Looking for a way to learn and/or read kanji? Use your iPhone (or iPad) to draw kanji and find its meaning.

As there are literally thousands of kanji, paper dictionaries and most iPhone/iPad Japanese dictionaries on their own are almost useless, as it can take a long time to look for just one kanji. I have discovered a method of translating kanji which is free and very reliable.

I have basic conversational Japanese skills, so I can speak and listen OK. I can read hiragana and katakana fine. The most frustrating thing about living here is the not being able to understand kanji.

Having now lived in Japan for a few months, I have tried many methods to understand kanji on the spot. Here is a free method to understand kanji using your iPhone.

How to use your iPhone to draw and translate Japanese kanji

Update (January 3, 2013): This article used to refer to the iPhone app Kotoba!, which has been renamed to imiwa? (Japanese dictionary). “imiwa?” in Japanese translates to “what is the meaning?” in English.

First download the iPhone/iPad app imiwa? (Japanese dictionary), it is the best free Japanese dictionary I have used. There is a separate app for iPhone and iPad.

imiwa? (Japanese dictionary) iPhone/iPad app logo/icon
The imiwa? iPhone/iPad app is a great Japanese dictionary app, used in this article to read and translate kanji.

Now set you need to setup your iPhone so you can draw kanji. Go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Add New Keyboard and select ‘Chinese – Simplified (Handwriting)’.

Update (August 12, 2012): You might also want to add Japanese – Romaji. It enables a keyboard allowing you to enter romaji (English characters for Japanese) and select the hiragana/katakana/kanji versions, e.g. watashi = わたし = 私 – similar to typing Japanese on a computer keyboard.

Also, thanks to ER’s comment, you should also add the Chinese – Traditional Handwriting keyboard, to make sure you cover as many kanji as possible.

iPhone international keyboards, setup to translate Japanese kanji
You need to add the Chinese -Simplified Handwriting, Chinese – Traditional Handwriting keyboard and Japanese – Romaji keyboards to translate Japanese kanji.

Launch the imiwa? app, go to the Dictionary section and tap inside the search box.

imiwa? Japanese kanji translation iPhone/iPad app
The best free Japanese kanji translation app by far!

The normal keyboard will appear on-screen, however there is a new button which looks like a globe, tap this. This new globe icon will be on every keyboard view – e.g. when sending text messages or browsing the net – so can also be used to type Japanese into your iPhone. Very handy huh!?

You are now in a new screen which enables you to draw with your finger. As you draw new lines, the closest match appears on the right side of the screen. At times it can be a little tricky to find the right match, and you may need to clear what you have drawn and try again, most of the time it comes up with the correct kanji. If you are not finding the correct one, try changing the stroke order.

iPhone Japanese kanji translating with your finger!
iPhone Japanese kanji translating with your finger!

You can search for just one kanji, or input multiples that may make a word. Once you are done, tap the globe again to return to the English keyboard where you can press the search button.

It is easiest to translate kanji when you are seeing single words, for example a sign. It can be a little more difficult to translate kanji in a written document, as Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words, so it is difficult to know when to stop and search.

Try it for yourself, it isn’t perfect, but compared to some apps (which cost $5 of more) that take a photo and try to interpret the kanji, this is much more reliable with a higher success rate.

Note: If you are travelling to Japan from another country, your iPhone may not be able to make calls or connect to the internet in Japan. If it does, you will probably pay a very hefty price for international roaming. That being said, take your iPhone with you for your visit to Japan and set Airplane Mode to ON before you depart your country.