5 Ways to Find a Japanese Word Without an E-J Dictionary

You’ve moved on from English and are in full-force J-J mode. While things aren’t easy, you know what you have to do. It’s just a matter of staying the course. You find a Japanese word you don’t know, you look it up in Japanese. If it’s not in the dictionary, you use other search methods, but you’ll eventually find your answers.


There is an interesting predicament J-J learners end up in when it comes to output (speaking or writing). You want to say something in Japanese that you don’t know how to say. If you could just use an E-J dictionary, it would take a second to enter it in, and you’d have your Japanese word. But you aren’t using English.

How do you find the word you want to use? What are your options?

1. Give in and look up the word in an E-J dictionary

Some people find E-J less of an issue than J-E. You just want to find a way to express a specific thing you need to know in Japanese. It doesn’t happen often. The alternatives feel like they take way too long.

E-J is slightly less egregious than J-E. But you’re still relying on English. This is a habit you don’t want to be sliding in and out of because of a perceived need.

2. Use the closest synonym or meaning to the word you know

If you don’t know a word, and you can’t find it, using a substitute can work just fine. Even when the substitute isn’t specific enough, a description can take its place.


3. Use a Thesaurus

Input a word that you know is a synonym to the word you’re searching for. Look at the synonym results, and then go from there.

For example, for my American readers out there, let’s say you want to discuss the election debates with your Japanese friends. You don’t know the specific word for “debate” in Japanese. However, you do know similar simpler words, like 話し合い and ディスカッション. You could just use those words, but you want preciseness.

Input one of these words into a Japanese Thesaurus.


Now you have a bunch of synonyms. The one you need is 討論 (とうろん), but you wouldn’t necessarily know that. Your course of action from here is to go through each one and put it in the dictionary, figuring out which is closest to what you want, or skip to #4.

4. Use news and other topical articles

You want to say the word debate. Rather than try to figure it out yourself, why not just find someone else using it. Look at a recent news article and I guarantee you’ll see repeated use of 討論 and 討論会 (which is the official way of saying it). Since you’re used to J-J, it can be easier to figure out what is the word you’re looking for.

You’d think that if you don’t know the word you’re looking for, stumbling across it wouldn’t signal to you that this is the answer. However, it does. The context, the kanji, and the use of the word in whatever you’re reading is a loud announcement to you that you have found your sought after word.

This type of stumble upon can work for anything:

● Need to figure out the name for some complex tool? Go to a Japanese site or guide that uses that tool to build something.

● Need to figure out how to say an Italian food in Japanese? Go to an Italian restaurant Japanese website.

5. Immerse and wait


The more situations, the more experience you have listening to the Japanese language, the more words that you want to be able to say start to present themselves to you. Over time, you won’t even have to use any of the above 4 methods.

But you want to use that word now!

Try waiting. Don’t ruin the natural development by being in a rush. You may want to talk about politics without a moment of hesitation. But your Japanese mind isn’t ready yet. Let immersion develop it first.

How do you deal with Japanese words you want to say but can’t yet?

Do you use any of the methods above? Or do you have your own super secret tactic you’d like to share?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


5 Ways to Find a Japanese Word Without an E-J Dictionary — 2 Comments

  1. I have had to do similar things to this in English to find English words, so it makes sense to do the same with Japanese. It seems to be an exercise of researching skills and it is exactly as you said, have patience.

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