SWITCHED ON Seiko's New Pocket Monster Provides Speedy Japanese Translations

Back to Contents of Issue: February 2002

Writer Justin Hall has found that recently he is paying more attention to his Seiko RM2000 pocket dictionary than to his friends

by Justin Hall

When I first arrived in Japan, I carried thick paper Japanese-English dictionaries through the narrow streets of Tokyo, frantically flipping pages as native speakers tried to be patient. Nearly every neon-lit electronics store in Akihabara boasted a stand of gleaming electronic dictionaries, but each of these devices was impossible for a Nihongo newbie. If you typed in an English word, you were rewarded with kanji, Chinese characters, maybe some Japanese phonetic script, and no sense of what to say. Just figuring out how to use these devices took two years of college Japanese.

Finally I found a Japanese-English dictionary for people who don't speak Japanese. The directions and interface to Seiko's RM2000 Kenkyusha Learner's Pocket Dictionary are all explained in English. Words are occasionally written out in hiragana or katakana (Japanese phonetic script) and always in romanji, English transliterations of Japanese speech. If you're dedicated to learning Japanese, you should definitely avoid the familiar romanji and write in squiggly hiragana. But if you're desperate to find out if that was the last train you just missed, you won't care; you'll be happily, if haltingly, reading off this little screen.

It couldn't be easier: Type in 'help' and you get 'tetsudau'(with a helpful example: 'Can you please help me carry this?'). Unlike English, Japanese is mostly a phonetic language, so you can type in 'mezurashi' to get 'rare.' You can zoom in on kanji to examine the small lines to be sure you're writing 'secret' and not 'earthenware.' Unfortunately you can't input complex kanji characters. So if you see something cryptic, you'll have to ask a Japanese person to sound it out for you. Good conversation starter!

The RM2000 is slightly smaller than your passport and about as thick as your wallet, making it easy to pocket for a night out. It has a small notch so you can tie a little plastic character on to it, as Japanese folks are wont to do with their mobile phones. I tied a strap to mine, so I can wear mine around my neck. There's no backlighting, so you'll need a lighter and a strong thumb to read from it in a dark bar.

Backlighting won't be your only problem if you're awake late in a Tokyo watering-hole trying to make out in Japanese using only this dictionary. Few pocket-sized dictionaries could ever hold enough language to carry you all the way from the sweaty drink parlors of Roppongi into the hallowed halls of the Foreign Correspondents' Club for an international business press conference; the vocabularies are too different. But besides lacking specific terminology, the RM2000 has a few remarkable missing words. If you stumble over to Tsukiji fish market early one morning, you can't use the RM2000 to figure out what maguro is. In fish crazy Japan, 'tuna' is an unforgivable absence. Besides tuna, most of the other varieties of fish won't show up either. 'Rabbit' isn't in there, neither is 'boss,' 'weird,' 'groom' (though 'bride' is). Fortunately, in some cases, the dictionary provides personality and moral guidance when it won't provide a definition. Type in 'pervert' and the dictionary offers a list of possible answers starting with 'poverty.' Similarly, if you look up 'prostitute,' this dictionary will helpfully suggest you might be trying to find 'Protestant' instead.

Things become a little unworkable if you're trying to use the RM2000 to keep up with a Japanese friend; you'll have to separate their words and verbs from the endings, particles and dialects; few dictionaries would be prepared to handle all the permutations of modern Japanese speech. For the most part, this dictionary will help you get by, with a few pleasant surprises -- as a friend was grinding her teeth at night, I looked up 'grind' only to find exactly the example phrase I needed to tell her that she hagishiri o suru. The RM2000 remembers recent words -- helpful when you're hunched over in the tiny restaurant Tatsugakudou in Uguisudani trying to order their delicious ramen with pork and garlic and egg and seaweed.

This RM2000 is similar in form to some of the recent mobile devices and pocket organizers, having a small keyboard and small screen. It looks almost as though it should have a sort of little dictionary mascot, like those PostPets that deliver your email. The dictionary buddy would change shape depending on how I use the device. The more I use it, the more anemic and sickly the little being becomes, as he sees how weak my Japanese is. And any time I look up a word I've already looked up, the little guy would look abused and neglected, since redundancy is proof that I wasn't paying attention to him the first time.

I expect my next pocket English-Japanese translator will be wireless. Words that don't show up in this device here often turn up in most of the free online Japanese-English dictionaries. Language packs could be loaded in on-the-fly as needed -- medical terms, technological terminology, yakuza-lingo, philosophical discourse. If my pocket dictionary had location-sensing technology, it could download some of the various Japanese dialects that can make it difficult even for a native to understand a neighbor. A connected device could email me a list of the words I'd looked up. Then I could revisit my vocabulary later and remember that when people say '... tokoro de' it means 'even if ...,' and I needn't stop the conversation to look that up again. Today, I could undoubtedly use my mobile phone to dial up to some kind of online dictionary service, probably called something like Let's EZ-J-I-SkyDict, but the shape of Seiko's device allows me to look up words much faster than I could with my phone keypad.

Having this dictionary has changed my life. Before, I could only converse with Japanese people in very basic language. Now I can use larger words poorly, and if Japanese people speak at a snail's pace, I can occasionally translate something they've said through relentless single-finger typing. I often find myself paying more attention to this small machine than I do to my friends, but it has undoubtedly made me understand better that they are not making fun of my Japanese all the time. @

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