Recently I went on a long plane trip where I knew I wouldn’t have network for a few hours, and since I was planning on reading and/or translating during the flight, I needed a good Japanese dictionary mobile app that I knew would work offline.
I ended up downloading a few, but the one I will be reviewing this time is the “Sansei’s Gendai Shin Kokugo Jiten” app (三省堂現代新国語辞典). While there seems to be an Android version, I have only tried the iPhone version and so will be reviewing that.
One reason I decided to review this app is because it cost a whopping $13.99, by far the most expensive app I purchased on the app store. I generally play around with free apps, and once in awhile spend a few dollars on a game that seems great, but in this case I wanted to try and get the best offline dictionary possible and Sanseido is a major publisher (and I’m sure their actual paper dictionary is great), so I made the splurge.
The first disappointment about this app is that it doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2014, and when it first comes up my iPhone gave a warning that it may slow down my device. What’s frustrating is that while doing this review I searched and found this page, which seems to be a newer version of the app (updated 2016) on the Japanese app store. I got my version from the US app store, and didn’t think of going through the trouble of switching to the Japanese app store (which I have done on rare occasion). After all, if I am going to go there, there is probably a large number of competing Japanese dictionary apps. But it’s sad that Sanseido didn’t update their app in the US version of the app store.
One important thing to know about this app is it is only Japanese to Japanese (hence the kokugo/国語 part), and there are no English definitions. That actually wasn’t a huge deal for me since I commonly use Japanese->Japanese dictionaries, though I wouldn’t have minded having both languages. It may be a major drawback for those of you who are at an earlier stage in your studies, however.
Anyway, it’s pretty easy to do basic word lookup: you just type in the word in Japanese characters (kana) and it shows a list of candidate words in real time, even if you don’t have any internet connection. It’s fast and this makes the app pretty handy, so in a sense it is what I was looking for. The app is designed to display things vertically and scroll horizontally, which gives it a nice classic Japanese touch, and also has a nice large default font you can see the Kanji without squinting. There is also frequently Furigana reading hints which is nice. For searching you can search for complete matches (完全), match starting at the front (前方）and at the end (後方). Being a kokugo dictionary, it doesn’t support looking up English characters (romaji).
The definitions are relatively simple, along with occasional sample sentences, both in the vein of many of the definitions on my favorite online dictionary Goo. You also get related expressions, so searching for 気 gives things 気にくわない and 気に入る.
One of the other disappointments of this app is that there is very few dynamic links in the definition text. If you scroll around you will find the occasional one, but I wished there was much more. Besides the definitions and example sentences you’ll see notes on things like antonyms (ex: search for 寒い and you get “対：暑い”), the type of speech it is (名・形・自動五段, etc), and alternate kanji readings.
Since this app seems like it is trying to simulate their paper dictionary, there are features like a “next” and “prev” button which go through the various entries in order, but honestly I am not sure how these would be useful. There is also an “Index” mode where you can ‘leaf through’ the dictionary as if you were using your finger with a real one, but again the usefulness of this is debatable.
In terms of kanji, there is a nice mode where you can look up characters by stroke count (though apparently not by radical which is my preference), and each Kanji shows animated stroke order and has links to some related words (though I wish there was more links and related words).
There are some other features like bookmarks, twitter integration, and a bunch of extras (付録) like help on using polite language (敬語の概要), how to write letters (手紙の書き方), and easily mistaken Kanji (まちがえやすい漢字の例). While these are all interesting, I’d generally just look these up on some website if I had access to the internet and a computer.
One more minor point is that when reading through a historical novel (歴史時代小説) there was several words which didn’t show up in this dictionary. Some of them I found online later, but some weren’t in the other dictionary app I checked, so I am not sure if this dictionary is necessarily worse or better than others. However, the fact that it has not apparently been updated in over 2 years means it can’t be as updated as an online dictionary. There was at least one word I didn’t find in this dictionary that I did find in another offline free dictionary (ouch!), though I did find it later under a different reading.
All in all, this is a reasonably good Japanese to Japanese dictionary, however I don’t think it is worth $13.99 unless you are really desperate. I’d say with its present feature set, it would be a good deal around $5.99, and if they added some more features (like character recognition using the camera would be nice, though that technology arguably needs work) it may be worth a few more bucks.
But how often is one in an environment where they have no internet these days? If I was really desperate, I could have just paid the (high) cost to use internet on the plane, though that would have exceeded the cost of this dictionary to use it for more than a few minutes.