
In the training section, the compound reading function doesn’t really impress me for some reason.  It just doesn’t feel as helpful as it could be.  I get more by just looking at iKanji examples than I do from the actual kanji compound testing system.

The kanji writing can be a little cumbersome especially for those of you with larger hands and fingers.  I sometimes find it the kanji stroke zones can be a little unforgiving.  Yes, it has definitely improved since the original version.  It’s not perfect yet, though.

iKanji handwriting feature

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great concept! It’s just that sometimes in actual practice it’s not as responsive as it could be.

The Japan Guy’s Final Take on the iKanji:
I only like recommending apps and things that go beyond their value and for the $5.99 price tag this another app you should toss in your your survival kit before going out in the “wild.”  If you need a simple system to do some honest to goodness kanji review, this is another one you should strongly consider buying.

How Can I Get this App?:
You can get iKanji by clicking below:


3. Anki by Damien Elmes

Want to try the Anki Mobile App?  Click Here

  • Platform: iOS, Android, Mac, Window, Linux
  • Price: Free for the desktop version/$24.99 for the iphone version
  • App Type: Flashcards

How to Use It:

This is a flashcard application that is based on the concept of an electronic, flashcard deck:

Anki App in action

Anki allows you to create your own flashcards. SImply put a name to your new deck and you’re ready to start making cards.


making cards with anki

You enter bite-sized pieces of info you’re studying into the ‘front’ and ‘back’ fields of the card.


Here’s Why I Like Anki:
While it is possible to make effective flashcards on your own, Anki allows you to add pictures, audio, and even video to your cards, it’s almost like sky’s the limit with these cards.

Features of the Anki Deck

Need to make media-rich cards to help you review? Anki’s got you covered! You can add audio, pictures, video, and make HTML adjustments with these electronic card decks. It’s hard to top that.

It’s accessible to everybody
While many hardcore users may decide to buy the mobile app for $24.99, the open-source, desktop version is accessible to everybody! It’s also incredibly cool that Anki is made to function on so many different platforms.

Other Japanese Students Swear By It
Nearly every person I know who has passed the JLPT N2 or N1 swears by Anki!  One of the reasons learning Japanese can be so hard is because there is so freakin’ much to remember, especially on the kanji side of things.  But if this app is good enough for all of those people who’ve been studying Japanese for years, it’s good enough for me

The Downsides of Anki
The biggest issue if you’re just starting out is finding good decks to use. Sure you can find shared decks on the web and some of them are quite good. But there are times when you’re not able to find the decks that match where you are in your Japanese journey. In those cases it can be time consuming to make your own decks, but I swear to you that it’s worth it in the end.

Anki Deck Examples

You can find a number of shared Anki decks online. But if you can’t find cards that suit you, you may have to make your own. A pain-in-the-butt, but totally worth it.

The Japan Guy’s Final Take On Anki
This is one of the game changers if you’re really trying to improve your Japanese. Drastically improve how much Japanese you can retain with the most intelligent flashcards on the web!

Where Can I Get Anki?

You can can get the free version for your desktop by clicking here.

Or, if you wanna go hardcore renegade mode and buy the mobile app by click below:


 

4. Line

Line for iOS

  • Platform: iOS, Android
  • Price: Free
  • App Type: Social App

Here’s Why I Like Line:
The shake feature.  Got that cute guy or gal that you wanna exchange info with in a hurry?  Open up this app, click the option, shake your phones near each other and you voila…new, cute contact!

The shake function on the Line App

This is probably one of lines most creative features. The “friend shake” feature. If you and another person decide to be Line friends you can go to this screen and shake your phones at the same time and you’ll be friends! I wish that worked for hot women on the train without having to be on the same screen. You see a gorgeous woman on the train, walk over and just shake your phone for dear life.

The Downsides of Line: Line doesn’t always ask about new friend requests.  If someone in your phone contact list joins line, you can end up being friends automatically.

The Japan Guy’s Final Take On Line
I give this one a light recommendation. While it’s not over-the-top innovative, it’s probably Japan’s most popular mobile, social app. Being social helps you survive in the wild.

Where Can I Get Line

If you’re interested in getting line (free by the way), you can click below:



How many of these apps do I actually own?  ALL OF THEM! Admittedly, I am using the free version of Anki on my desktop (let’s just say my smart phone’s not the latest model nor does it have a ton of memory). But I do have Japanese, iKanji and Line.

What Japanese Apps Do You Recommend?

What Japanese apps do you have on your phone that you REeeeallly like? Care to share? Leave you picks (and/or pics) in the comment section below!

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • thejapanguy

    Even I’m a laggard when it comes to staying current with the latest iphone tech…I try to stay up to date with my bread-and-butter Japanese apps.

  • Bob Niceshwanger

    Nice article. I like ‘imi wa’? いみは? it’s free too

    • thejapanguy

      Thanks for checking it out, Bob. I’ve never looked at 『いみは?』 but I definitely will.
      Why do I get this strange feeling that we’ve met before? :D

      • Bob niceshwanger

        Probably because I have such an unforgettable name! Keep up the good stuff

        • thejapanguy

          Haha! Absolutely, brother!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Great suggestions.
    Personally I LOVE Anki! I’ve been using it ever since … err … 2006 or so and also started using the app as soon as it was out! ^__^
    The great thing about Anki is that it can be used for many things, not just for studying Japanese.

    • thejapanguy

      Whoa zoomingjapan! You’re a diehard Anki fan. That’s great!
      It is pretty freakin’ brilliant, though, huh? Yeah, it’s great for memorization in any subject; it’s just useful all around.

  • Cesca

    I absolutely love that first app! It is literally the one and only reason I bought my ipod. (way cheaper than an electronic dictionary and much more versatile as a device lol) To be honest, I don’t generally have much trouble with looking up kanji by handwriting, but as I write this I realize that I do not use the in-app handwriting. What I did was unlock the Chinese keyboard on the ipod itself which lets me draw out the kanji I want to look up by flipping through my keyboards. I will note that it is very sensitive to stroke order and even the proper directions the lines must be drawn. Any time I am really stumped I usually search by radical, and then I usually find the kanji I was looking for. Hope this information helps anyone who uses this app! :)

    • thejapanguy

      Nice! I was using the app on ipod touch a while back and still had an old school cell phone (is the opposite of a smart phone a dumb phone?). When my ipod died I had to make the transition, mainly because I wanted to keep using my Japanese apps. Know the right radicals to search for and you can find any character. Good advice, Cesca!

  • UN Spokesperson

    Good work

    • thejapanguy

      Thank you for checking it out!!

  • http://sherbetandsparkles.wordpress.com/ Charlotte

    Great post! I like Memrise, although it’s not just for Japanese, you can just whip it out and test some vocab when you’re waiting for the train or something.

  • mfuku

    I’m loving your blog! Planing to move to Japan soon (been there before), and your blog is really helpful!
    Do you know any apps for travelling in Japan? It would be a waste for not visiting such a beautiful country!

  • ontariogurl

    I love Line. I can’t get enough of the cute stickers. Instead of writing out “I’m hungry”, I just use a sticker of hungry Cony. Lol

  • petaris

    I wonder if one of these, or maybe another app, is based off of PAdict for PalmOS. It used a couple diferent dictionaries EDICT and Jim Breen’s dictionary and also used a port of PocketKanji for handwriting recognition. It was a pretty decent dictionary for the time.

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