The Rise and Fall of Japanese Electronic Dictionaries

Remembering Japanese Electronic DictionariesI want to reminisce about Japanese electronic dictionaries or 電子辞書 (denshi jisho). Seeing these things was pretty rare outside of Asia, or at least where I lived in the US. I don’t remember where I originally found out about them, but I really wanted one when I started looking into them online. Before I get into my experience, let’s quickly go through why these devices were/are a big deal.

Japanese Electronic Dictionaries at Schools

I can’t speak for all Japanese schools, but the ones I worked at usually forced middle school students to use paper dictionaries until they entered high school. Once a student went to high school, he/she pretty much needed an electronic dictionary to keep up in English class. You definitely didn’t want to be the kid busting out a big physical dictionary and drawing attention to yourself.

Smartphones are not allowed at Japanese schools and definitely not in the classroom, so the only way you’re going to be able to look up stuff is with, you guessed it, a portable electronic dictionary.

This has turned into a pretty big industry with companies trying to outdo each other with designs and features. They have models now targeting everyone from students, translators, or regular businessmen. I was always pretty baffled why the electronic dictionary makers never went with e-ink from ebook readers like the Kindle. I imagine that would have made the battery life pretty amazing. However, now that I think about it, that would diminish the profits the companies are reaping from basically most academic Japanese high school students.

It’s somewhat similar to the scientific calculator situation in the US. The products don’t cost much to produce these days, but because they are basically essential in some classes, the companies can charge whatever they want and you can’t do much about it.

Having said that, I just checked Amazon Japan as I write this and the median price for an electronic dictionary seems to hover around 20,000 yen or roughly $200. That’s not too bad compared to many years ago when I would check out the models in stores where most started at 40,000 yen/$400.

My Experience with a Japanese Electronic Dictionary

Back in my middle school/high school days, the only thing I had was a pocket Japanese dictionary. It was pretty unique and stood out due to its yellow cover. It served me well whenever I brought it places.

Having always been a tech-head, I knew that things could be made so much easier if I could flip open an electronic dictionary and look something up. These days, I don’t really find myself longing for them any more, but I do remember when I was pretty obsessed with owning one.

After what must have been a couple of years early on in my Japanese learning days, I eventually found a great deal on a used Japanese electronic dictionary on eBay.

I’ll never forget the model: the Canon WordTank C50. It wasn’t as big or data-intense as the more expensive models, but it was really neat! It had phrase dictionaries for other languages as well as Japanese-English, English-Japanese, Japanese-Japanese, and a ton more features that I never was able to make full use of.

Just look at this thing, it’s gorgeous and so compact! This was before the age of smartphones, so this thing really blew people away when they saw it. Electronic dictionaries just weren’t a big thing outside of Asia, so people would always do a double take when they saw this next to me when I was studying in my free time.

Whenever the Japanese electronic dictionary wasn’t in use, you could close it and admire its silver casing and small profile.

In the first year or so, I couldn’t use this thing very well because it was designed to be used by Japanese speakers. This meant that all the buttons, explanations, etc were using kanji and A LOT of it.

Things really started happening when I discovered the “jump” feature. This allowed you to highlight a kanji or word and get taken immediately to its entry which usually included the reading in hiragana/katakana. What a difference that made!

Modern Smartphones Arrive

With the launch of the iPhone followed by its App Store, people started seeing the potential in third party apps. I saw this as well and couldn’t wait for a Japanese dictionary app. As more and more people buy smartphones or tablets, it’s becoming much easier to install an app for all your language dictionary needs. Who wants to lug around a dedicated piece of hardware for one function when you can get something pretty good already with the phone you carry with you?

I remember when I was a high school student visiting Japan in 2004 and I saw some people carrying around Japanese electronic dictionaries. I marveled at how cool that was and wondered if that wouldn’t be me someday. That would never happen, but now everyone can carry a dictionary with them these days thanks to smartphones.

The Current State of Japanese Electronic Dictionaries

I know there are going to be people that want to point out exceptions, but let’s be real: These devices are fading in popularity and are only being propped up by students in high school/university and hardcore people in certain areas.

However, if you are are interested in owning one or want to not be tethered to a smartphone, you can buy one and have it shipped to you courtesy of White Rabbit Japan.

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