How To Look Stuff Up in Japanese

Japanese Index


For those who are studying Japanese, it helps to learn to use Japanese dictionaries and sources, and this post is a simple explanation of how to look things up in Japanese books. I ran into this recently while using a Japanese-language book on Korean language, and I had to look up certain words in the index.

So, when you look things up in English, you do it in alphabetical order (A, B, C, D…), but of course Japanese language doesn’t use the Roman Alphabet, they use the Kana syllabary: hiragana for native words, katakana for foreign words. By “syllabary”, I mean that the Kana “letters” are actually whole, self-contained syllables: か is “ka”, し is “shi” and よ is “yo” and so on. But Japanese kana do have their own “order” too. Take a look at the chart provided by Tae Kim here. The order of kana goes from upper-right, downward. Column by column toward the left.

So, if you read it out loud, it sounds like a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko and so on. That’s the “order” of Japanese. I know this by heart, because my daughter learned it years ago through children’s songs. Here’s a similar song below that really shows the order of kana nicely:

It’s really helpful to learn this order, because when you look up a word like うめぼし (pickled plum) in a dictionary, you need to do it like so:

  • First syllable is う (u), so in your head, you need to go “a, i, u“.
  • Next syllable is め (me), so you have to go about halfway through the kana to the “ma” column: ma, mi, mu, me.
  • What about ぼ (bo)? This is really ほ (ho) with the extra two lines, so you should look up ほ first, and you should be able to find ぼ and ぽ (po) too.

That’s basically how it works. This will help you a lot when reading Japanese-language dictionaries or finding things in the index.

Good luck!

P.S. Because of the way kana works, I think it’s much easier for kids to learn than English, at first. My daughter learn kana perfectly maybe a year before she could even start to read English. On the other hand, she struggles now with kanji because, like English, “you just have to remember it”. She’s too young for the Heisig method. 😉


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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