This page explains more lengthily about Mihongo and the ideas behind it. If you’re looking for practical instructions on how to use the dictionary, please visit the Instructions page.
Click on a question to jump down to the answer.
This website is an online visual dictionary, created to enable learners of Japanese to quickly figure out the meanings of words that cannot be clearly described in writing.
Each entry includes one or more visual representation – an illustration, picture, drawing, or graphic. The entry text contains abbreviations in square brackets, which identify the source(s) of the visual material(s) used in them. When more than one visual is used, the abbreviations are given in the order of their respective materials.
Following is a list of abbreviations followed by descriptions of each type of source:
[DN] – Scanned illustrations from Dai Nihon Kokugo Jiten (大日本国語辞典), an old Japanese-Japanese dictionary whose copyright protection period has ended according to Japanese law. These illustrations are taken from the scans of the dictionary available on the National Diet Library (国立国会図書館) website, and are used here with the kind permission of the library.
Note that this permission is valid only for the specified purpose of posting the scans on this website. Therefore, all the materials marked with [DN] are for viewing only, and may not be downloaded or reused in any way. Please contact the library if you want to use any material from their site.
[M] – Pictures, graphics and any other material photographed or created by Mihongo’s owner. The color entries are based on the information listed on the website 和色大辞典 (www.colordic.org). The pictures may not be reused or downloaded without permission. Please use the contact page for any inquiries or requests regarding pictures that I’ve made.
[OA] – Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other old artwork that has entered the public domain. A detail may be shown instead of the the full work to facilitate recognition of the item relevant to the entry. The brackets also include the name of the artist in Japanese, for example: [OA, 歌川広重].
Mihongo is a work in progress; currently there aren’t many entries, but new ones will be added regularly, and you’re very welcome to contact me and suggest words that you would like to see here, as long as they’re in line with the criteria described below.
[DN] – これらはすべて図であって、「大日本国語辞典」という、著作権切れ（保護期間満了）の辞典から抽出されたものです。国立国会図書館ウェブサイトに掲載されているスキャンの転載であり、国立国会図書館の許可を得ての使用です。そのため、[DN]の図をダウンロードすることや再利用することは禁止です。図書館の資料を使用したい方は、直接そのHPでお問い合わせください。
[M] – 本サイトの管理者が作ったもの（写真や色のサンプル）です。色のサンプルは、「和色大辞典」 (www.colordic.org)というサイトに掲載されている情報に基づいています。許可なしのダウンロードや再利用は禁止すですが、使用したい場合、本サイトのコンタクトページを通してご連絡ください。
[OA] – 浮世絵や絵画など、パブリックドメインにある日本の歴史的芸術作品です。作者の名前も書かれています。また、作品の一つの細部のみ表示することがあります。
[AN] – 「写真素材 足成」という、自由に写真が使える無料サイト（http://www.ashinari.com）からの写真です。再利用などの希望がある場合は、直接「足成」からその写真を検索し、利用規約をよく読んだ上でダウンロードしてください。
This website is arranged alphabetically, just like a conventional dictionary. Each entry is spelled in hiragana, kanji and romanization. A short English description is also included for every entry – but it is still the visual material itself that is meant to be the actual definition.
Mihongo focuses on words that:
(1) Refer to things that are either entirely unique to Japan, or have local versions that are different enough from what is associated with the same concept in other countries.
(2) Have no exact equivalents in western languages, or can only be translated using specialized vocabulary (e.g. scientific names for plants and animals.)
(3) Are difficult to fully understand without directly seeing what they refer to.
(4) Refer to either tangible, concrete things that can be represented visually, or to concepts that may be visualized for better understanding.
Naturally these are usually nouns, although in principle, other parts of speech may be included as well.
This dictionary is meant to be an alternative to the usual way of defining words, specifically in cases when a visual representation of the actual thing is the best possible definition. It is assumed that when you look up a word in Mihongo, you have already met with it in a certain context and are mainly interested in seeing what it’s about, rather than in lengthy background information.
Using several dictionaries is always a good idea for in-depth language study, and Mihongo is supposed to be only one of the dictionaries you regularly use – it doesn’t replace them, but tries to address a particular need that they tend to overlook. You can think of it as the equivalent of a friend pointing at something around you as a reply when you ask what a certain word means.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but unfortunately, the opposite isn’t true: sometimes, no matter how many times you read a description of something in the dictionary, you just can’t picture it in your head.
Whereas in languages of cultures similar to the ones you come from this isn’t much of a problem, in the case of Japanese there are many, many words that refer to things not very familiar outside Japan. Such words have no exact equivalents in other languages, and text alone can’t convey their meanings efficiently.
Even if we take something relatively well-known, for example 畳 (たたみ), knowing it as “a type of thick mat made of reeds and traditionally used as flooring” is one thing, and seeing it in a picture is another (not to mention smelling it). The textual definition may tell you the meaning in theory, but only your own eyes will effectively give you an idea of what it really stands for.
A no less troublesome case is words that mean things that are generally familiar abroad too, but in different versions than the ones known in Japan. For example, no matter how many times you may read the word 鶴 (つる), thinking about the bird “crane” as you know it from your native country it will not necessarily tell you what a Japanese person associates with the same name – until you see that bird yourself.
(1) It enables you to get a clear idea about many things that have to be seen to be grasped for real.
(2) It saves you a lot of time and trouble, eliminating the need to laboriously decipher words that a picture could explain in an instant.
(3) It also gets you into the good habit of associating Japanese words directly with the things they stand for, rather than relying on translations. This is probably the most effective way of learning and remembering vocabulary.
In short, Mihongo is an attempt to make Japanese words come alive for you and help you understand them effectively and naturally, in the same way that you would learn by being in Japan and seeing all these things around you all the time.
If your level of Japanese is good enough, you could probably use image search engines or Wikipedia to find pictures of things you wanted to see. But for anything other than the most common words (which you probably already know well enough), there are several reasons why this method isn’t very reliable:
(1) It takes a lot of time searching for words one by one.
(2) It’s a hit-or-miss thing: no single resource will have the visual materials for all the words that you look up, and you can’t know in advance where, and if, you’ll find what you need.
(3) When you use search engines you usually get far too many results for each word, and most of them are irrelevant.
(4) Since you don’t know what the thing looks like to begin with, you can’t determine if a picture you have found actually matches the word.
(5) The erratic writing system of Japanese means that many terms have to be searched repeatedly in several possible spellings, with most results appearing only for a particular way of writing – which forces you to spend even more time to find good results.
(6) Unless you’re a very experienced learner, doing this will discourage you and make you want to quit and study Spanish instead.
On the other hand, if you use Mihongo, you have a single website where you can just search and find results that are guaranteed to be relevant and correct. This lets you to concentrate on studying the language and the culture, rather than being distracted by endlessly searching the web for each words you’re trying to undestand.
As far as I know, no other visual dictionary currently exists that focuses exclusively on words unique to Japanese culture.
Moreover, normal visual dictionaries – for Japanese or any other language – contain fairly basic words that are common to all cultures and countries, and are aimed at telling you what things you see in the pictures are called. This is why they are commonly arranged by categories, starting with general ideas and narrowing the field until you see a picture of what you were looking for.
Mihongo works the opposite way: it is aimed to assist learners who want to know the meaning of difficult words they come across in the course of their study, and is supposed to be used routinely as a reference resource.
Right now the dictionary is only supposed to work in one direction, from the word to its image. Entering English keywords into the search box will take you to descriptions that contain those words, but this will not necessarily work well in every situation.
This feature is useful, though, and I certainly consider including it in the future when the dictionary has enough entries to justify it.
The dictionary is operated by a single person – me, Dan. I’ve been studying Japanese since 2006, and I now live and work in Japan. You could say I’m fairly advanced in the language, although I fully expect to spend the rest of my life in this “advanced” stage, slowly moving forward while gaining more and more insight into just how delicate and difficult this language really is.
I’m not a linguist or anything, but as someone who’s been studying this language successfully for a long time, I have some ideas about how to make the learning experience more efficient and enjoyable.
This website is an attempt to put my experience to use for the benefit of other learners, while also learning some new things myself (you wouldn’t believe how many of the words here I didn’t know even after seven years of study.) I hope that with time, as more entries are added, it will indeed prove itself to be useful for at least some people.