3 Apps to Turn your iPod into a Japanese Study Tool…

Strolling through Bic Camera the other day, I stopped in the handheld electronic Japanese dictionaries aisle and had a quick look at prices for a laugh.

Seriously, who still buys these things?

My guess is: people who also just purchased a brand new Sony Minidisc player1“fit up to twenty tracks in your pocket!” and/or will only use devices that bears the same comforting look as the pocket calculator they had back in High School.

I don’t see why else anybody would willingly spend up to twice the price of an iPod Touch on a tool that will, at best, do roughly what any iPod/iPhone does… minus the thousands of non-Japanese-related features.

Trust me, I am very receptive to the argument of the simple tool that does one thing and does it well, without the clutter and confusion of a myriad peripheral features… But if that’s what it takes, buy an iPod Touch, forget it can be a music player, a web browser or a gaming platform and use it solely as a Japanese study tool: you will still be getting a better deal than with one of these ridiculously overpriced/underfeatured denshi jisho.

In case you are considering such a purchase, or if you already own an iPhone/iPod Touch and wondered what apps you should get in order to turn it into the ultimate Japanese studying tool, here are my three picks:

#1 Imiwa?

update 2013: The app previously called ‘Kotoba!’ has been renamed ‘Imiwa?’.

Imiwa? is the best mobile Japanese dictionary, bar none. It uses Jim Breen’s public Japanese dictionaries for its data and provides absolutely every single lookup method you could ever desire, combined into a sleek and intuitive UI. If you factor in Apple’s built-in handwritten Kanji input2ok, not quite Kanji: Chinese Hanzi… but for most purposes, it will really work just the same. Just make sure you set it with Traditional Chinese, not simplified, you have a Japanese dictionary that far outpaces any handheld electronic toy out there.

With all that and despite being a commercial-grade application, Imiwa is absolutely free! Not “free”, not free3“Free… for a limited time. Purchase the full version for only $19.99”: absolutely free, as in freeware, born out of the dedication of its author, Pierre-Philippe di Costanzo. So get it now and go make a donation right after.

#2 KanjiBox

Yes, I am ever so slightly biased on that one… 😀

But there is a reason I set out making KanjiBox for Facebook many years ago: none of the other kanji-studying application came even close to what I wanted in such a product (smart drilling, stats etc.). This is still mostly true with iPhone apps.

To me, a Japanese study app should offer, at the minimum:

  1. Intelligent questions: not just throwing a couple random kanji and asking you to pick one (“Gee, I wonder which between 大 and 嘛 could mean big“)…
  2. Smart drilling: what’s the point of using a software if it cannot store my answers and use the data to adjust to my level at all time.
  3. Progress feedback: I don’t know about you, but knowing where I stand in my studies is a huge motivation factor. Sure, it’s a stupid bar chart, not a perfect representation of my actual everyday fluency, but it still helps setting studying goals for myself (and knowing whether I am somewhat ready for JLPT).

These, and a couple less critical, but still thoroughly enjoyable, features, such as the competitive edge brought by scoring (and comparing with your friends), are what I expect from language-studying software in the 21st century. And you would be surprised how few (if any) of the apps out there do that.

Which is why I have no qualms recommending my own KanjiBox to all serious Japanese students.

For those who can’t get themselves to purchase KanjiBox for whatever reason, I suppose my next choice would be Kanji, which fails at practically all the points mentioned above (it really is the most basic type of flashcard app), but at least has a nice clean UI and won’t set you back too much with its one-buck price tag (probably still too much for what it is). As for KanjiBox’s lesser doppelganger, Kanji Flip: I would perhaps recommend it (although I am no fan of its UI and self-quizzing method), but at $6, it is ridiculously overpriced (that’s twice KB’s price for half the features).

I am sure there are a few free applications that do most of what the ones above do (after all, Kotoba is by far the best dictionary app, and it’s free). But frankly I haven’t seen them yet. And you do know what they say about getting what you pay for.

#3 Japanese Podcasts

Alright, I lied, it’s not an app.

But you now have a pocket-size device with a powerful dictionary and a versatile study guide: it would still be silly not to take advantage of the fact that it can play sound and music (huh, some would even say it is its primary purpose).

I have personally never found Japanese dictionary with audio cues and other attempts at replacing a basic classroom teacher, to be very useful, for two reasons: 1) you will still need to spend time with a real native Japanese speaker anyway (especially around the beginning). 2) Japanese pronunciation is really straightforward: if after a couple hours’ worth of studying you cannot pronounce every single word in a dictionary, you probably need to take on another hobby.

On the other hand, nothing (and certainly not rote learning of entire lists of kanji and vocabulary) will ever replace listening and conversation practice.

Better than limited phrasebook apps, I think using the iPod for what it was meant to do —download and play music/podcasts — is a nicer way to get your regular dose of Japanese practice. As for which podcasts: there just isn’t a way to recommend something that fits all levels and interests.

For beginners, Japanese 101 has a nice array of podcast material (not so convinced by their apps, on the other hand), if you are at a slightly more advanced level, I would suggest directly checking out real everyday-life Japanese podcasts, in a topic that you like. The important part being to find materials that are engaging and updated regularly…

If you really don’t know where to start (and have a sufficiently advanced levels), check out NHK’s podcasts: they have a variety of feeds covering many different topics from daily news to pop music (they also have Japanese lessons, but I don’t know what they are worth).

Whatever you do, stay the hell away from those “Hi, I am 14-year old Mike from Arkansas, and I will be teaching you Japanese: KONNECHEVA!” podcasts… No offense, but I have a couple Astrud Gilberto records at home: you don’t see me trying to teach you Portuguese over the Internet…


And that’s it. For $201.99, you have the ultimate Japanese learning and reference device. And it even plays music for that price!

Why only three recommendations when there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of Japanese-related apps in the iTunes App Store? Because as mentioned above, there is a beauty to simplicity. Redundant tools rarely improve your experience, they just scatter your attention (and waste your money). That being said, feel free to explore more apps (and send me your recommendations, if you think they deserve being added here4Need I mention that “WRITE Your Name in JAPANEESE” and other “60 KANA YOU MUST KNOW” apps, really do not need to be brought to my attention.).


  1. (warning: experimental HTML.)

    As far as I’m concerned, all I want is a black&whitte[1] thing with
    1/ 広辞苑
    2/ 和仏・仏和
    3/ 四字熟語

    I do consider buying a brand new obsolete dictionary.
    (I also gave back an iphone I had been offered, for I don’t support Apple.)


    Because the batteries last a year or so.

  2. “Batteries”…?

    You mean like these obsolete cumbersome energy storing devices that require an external charger and can only be recharged a couple times before slowly losing their efficiency? (I am assuming we aren’t even talking of their non-rechargeable baby-seal-killing version)

    And I don’t really “support” Apple… at least not any more than I support Nestle, Seven-Eleven or AT&T when I occasionally purchase their products & services (until I move to a hut in the woods).

    But then again, if you like paying more or less the same price for your black&white glorified pocket calculator as I pay for mine: more power to you 🙂

  3. Did I ever mention that I worship the HP48?

    As far as Apple is concerned, I chose to actively despise them, unlike Nestle, 7/11 or AT&T about which I don’t care.

    The (not unique) reason is that the marketing team of Apple is ruled by a dark force, and that some valiant citizens of the world must stand up and resist their (very effective) brainwashing.


    Oh, and I had a mac and could use it (somehow) *before* I knew how to write my name with a pen. That makes me a real oldschool apple schismatic.

  4. Dave, I’ve been using your SpamKarma for years (it’s still chugging away and it’s been great), so I occasionally check out your blog.

    After reading this post, I bought Kanji Box and it is FANTASTIC! It is by far the best Kanji building app I have seen – the drills are excellent.

    I’ve already recommended it to a few people and will continue to do so.

    (although I would still argue for an electronic dictionary, IF one is advanced enough to use it without English, but that’s a whole other situation…)

  5. Hello Laura,

    Oh my, A return customer!!! And a satisfied one to boot!

    Glad to hear both Spam Karma and KanjiBox work to your liking (although for the former, I am afraid it is bursting at the seams and unfortunately not very actively maintained any more). Thanks for the support and recommendations!

    I have only recently realised that the world of iPhone applications is thoroughly different from blog platform tools (where word-of-mouth is pretty much the raison d’être of the product in the first place): iPhone users are way less prone to sharing their experience online, or even write a review in the App Store… Having arguably one of the better product will not get you very far if you do not have a massive marketing machine along with it. Something I’m not very good at, but hopefully posts like the one above can help spreading the word (and KB’s features will do the rest).

    Anyway, good luck with your studying and everything else in Tokyo!

    PS: I am entirely with you on crappy books that feel like they were written as a mere preparatory step to a screenplay…

  6. Yes, I am a big Dave cheerleader! 🙂

    Despite your decision to no longer support Spam Karma last year, I kept it on a couple of blogs I administer and it is still fab. Spam Karma plus Akismet and I have almost zero spam without doing any type of Captcha for comments.

    Not to overload you with work, but a few things I would suggest regarding the app and iPhone in general. For your blog, I would suggest getting and activating WPtouch: http://www.bravenewcode.com/products/wptouch/
    I did a write up of it on my blog: http://blog.tokyololas.com/wptouch/ – it makes viewing a blog on a smart phone way easier (and saves on data charges for users)

    Also, I would suggest that you build a simple web page for your KanjiBox app and make a Twitter account for it (on which you just need to post any updates or anything else connected to the app). Something like this is a good example of a simple web page and Twitter account combo: http://birdhouseapp.com/ and http://twitter.com/birdhouseapp
    I think Twitter is really key for spreading iPhone apps – it’s viral in proportion and Twitter users are constantly retweeting anything they find remotely worthy of spreading.

    In the meantime, I will do my own blog post on KanjiBox and post something on Twitter about it (and, if I can figure out how to work it in, maybe even on Flickr, where I probably have the most traffic on a daily basis) – it really is a great app and I think you should be selling it in great numbers, so I am happy to promote it.

    Another thing you might consider is an affiliate program: give a small portion of your sales to blogs that link to the app page. My blog doesn’t have tremendous traffic because I stopped blogging for a while through 2008/2009, but there are some Japan blogs with thousands of Twitter followers and thousands of hits a day (like Shibuya246 or Muzachan). As you say, it is all about 口コミ and you have to leverage the volume or viral capability of Twitter.

    PS: forgot I’d written that about books…it probably sounds really snotty on my part, but I just can’t stand reading crappy novels (unless I am knowingly choosing to read a crappy novel – like at the beach or something), so I’m glad at least one person agrees!

  7. ごめん…just realized that you already HAVE a KanjiBox website! Shibuya246 just did a post on learning Japanese, so I am going to put a link to your site in the comments. 🙂

  8. Woa, thanks a lot for taking the time with all the advice, Laura!

    Yes, you are right: I should make this blog (as well as the one for KanjiBox, which it seems you have found eventually 😉 more accessible to iPhones. In fact, a complete design overhaul is long due (I try to keep it to one time-consuming pet project at a time, though). Thanks for the tip on WP-Touch: it looks really sleek and I’ll give it a try tonight!

    Maybe I should also get over my deep-seated hatred of Twitter (“damn kids today with their vacuous 140 characters…”) and create a KanjiBox feed. But to be honest, I doubt there would be enough to put on it, even by Twitter’s really low standards (even most of what goes on the dev blog is mostly pics and the occasional bloated rant). But I guess twitter is today’s RSS feed… so why not…

  9. [Oops. I can’t even use my own blog form any more: pressed the submit button by error]

    … About affiliate programs: Apple already offers them. Actually, blogs that review or otherwise link to iphone apps most likely are on it. Because of the way the app store backend works (or more exactly: doesn’t), it would be really hard to set up that sort of system for a single app. Or at least: more effort than a silly one-man pet-project study app deserves 😉

    On the other hand, I am generally glad to hand out app promo codes to anybody who has an interest in reviewing the app publicly: but the nature of this app makes it rather unsuitable for standard review websites…

    Anyway, thanks for all your thoughtful advice and encouragement!

    BTW: I hope my first comment didn’t come across as whiny/complainy:
    KanjiBox is doing great, both online and on the iPhone. I have received nothing but positive feedback and warm support (with the occasional nonsensical whining about this or that from people who obviously barely know what an iPhone – or kanji – is)… I am just genuinely surprised by the extent to which iphone users behave differently from blog users: it is definitely a much more “passive” type of internet use (granted, blog users are quite another extreme of the spectrum). But, hey, the times, as they say, keep a-changing.

  10. Yes, definitely check out WPtouch.

    I see you are moving fast on the Twitter thing! I am now your “follower”, which, when you type it out, sounds rather creepy and or cult-like…

    I have to say, I kind of felt the same (the “hell frozen over” bit) and I never really “got” why anyone would use Twitter until I started using it, BUT I now see it as an awesome news feed and a real way to know what is happening as it happens and to be able to access it a number of ways when on the move.

    (no, you didn’t sound whiny: I think it’s true about iPhone apps being very different from blogging add-ons and, therefore, you need several different approaches)

    So, see you on Twitter…

Comments are closed.