Rikaichan is a popup dictionary.  If I had to give up all but one of my printed and online Japanese learning resources, rikaichan would be the keeper. And it happens to be free!  You can download it and get more info here.

One of the joys of living in Kyoto is that I get to indulge my love of learning kanji all the time,  by just looking at the signs that surround me in my daily life.  I’d like to give you a sense of that feeling, that satisfaction that comes from reading authentic Japanese, in fun, short bursts.

 The photo below is of a used bicycle shop’s sign in my neighborhood.  An obvious limitation of rikaichan’s is that you can’t simply hover your browser on kanji in a photo, because it’s not directly transmitted text on your screen, and can’t be recognized.  In the same way, rikaichan won’t be of use with scanned documents.

With this in mind, I transcribe what’s written on signs, etc, so that you can use rikaichan at your own discretion. And while you don’t need to enable rikaichan to enjoy and learn from the posts,  using it with the characters  I transcribe just below photos as I have below will allow you to actively interact with the topics, which in itself is a key to retention and motivation.

Try to read the signs in the photos in this blog without any help, and see how far you get with that.  Use your rikaichan on the text I transcribe below the photos to help with unfamiliar readings and meanings.  In the photo  just below, I hovered over the second part of the sign that’s visible in this pic, and rikaichan has identified the word and given the details.  If you want to see more detail about the individual characters, just gradually move your mouse to the right.

I see the same characters and appeals again and again,  and this varied repetition of dynamic content makes for natural, engaging reinforcement. It can also be more than a little overwhelming at times!  From the countless messages that surround me, I’ll choose subjects that offer the chance to see common characters and words in succinct, visually appealing ways,   and you’ll find yourself relying less on rikaichan and more on your own ability as you go along.  Give it a try!

Rikaichan has changed the way I study Japanese, in that it enables me to read articles and other authentic Japanese text online that otherwise would be over my head.  I’ve been able to develop my own study routine, using it only when I am really stuck, and focusing on retaining the information it gives me about definitions and kanji readings.

In addition to writing the characters that appear in signs in photos, I will sometimes include Japanese words in my posts without  adding  hiragana after the kanji, to allow you to decode them for yourself or with the help of rikaichan or your favorite reference tool as you see fit.

As I got into the habit of using rikaichan to help me decipher things online, I started going to my tool bar to enable it as a matter of routine whenever I turn on my computer.  It’s invaluable for a variety of text from emails from Japanese friends, to online articles.

The photo just below is typical of how I use it most of the time, to help me read newspaper articles online.  Click on the photo to see an enlarged version and to view the characters clearly.

In this case,  I couldn’t read a word in the headline, ふくさよう that I use in conversation.  I hadn’t seen it written before, and I was surprised to realize that what seemed at first glance to be a totally unfamiliar word is actually one that I know the meaning of and recognize when I hear it.  I also know the readings of the three kanji that comprise it,  so as it turns out,  a quick rikaichan check is enough for me to recognize it on my own in the future, and efficiently build on my knowledge base.

Once you install rikaichan, all you have to do is enable it when you turn on your computer and hover your mouse over the characters you want readings and/or definitions for.  If you hover over the first character of a word, you’ll get the reading and definition for the word, not just the reading for the individual character.  This is really a big part of what makes it so valuable for me.

In  certain situations you might not be especially focused on retaining what rikaichan shows you, such as when you get an email in Japanese and need to fill in some gaps in your knowledge and understand it. In a case like this you can use it without much thought, and let it help you to rapidly understand the material in the moment.

But when improving your reading skills is your main goal, it’s worth developing a learning strategy as you go along that caters to your level and learning style.  This will help you to improve more quickly, and it will also keep you motivated by giving you a real feeling of satisfaction that comes from stretching yourself and seeing noticeable improvement in your ability to read and understand more and more characters, and do it with greater speed as you go along.

Rikai also has an optional toolbar that lets you manually type in a word you want to look up, as you’ll see in the screenshot below.  Click on it to see it in detail.  Here I entered the Japanese term for ‘cold war’ in kanji to get a deeper understanding of the characters’ components.

I use this as a handy dictionary when I want to clarify the meaning of a word I recently heard in conversation, etc.   I also use it along with the popup dictionary feature as an occasional supplement when I want to get more detailed info on the kanji that make up a word.  It also has the number of the character given in various dictionaries and kanji learning systems, so you can easily use online readings to reinforce what you’ve been exposed to in those texts.  It really helps to bring your studies alive.

I used to study kanji using James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji I and II and I bought a set of compatible flash cards that I used a lot. You can buy a set like I did, but if you have a printer, rikaichan can be of service there as well, as it offers printable cards on PDF.

I’ve donated to the rikaichan project through the handy button on their site because I’ve gotten so much benefit from it, and I’m betting that if you add this great resource to your arsenal of study aids and take the time to try it out with different texts in various ways, you’ll quickly discover how to adapt it to your level and learning style.

Let me know if you have any suggestions for written content that you’d like to see here with transcriptions, and please pass along your own tips on how to get the most out of rikaichan!

Heaven’s River: The Milky Way and the Tanabata Star Festival

I just got a second coffee and a blueberry scone and commented to the Starbuck’s staffer that I was glad the rain had stopped. 雨やんでよかった!She reminded me that it’s especially good news because today’s Tanabata, the Star Festival.

Then she said ‘Milky Way’ in English,  and I remembered that according to the legend,  two deities represented by stars are separated by the Milky Way, and can only meet on Tanabata night.

I wanted to know how to say ‘Milky Way’ in Japanese and asked her.  Heavenly River! 天の川(あまのがわ).  I should be able to remember it it this time.  The trick will be to remember this reading of 天. Another example that comes to mind is 天下り(あまくだり, descent from heaven.  A colorful expression for the common but increasingly frowned upon practice of giving high level bureaucrats cushy private sector jobs when they retire.  What we might call a golden parachute in English.

Because of the similar sound, I think of the word for sweet, 甘い when I see this reading of 天,  and then I think of that sweetest of candy bars, Milky Way,  and I find a new way to remember how to read this heavenly kanji combination.

あまのがわ、あまくだり。。。。Have you come across of any other examples of this reading for the character 天 in conversation or readings?

The sand dunes of Tottori

photo by geofrog, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

I was talking with my friend Yutaka the other night, sitting at the counter of my favorite bar listening to some tunes by The Who from their BBC sessions LP.  He just took a trip to Tottori Prefecture, and though I’ve never been to 鳥取県,  I’ve heard about the sand dunes and camels.  The first time I saw pictures I had a hard time believing it was Japan!

I couldn’t say the word for ‘dunes’ even though I’ve heard it before when that area has come up in conversation.  This time I made a point of asking him how to say it, and took the time to see what the word’s components are.  As is so often the case when I do this, I learn a lot and discover some unexpected connections, and easy ways to anchor my new knowledge to things I already know on some level.

砂丘(さきゅう)means dune in Japanese.  The first character means sand, すな。When my friend told me this much, my eyes lit up as I realized that it’s the same reading as in 黄砂(こうさ)。黄砂 might well not be familiar to you if you don’t live in Japan or neighboring countries, but based on the information in this paragraph, you might be able to understand and pronounce it.  Hint: the first character is the kanji for a primary color.

Could you get the color and maybe the reading, too?

黄砂 literally means ‘yellow sand.’  It makes its way to Japan and neighboring countries from China via high winds and makes a nuisance of itself by causing allergy-like symptoms like sore throats and doing damage to car finishes, etc.  The word comes up in conversation here  when strong winds pick up.  As desertification has spread in China, the amount of yellow sand has increased.

The word for dune, 砂丘 uses this same reading.  My friend added that the second syllable means hill, or おか。so dune is literally ‘sand hill.’  When I started writing this post, I got a surprise, though. I’d expected 岡 to pop up when I wrote the word in hiragana, because I’m familiar with that kanji for ‘hill’ from last names like 岡本、and places like 岡島. This  kanji has eluded me to this point, but 丘 is on my radar screen now.

A third example of this reading of the kanji for sand is the one I’d overlooked when I started writing this post, and I only realized it because my Japanese teacher pointed it out when I shared the draft with her. 砂糖!Sugar.  I’d totally overlooked this reading because I’ve come to see that word as a unit that means sugar, and hadn’t examined the kanji individually for years.

If you don’t have this reading for 砂 committed to memory yet,  you might use its English meaning, ‘sand’ as a mnemonic device to help you lock it in.  Think of the first two letters of ‘SAnd’ and you’ll never forget the さ in the words above!

Funny how as my kanji knowledge grows,  the most familiar old characters and words like 砂糖 offer up new discoveries.

One of these days I’ll get to the dunes of Tottori!  Have you been there?