Kokugo Dictionaries

by Tom Gally

The best and largest sources of information about the Japanese language are the 国語辞書 kokugo jisho.

As explained by lexicographer 倉島長正 Kurashima Nagamasa in his 1997 book 「国語」と「国語辞書」の時代 'Kokugo' to 'Kokugo Jisho' no Jidai, the term kokugo, which means "national language," seems to have come into widespread use in Japan only with the rise of national consciousness that accompanied the Meiji Restoration. The dictionaries that arose out of that era were called kokugo jisho, and the term persisted until the late 20th century, when the more international term 日本語辞書 Nihongo jisho, or "Japanese dictionary," came to be used. Today, kokugo usually means the Japanese language and literature as taught in Japanese schools, while Nihongo refers to the language itself in contrast to the other languages of the world. In the following, I use Nihongo jisho or "Japanese dictionary" to refer to all types of dictionaries of the Japanese language, both general and specialized, and reserve kokugo jisho or "kokugo dictionary" specifically for general-purpose dictionaries in which the meanings of Japanese words are explained in Japanese.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of kokugo dictionaries in print, ranging in size from huge multivolume works for scholars and language fanatics to small pocket-sized books of negligible scope and use. Most of the dictionaries are so derivative of each other, with nearly identical definitions found in dictionary after dictionary, that one wonders whether copyright protection means anything at all in the case of dictionaries in Japan. But while market pressures have forced many publishers to turn out quick-and-dirty unoriginal dictionaries, that same commercial competition has also driven a few publishers to spend the time and money required to compile distinctive works of lasting value. While all have shortcomings, the best kokugo dictionaries are probably among the best reference works in existence in any language.

The following list, though not comprehensive, includes most of the major kokugo dictionaries available today. I have used many of these dictionaries myself as a translator and reader of Japanese and while working on several bilingual dictionary projects, and though I do not pretend to know all the sublimities and defects of each I hope that my comments about them will help readers choose among them.

The list is divided into three categories: Large Single-Volume Dictionaries, Small Single-Volume Dictionaries, and Multivolume Dictionaries.

Large Single-Volume Dictionaries

大辞林 Daijirin
(Ed. by 松村明 Matsumura Akira, 三省堂 Sanseidou, 2nd ed., 1995. ISBN 4-385-13900-8.)

Though Koujien is regarded by many in Japan as the authoritative dictionary and is the one most often cited by newspaper editorialists trying to make etymological points of questionable validity, I regard the best single-volume kokugo dictionary to be Daijirin. Designed to compete directly with Koujien, Daijirin is different in one key way from its illustrious predecessor: whereas Koujien arranges the senses of its definitions in historical order, Daijirin puts the most common contemporary meanings first. The result, for a person reading modern Japanese, is that Daijirin is the most likely to list the intended meaning where it can be found easily.

Another advantage of Daijirin is that its definitions tend to be more detailed than those of other dictionaries. Often I've found that Daijirin best hits the mark, nailing a word's meaning precisely where others miss.

And a third advantage of Daijirin is its unusual, though not unprecedented, kanji and jukugo index entitled 漢字引き・逆引き大辞林 Kanji-biki, Gyaku-biki Daijirin. (ISBN 4-385-13901-6). Published as a separate volume in 1997, this book contains all of the headwords in the 2nd edition of the mother volume, indexed by their first and last kanji. The kanji themselves are arranged by on-yomi and indexed by stroke count (though not by radical). While not as convenient for finding unknown kanji as the kan-ei dictionaries, this supplement at last provides readers of Japanese with the ability to look up all words - including those with unknown readings - in a single dictionary.

大辞泉 Daijisen
(Ed. by 松村明 Matsumura Akira, 小学館 Shougakukan, 1st ed., 1995. Slightly revised ed., 1998; ISBN 4-09-501212-9.)

This dictionary seems in many ways a clone of Daijirin. Not only is the same Tokyo University professor listed as editor - though it is important to note that the names appearing on the covers of Japanese dictionaries often have little relation to the people who actually did the work; one case in point being Koujien, even the most recent editions of which list as editor one 新村出 Shinmura Izuru, who has been dead since 1967 - but the definitions in Daijisen follow closely those of Daijirin as well. It also follows Daijirin's practice of putting the contemporary meanings first in its definitions.

The two chief differences I've noticed are that Daijisen has color pictures while Daijirin uses line drawings - a rather obvious difference - and that the example sentences and phrases in Daijisen are more often typical of the contemporary language rather than citations from classical literature. This latter point makes Daijisen my first choice when I am writing Japanese and I want to check how words are used in context.

広辞苑 Koujien
(Ed. by 新村出 Shinmura Izuru, 岩波書店 Iwanami Shoten, 5th ed., 1998. ISBN 4-00-080112-0.)

Koujien is a fine dictionary with a sterling reputation. Because it gives definitions in historical order, it is the best single-volume choice for people interested in how the meanings of words have changed over time.

In my experience as a translator of contemporary Japanese, though, I have found Koujien less useful than Daijirin. When the fourth edition of Koujien came out in 1991, I made it my dictionary of first resort for several months, moving the first edition of Daijirin to another shelf. During that time, though, I found that sometimes I would be unsatisfied with the definitions in Koujien or the word I was looking for wouldn't even be listed. Often the information I needed could be found in Daijirin.

The fifth edition published in 1998 seems to have been expanded and modified significantly. The publisher claims about one-third of the entries have been revised. I haven't done a systematic check, but I have noticed that I am less annoyed by unhelpful definitions than I was with the fourth edition.

日本語大辞典 Nihongo Daijiten
(Ed. by 梅棹忠夫 Umesao Tadao et al., 講談社 Koudansha, 2nd ed., 1995. ISBN 4-06-125002-7.)

Though subtitled in English "The Great Japanese Dictionary," this dictionary is, in my opinion, the least great of the four large single-volume kokugo dictionaries described here. With its many color pictures, pages of advice on giving speeches and writing letters, and short English glosses for many of the entries, it wears its marketing strategy on its sleeve: to sell to people who don't know dictionaries. While all of the big dictionaries are advertised as gifts for recent graduates and newlyweds, this one seems most consciously designed to appeal to the casual, unintellectual consumer.

Nihongo Daijiten's definitions in Japanese are noticeably shorter than in Daijirin, Daijisen, or Koujien, and, despite being as large and heavy as the others, Nihongo Daijiten has significantly fewer entries and pages, the thicker paper and larger pictures having taken their toll. Even the English glosses, though quite well done, are too skimpy to make this book much use as a Japanese-English dictionary. The one area where this dictionary excels is in its pictures. They are clear and attractive, and they make the book a pleasure for casual browsing. They appear, though, at a heavy price to what I, for one, want most in a dictionary: words.

Small Single-Volume Dictionaries

Although the large single-volume dictionaries are the best general references on the Japanese language, their weight and bulk make them unwieldy and unportable. For many people, especially those who use kokugo dictionaries mainly to determine the right kanji for a particular word, a smaller dictionary is more than adequate. The smaller dictionaries usually emphasize the contemporary language and exclude archaisms, so it is sometimes possible to find more complete definitions or more appropriate examples in these than in the larger works.

新明解国語辞典 Shinmeikai Kokugo Jiten
(Ed. by 金田一京助 Kindaichi Kyousuke et al., 三省堂 Sanseidou, 5th ed., 1997. ISBN 4-385-12099-X.)

This is probably the best-selling and most well known of the smaller kokugo dictionaries, though its fame rests less on its authority than on the quirkiness of its definitions. Edited through several editions by 山田忠雄 Yamada Tadao, the book took on an idiosyncratic flavor rarely seen in general-purpose dictonaries. Yamada, who died between the fourth and fifth editions, seems to have been a misogynist cynic who enjoyed eating fish (many of the definitions of fish names identify the particular fish as tasty, an opinion that may not be shared by all).

The book's notoriety increased in 1996 with the publication of a book entitled 新解さんの謎 Shinkai-san no Nazo by 赤瀬川原平 Akasegawa Genpei (文藝春秋 Bungei Shunju, ISBN 4-16-351790-1) that pointed out, in a very humorous way, the unusual features of this dictionary's definitions and examples. The book seems to have been inspired by a Bunshun editor named 鈴木眞紀子 Suzuki Makiko, who wrote a follow-up entitled 新解さんの読み方 Shinkai-san no Yomikata (リトル・モア Ritoru Moa, ISBN 4-947648-69-4) published in 1998. This latter book focuses on the fifth edition, which seems to have been prepared after Yamada's death. While it preserves most of his quirks, it also makes many changes, especially the addition of a large number of foreign borrowings, a section of the Japanese vocabulary that Yamada may not have been fond of.

In any case, the dictionary, while definitely atypical in many of its definitions, is still aimed at the general reader. Finding the funny examples takes time and patience. For immediate lexicographic entertainment, it's better to buy Akasegawa's and Suzuki's books.

三省堂国語辞典 Sanseidou Kokugo Jiten
(Ed. by 見坊豪紀 Kenbou Hidetoshi et al., 三省堂 Sanseidou, 4th ed., 1992. ISBN 4-385-13188-0.)

Like the other Sanseidou dictionaries, this one has a strong contemporary emphasis and shows the influence of its late editor's renowned citation collecting. The entries include many colloquialisms that were missed or ignored by other lexicograhers.

岩波国語辞典 Iwanami Kokugo Jiten
(Ed. by 西尾実 Nisho MInoru et al., 岩波書店 Iwanami Shoten, 5th ed., 1996. ISBN 4-00-080041-8.)

This is a solid, reliable dictionary with no noticeable quirks. Its marketing focus seems to be on its authority as a reference work, and it is slower than some other dictionaries to include new words and meanings.

現代国語例解辞典 Gendai Kokugo Reikai Jiten
(Ed. by 林巨樹 Hayashi Naoki ? et al., 小学館 Shougakukan, 2nd ed., 1993. ISBN 4-09-501042-8.)

This dictionary, while about the same size and scope as the other small one-volume dictionaries, has a unique feature: tables scattered through the text showing how similar words can be used in context. For example, the entry on 皮膚 hifu "skin" has a table listing five expressions in which hifu, its synonym 肌 hada, or both can be used. According to the table, either term is acceptable in the expression 〜が荒れる -- ga areru, only hifu is okay in やけどで〜を移植する yakedo de -- o ishoku suru and 〜呼吸 -- kokyuu, and only hada may be used in 〜が合わない -- ga awanai and 木の〜 ki no hada. These tables would probably be especially useful for teachers and students of Japanese.

明治書院精選国語辞典 Meiji Shoin Seisen Kokugo Jiten
(Ed. by 宮地裕 Miyaji Yutaka and 甲斐睦郎 Kai Mutsurou, 明治書院 Meiji Shoin, 2nd ed., 1995. ISBN 4-625-70006-X.)

While some of the smaller kokugo dictionaries are little more than word lists, there are many that strive to pack as many whizzbang gimcracks as possible into their limited pages. This dictionary is an example. Among its advertised features: extensive use of furigana to indicate the readings of even common characters and jukugo; frequent cross-referencing of synonyms and antonyms; and separate entries on individual kanji, including meanings, JIS codes, stroke orders, and sample jukugo. The result is a dictionary that is interesting to browse and perhaps useful for students, though the inevitable price has been paid in fewer headword entries than would have been possible without all the gimmicks.

学研国語大辞典 Gakken Kokugo Daijiten
(Ed. by 金田一春彦 Kindaichi Haruhiko and 池田弥三郎 Ikeda Yasaburou, 学習研究社 Gakushuu Kenkyuusha, 2nd ed., 1988. ISBN 4-05-101902-0.)

This dictionary is a bit difficult to categorize, for it is larger than the other dictionaries in this group (about 100,000 headwords on 2100 pages compared to around 60,000 entries on 1300 to 1500 pages for the typical smaller kokugo dictionary) and because its entries are often longer and place more emphasis on real-life, rather than invented, citations. In fact, the citations seem to be the dictionary's main focus, with many entries accompanied by illustrative sentences from post-Meiji Era sources, especially literary works. Other interesting features are good coverage of synonyms and the listing of words that end in a particular headword (such as, under 室 shitsu, 化粧室 kesshoushitsu and 茶室 chashitsu and a couple of dozen others). Unlike many other dictionaries described here, this work seems aimed less at the masses than at people interested in language itself.

Multivolume Dictionaries

日本国語大辞典 Nihon Kokugo Daijiten
(Ed. by 日本大辞典刊行会 Nihon Daijiten Kankoukai, 小学館 Shougakukan, 1st ed., 1972.)

This dictionary covers the widest range of vocabulary and has the most in-depth definitions of any Japanese dictionary available today. Modeled at least in part on the great multivolume dictionaries of Europe, it includes historical citations of word usages, dialect and pronunciation information, and notes on putative etymologies. Its definitions are often longer and more explanatory than those in single-volume dictionaries, and it includes many line drawings, primarily of items unique to Japanese culture.

This dictionary was originally published in twenty large volumes. Later, the publisher released the same text in a slightly more compact but still readable ten-volume edition. I would recommend the ten-volume version to anyone except those with vast amounts of empty shelf space to fill.

There is little point in praising this dictionary, as it is clearly the best available, so I will mention just a few areas where it could be even better.

Though the Oxford English Dictionary, the closest counterpart to this dictionary in English, has been criticized for giving too much weight to the works of Shakespeare, this dictionary seems to give even more emphasis to certain canonical works. In the list of citations the same authors and titles appear frequently - in the post-Meiji period, for example, the names Natsume Souseki and Mori Ougai crop up again and again - and the list of main works consulted, published in a slim separate pamphlet, extends to a mere dozen pages. The second edition of the OED, in contrast, has a bibliography of nearly 140 pages. The focus for this Japanese dictionary's citations seems to have been on relatively lofty literary and historical works, while trashier and more popular works, especially in the modern era, received shorter shrift.

Another frustration is in the etymologies. Rather than state definitively the probable origin of a word, the editors decided merely to repeat what other references have asserted. This means that, for example, the word 水商売 mizushoubai has three distinct origins listed (and I have heard others). The entry for こころ kokoro has no fewer than twelve etymologies, with no indication as to which might be most plausible. I can only assume that this editorial capitulation was the result of inadequate scholarly consensus on how to determine the origins of Japanese words.

A third problem with this dictionary is one that afflicts all of us: it is getting older. Though it was up-to-date when it was published, it naturally contains no words that have come into currency in the past quarter century, and as of this writing it has not appeared on CD-ROM or on the Web. I did read several years ago, though, that it was being converted to digital form. I and many others would warmly welcome an updated, digital version.

大言海 Daigenkai
(Ed. by 大槻文彦 Ootsuki Fumihiko, 冨山房 Fuzanbou, 1932-37.)

This five-volume work is one of the major prewar kokugo dictionaries. A substantial revision and expansion of the author's pioneering 言海 Genkai (1889-91), this work is still noted for its sometimes distinctive definitions and its original etymologies, although many of the latter have been questioned since by scholars. The headwords are listed according to the old orthography and katakana is used in the definitions where hiragana would be used today. The last volume includes two useful indexes, one of all of the jukugo in the dictionary arranged by stroke count of the first kanji and the other of the jukugo listed by modern pronunciation. Daigenkai was revised after the war and is still in print in a one-volume edition, but it was largely superceded by Koujien and other later dictionaries.

大辭典 Daijiten
(Ed. by 下中彌三郎 Shimonaka Yasaburou, 平凡社 Heibonsha, 1934-36.)

With 700,000 headwords in its original 26-volume edition, this is the largest kokugo dictionary ever published. In addition to a wide range of general vocabulary, it also includes large numbers of proper names, dialect words, and other entries not found in smaller general-purpose dictionaries. Although contemporaneous with Daigenkai, it appears more modern, for the headwords are listed by pronunciation, which is nearly identical to modern orthography, and the definitions use hiragana where Daigenkai uses katakana. The dictionary has been criticized for the errors that crept in due to the rush in which it was compiled, but in this day of sloppy computer-assembled glossaries it seems remarkably clean. Daijiten has been reprinted twice in compressed editions, the most recent being a 1974 two-volume version with four pages reduced to fit on one and an accompanying magnifying glass for readers with postpubescent eyes.

Revised March 26, 1999