How does one look up a kanji you don’t know?

I’m not at the point of heavy reading yet, but I’ve been confused for sometime. How do you look up kanji you don’t know? Wouldn’t you have to be able to spell it? If you don’t know the meaning, how do you find it?


You can look up kanji by radical, and some dictionary apps have a feature where you can draw it.


Also, if you know if enough kanji you can often make educated guesses about the reading.


If you have a compound word and e. g. you only know the last kanji you can use wildcards in jisho … 淀川 if you know 川 you could search for *川 and it will show you all the vocsb that end with this kanji its also possible to use it at the beginning so only words are listed that start with this. A other way of using this by enclosing if you dont know know the kanji in the middle like this pattern knownKanji1 * knownKanji2

This is often useful for me. And if I want look up a single kanji I often search the radical here in WK and look at the kanjis where it id used. But for that you have to know some of them. If that all is not working you could still draw it.


There are some apps where you can just draw the kanji for lookup, that’s what I find easiest.

If you have iOS, my favorite app by far to do this is Midori. The handwriting detection is in my opinion significantly better than Google Translate and jisho. Midori costs a few dollars but it is absolutely worth it imo.


A multiradical lookup site, such as: Multiradical search at

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Or use google translate lol

Its pretty accurate,
The android/ios app also has this functionality

3 Likes I absolutely love the handwriting feature of this website. It gives you twenty of the closest guesses to what you have drawn, and you toggle whether the program uses your stroke order for more accurate results.
Same site as Konsaki, but I prefer the drawing section much more

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As a free option on iOS, you could install the “Chinese (Simplified) - Handwriting” keyboard, then open any dictionary app or site, and draw the kanji in the “keyboard” input box. It’s focused on Chinese rather than Japanese, but I find that the keyboard is quite good at deciphering even my stunted and ugly handwriting. And whatever dictionary app/site I’m using can take it from there.


I second Midori. It’s a good investment! I use it everyday.


Google translate is great because in addition to allowing you to hand-write it also has a scanning feature. Just click the camera icon in the app and take a picture of the kanji you want to translate. Super easy.

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I use shirabe jisho. Free app. Seems to work okay.

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If you understand strokes you can also look it up by counting the strokes.

I usually use a mix of looking up the radicals and counting the strokes.

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I use a paper dictionary everyday. There are instructions in front on how to look up kanji. It takes a couple times to get the hang of it, but I would assume that all school children still learn how to use one. I feel that learning to use one has increased my understanding of kanji overall.

On a daily basis, in a pinch, I just draw it into my IME ( all IMEs can work with handwriting recognition, I think) with my mouse or pen input, then look it up on Jisho. If you haven’t set your IME (Input Method Editor) up yet, do it now. I think that there are basic instructions on Tofugu. You can only make it so far in the study of Japanese without having an IME installed. This is the tool that allows you to enter kana and kanji into your machine.


I second this 100%.

But I often use Google Translate’s photo tool and copy and paste the text into Midori.

Costs money, but it’s cheaper than most paper dictionaries and you’ll use it much more often.


IT challenges individual here. I downloaded the google translate app and clicked on the camera function but doesn’t seem to translate. Any idea what I am doing wrong?

I usually search by radical using Oftentimes, the kanji I’m trying to decipher will be really pixelated, so if I were to try and draw it, there would inevitably be parts that I’d get wrong.

If the kanji is really just that pixelated/doesn’t have radicals that I can easily identify (like 祭り in Pokemon Sun), I usually try to look up words that I think might be relevant to the situation.

If the kanji is on the computer, I usually use rikaikun if I can.

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Maybe your translation is going from Eng-Jpn insted of Jpn-Eng. Either set it on the main screen to Jpn-Eng or tap the blue text on top of the camera screen. (this is at least my most common mistake). After that photograph whatever text you’d like to translate. See through boxes should appear near around the translatable text which can be chosen by swiping over it.

ps. Google translate saved me so many times (basically everyday) during my exchange time. Wouldn’t trust it to translate a novel but for getting a general gist of what’s going on or a single kanji, it works more than well!

Here’s what I do.

  • Open the app and check the settings at the top. There should be two languages separated by a pair of arrows at the top of the screen. The language on the left is the input language while the language on the right is the output. Since we want to scan some Japanese text and translate it into English, we want Japanese on the left and English on the right. Switch these by clicking the arrows if you need to.

  • Click the camera icon below the text box.

  • If your phone has a camera, it will switch to camera mode. Line up whatever you want to scan and take a picture of it.

  • All Japanese text in the image will be outlined in gray squares. If you touch the screen, you can highlight part or all of the text. Just touch your finger to the screen and “draw” on whatever you want to translate.

  • The highlighted text will appear in the top gray box, and the translation will appear in the white lower box. If you want to see more, click the blue arrow in the white box.

I hope this helps. Maybe you missed the highlighting step?

If you are using a Mac, and if the character is on your screen, this little app is wonderful. You take a screenshot of some text, and it uses Google image processing to convert the image to text, including the kanji you find hand-drawn in manga.