Easy Ways to Read Kanji (lookup and identify any character)

When learning to read Japanese, one challenge you come across is not being able to read unfamiliar kanji. There are a lot of kanji, and it takes considerable time to learn them. It can be frustrating when trying to read and getting stopped in your tracks by a character for which you haven’t a hope of guessing its reading or meaning. Fortunately, there are many ways to lookup both the reading and the meaning of unfamiliar kanji you encounter in both digital and print formats.

Ways to lookup unfamiliar kanji in both digital and print formats:

  1. Mouse hover web browser extension
  2. Copy and paste into an online dictionary
  3. Add furigana with an app, extension, or web service
  4. Handwritten kanji recognition
  5. Optical character recognition (OCR)
  6. Ask someone knowledgeable
  7. System of kanji indexing by patterns (SKIP)
  8. Radical component breakdown
  9. Stroke count

In English, since it is fairly easy to learn the letters of the alphabet, and since there is only small number of letters to manage, you can easily lookup words in a digital or printed dictionary, but kanji is different. Especially if kanji is in print format, if you don’t know its phonetic sound, it’s not so easy to just type it into a digital dictionary or pick it out from the index of a printed dictionary. So, we turn to the clever ways listed above to accomplish the task.

Kanji and Word Lookup by Mouse Hover on Web Browser

When reading Japanese in a web browser, the quickest way to get both the reading of kanji and translation of kanji words is with the free 10ten, Rikaikun, or Yomichan extensions. When one of these extensions is activated, you can hover over the target word with your mouse and a window will instantly pop-out with the word’s reading and English translation.

In 10ten for example, if you just want to focus on the meaning and reading of an individual kanji character within the target word, hover over the target character and press [shift]. This will shift the tab in the 10ten window to the kanji tab. There are three tabs in total, the first is the dictionary tab called “words”, the second is the kanji tab and the third is for reading Japanese names which could have all sorts of unique kanji readings.

10ten in action on theworldinjapanese.com

Here are links to the extensions’ Github pages which provide more details about them and links to install them.

Extension NameSupported Browsers
10tenChrome, Firefox, Edge, and Safari.
RikaikunChrome, Edge
YomichanChrome, Firefox
Web browser extensions to lookup kanji words via mouse hover

Kanji Lookup by Copy and Paste into an Online Dictionary

If your target kanji is in digital format, copying and pasting into an online dictionary or a smartphone dictionary app is quick and easy. These types of digital dictionaries will provide both the kanji reading and meaning, but many of them are also loaded with additional handy features to make your learning more efficient and enriching. The dictionaries listed below are all great resources and free to use!

Top Japanese-English Digital Dictionaries:

 WebsiteSmartphone App
Yomiwa X
Imiwa? X
Japanese X
Nihongo X
Top Japanese-English Digital Dictionaries

The most powerful Japanese-English web dictionary is Jisho.org. It is a feature rich, all-in-one solution which provides key information about individual kanji characters, Japanese-English and English-Japanese word translations, as well as furigana kanji readings for full blocks of Japanese text.

Jisho.org offers the following additional features:

  • Kanji word example sentences
  • Individual Kanji meaning and readings
  • Kanji stroke count and stroke order diagram
  • Kanji radical breakdown
  • Handwritten kanji recognition

The best smartphone dictionary app is Yomiwa. This app is a must-have for any Japanese learner. Also worthy of special mention are ejje.weblio.jp and weblio.jp which offer service via both website and smartphone app. These sites are in Japanese, but Japanese learners can use them easily enough. They’ll both provide the meaning of a target kanji, but each provides additional unique benefits.

The benefits of ejje.weblio.jp are that it provides translations of words and nuances that you might not find in the other dictionaries mentioned above. Furthermore, it provides a large volume of example sentences with English translations. Weblio.jp is a Japanese-Japanese dictionary. Especially for more advanced learners, learning a Japanese word’s meaning in Japanese is the best way to understand its nuance and use in the language.

Furigana Kanji Readings via App, Extension and Web Service

Another great way to get the reading of unfamiliar kanji in digital format is by adding the furigana (or ruby) reading to the text. There are a few websites that have this feature built-in, but in most cases, furigana will not be readily available. Fortunately, there are options for both computer and smartphone to generate furigana.

Furigana kanji readings can be generated for web-based Japanese content by copying and pasting the link of the target website into hiragana.jp, or by using browser extensions on a computer. On a smartphone, furigana can be added via apps such as Yomiwa Browser for iOS and Furigana for Android.

hiragana.jp conversion of Wikipedia’s Japanese language article about furigana

Here are links to various furigana extensions for Chrome and Firefox respectively. By the way, a couple of good examples of websites with furigana (or ruby) already built-in are NHK’s News Web Easy and The Japan Foundation’s Hirogaru. These are great for reading practice and they’re completely free. They are included in my guide to learning Japanese for free article which I wrote here.

Furigana can also be generated by jisho.org and by the Yomiwa app which is available on both iOS and Android. With these services, what you need to do is copy the target text and then paste it into the Jisho search box or Yomiwa’s text analyzer. Although you need to do an extra step when using these services, they allow you additional flexibility because you can paste in digital text from any source, such as an email or PDF document, not just websites.  

Readings and Meanings via Handwritten Kanji Recognition

If kanji is not in copy and paste-able text format, such as a picture, printed on paper, a sign, a label, etc., a great way to get the reading and meaning is to reproduce the kanji by handwriting it into a kanji character recognition service. There are several free services available for use on both computers and smartphones.

Handwritten Kanji Recognition Services:

 WebsiteSmartphone App
Yomiwa X
Kanji Lookup X
Handwritten kanji recognition services

If you are on a computer, you may have to draw the character with your mouse, but if you have a touchscreen or a smartphone you can use your finger or a stylus. One thing to be careful about is that some of these services have an option to recognize the kanji via its stroke order. If don’t know the stroke order, you should probably turn this feature off.

kanji.sljfaq.org handwritten kanji recognition example

These services are quite accurate, but not always 100%. Also, your drawing of the target kanji character may be hard to recognize as well, so what sometimes happens is the service will output several candidate kanji and you can choose the correct one from visual inspection. Once you identify your target kanji, you’ll be given all sorts of information about it such as the readings, meaning, stroke order…

If you are a Chrome user, another handwritten kanji recognition tool/service is the Chrome extension, Google Input Tools. It does not provide any additional kanji information like the reading and meaning, but like the other tools, you can draw a character, get a list of candidates to choose from, then select the target character to get it in copy and paste-able format. Even if you are not Chrome user you can still use the tool on this page: Try Google Input Tools online.

Kanji Readings and Meanings via Optical Character Recognition

Another great way to get the reading and meaning of kanji that is not in copy and paste-able format is via optical character recognition (OCR). There are various OCR services available that can take scanned documents, pictures, or real-time smartphone camera images, recognize the kanji, and provide the readings. Some services can provide furigana readings for full texts, while others are meant for individual kanji or kanji compound words.

For full text furigana as well as individual kanji and compound word readings, the most versatile app is Yomiwa. You can select an existing picture of text on your phone or take a new one right within the app. Yomiwa will capture the kanji text and overlay words with red boxes. You can then tap an individual word, and a dictionary window will pop-up with the kanji reading. You can then take it a step further by tapping the “Analyze text” button which will copy the full converted text to the Analyzer function where it can be easily read in a clean digital format with furigana.

The only limitation with Yomiwa is, in the free version, you are limited to 8 OCR captures per week, the cost to upgrade for unlimited captures is $19.99. An alternative app is Japan Reader. With Japan Reader, you import a picture or screenshot of text from your phone, and it will provide a furigana overlay. In both Yomiwa and Japan reader, you can tap individual words to get their English translations.

google translate OCR capture of Wikipedia’s article about kanji

The absolute best OCR app is Google Translate. It is the most accurate and easy to use text capture method. Google Translate is designed to give you a full translation to another language, or a romaji reading of Japanese text. So, although it does not give you the kanji readings, it will accurately capture the full text.

It is then easy enough to select the entire captured Japanese text, and then copy and paste it into an app such as Yomiwa or Imiwa. Imiwa will give both hiragana and romaji as the kanji furigana. If you are alright with this two-step method, you can take advantage of the most accurate OCR capture service and use it unlimited!

Identify Unknown Kanji by Asking Someone Knowledgeable

Another option to identify an unfamiliar kanji is by asking someone. The question becomes, where can I find people to ask? The easiest place to go is probably the Yomiwa Wall. You can take a picture of your target kanji and post it on the Yomiwa Wall within the app and ask the user community for help to get the reading and or meaning.

Another person you could ask is your Japanese tutor! If you have a native speaking tutor or language exchange partner that you meet with regularly, take pictures of the unknown kanji you come across and bring them to the lesson for your tutor to identify for you. Sidenote: working with a native speaking tutor is one of the best ways to improve your Japanese, and the best place to find your tutor is on italki. I have written about the benefits of using italki here.

Identify Kanji with SKIP, Radicals and Stroke Count

When you can’t identify a kanji character outright, you can try identifying it by using the System of Kanji Identification by Patterns (SKIP), radical components or stroke count. The SKIP method was developed by Jack Halpern and introduced in the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. Each kanji character has a SKIP code of three digits. The code is determined by the shape of the kanji and its stroke count.

To actually look-up kanji via SKIP codes, you can of course use the original Kodansha learner’s Dictionary, which is a paper-based printed dictionary, or you can use Kanji.sljfaq.org’s free online resource. By the way, full explanations of how to determine a SKIP code can be found on Wikipedia, Kanji.sljfaq.org, and of course, the Kondasha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary.

Another very common, perhaps more common, way of identifying a kanji character is with its radical components. Radicals are the building blocks of kanji; they are simpler characters that combine to make up a more complex kanji character [1]. There are 214 radicals which are used in modern Japanese. You can find out more about radicals and their meanings on Kanshudo and Kanji Alive.

jisho.org’s search for kanji by radical components

There are many websites where you can lookup kanji via radicals. On the websites (and one app) listed below, the basic lookup method is by first identifying one of the target kanji’s radicals from a table containing all radicals. For easy lookup, radicals are grouped by their stroke count. Once you pick at least one radical, any other radicals which do not combine with the one you picked to make a least one character will be greyed out and a short list of candidate kanji using the selected radical will appear. A character can usually be identified by just one or two radicals.

Kanji Lookup by Radical Components:

 WebsiteSmartphone App
Imiwa X
Kanji lookup by radical components

And finally, there is also the most laborious way to lookup kanji which is by it’s stroke count alone. Here is big list of kanji in ascending stroke order on Wikipedia. So, there we have it, a solid arsenal of techniques to lookup unfamiliar kanji. It takes a long time to learn to read kanji, but with these techniques, hopefully it will make the process less frustrating and dare I say, fun!? Happy learning.


[1] Schiller, Travis. Suito, Naoko. (2009). Kanji Radicals. Available from: https://laits.utexas.edu/japanese/joshu/kanji/kanji_radicals/radicals2.html

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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