Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Every app has a dictionary now. The Aedict suite.

In my recent forays into searching for better solutions to working with Japanese on Android I became aware of a new addition by the developer of Aedict, called (unflatteringly, but descriptively) "Aedict Reader Popup".

I think I've mentioned the following already, but the existence of a dictionary that uses the EDICT Japanese dictionary, i.e. Aedict, was the reason I originally bought a smartphone. Thus allowing me to hold a book in one hand and dictionary in the other while on the bus. Although I was almost ready to jump ship when Aedict turned paid, Aedict3 remained head-and-shoulders above the competition.

Looking through the various Japanese dictionaries in development, there are a number of promising (even free) alternatives available. Indeed, I have Jsho installed on my phone just to see how it develops from here (however, its current lack of technical dictionaries is a bit of a turnoff at the moment*).

It was while looking at these apps that I (quite accidentally) came across the aforementioned Aedict Reader Popup. Despite having my eye on Aedict's competition, I thought I would at least buy it and try it.

I was first presented with the screen to the right. This is AedictReader, a web browser that automatically translates Japanese to English. By accidentally skipping the next dialogue, I thought for a moment this was the entire app. But the settings allow it to be used pretty much anywhere (I've yet to find anywhere it doesn't run; hell, it will even display over World of Goo if I tell it to**). The reader does, however, serve as a useful introduction to Aedict Reader Popup's functions.

Once enabled to work across all apps (I think that is the default setting), copying text will result in a popup, as shown to the left. Any dictionaries you have enabled in Aedict3*** will be consulted for a match. The picture shows an example of the app being used on a biosciences document. Since I have the life sciences dictionary installed, "transcriptional activity" is correctly displayed when "転写活性" is selected and copied in my document viewer (I've blurred the rest of the writing in the GIMP*4 but you get the idea).

Tapping on the popup gives access to more advanced functions, including the ability to quickly switch to Aedict3 to have a closer look at the word and scrutinize it further. There is also the option to temporarily remove the popup or minimize it (down to about the size of a fingerprin; easy to push, but unobtrusive on my largish AQUOS Crystal).

You can set the popup app to remain in the notification bar; from there you can activate the popup even if using a program from which you cannot copy/paste. If you have the paid Aedict3 Kanjipad plugin, this lets you copy the character in-situ*5. You can also do a normal search, though with the app-of-interest, the popup, and the keyboard on screen, it does get crowded. On tablets; however, this is very manageable.

When reading books on the Kindle, Aedict's new popup app even seems to outperform Kindle's own dictionaries (see below), especially considering Aedict is aware of verb tense, while Kindle's is not!

The only thing I can imagine that would make this better is integration of the OCR package, so that I can hover the popup over some uncopyable text and have the popup translate it. A tall order, but given the completeness and robustness of the app, I wouldn't be surprised if such a feature does appear in the future.


Today, I expect almost every learner of Japanese, everyone with Japanese as a second language, absorbs the language in some way via their phones. Whether it is film, books, instant messaging, news, websites, or even games, any tool that could be used to take the chore out of looking up a new word, or a forgotten word, makes these activities even more rewarding than before. Thus, it is easier to spend more time getting better at Japanese.

The popup app extends the features of the Aedict suite into almost any/all app(s) and does so without compromising the ability to search multiple dictionaries. It works and responds well on phones and tablets, even where the most basic system functions (such as copy/paste) fail. From my own experiences, I surmise that there has never been a more robust, accurate, and flexible Japanese dictionary tool in history*6, besides -perhaps- the human mind.

The ol' Nexus 7 running Kindle. Left: Kindle's own Japanese-English dictionary shows the entry, and I can get a full definition from there (but that opens up a new window, so I cannot see the word with its definition in the context of the book). Right: pressing the copy icon brings up Aedict's definition, complete with example sentences, all in one place so that I can still see the word in context. Moreover, having the popup installed doesn't interfere with the apps existing functions, so I (of course) still have Kindle's Wikipedia links etc.

*It is also light on other features, such as different methods for kanji lookup, though handwriting recognition is probably the way forward. Given the dictionary aims to be "simple, lightweight, fast and accurate. No unnecessary splash screens and no need to download any additional files", I'm not sure we'll see Jsho becoming the powerhouse that Aedict is.

**Rest assured, this is optional.

***And usefully, ONLY those dictionaries you have enabled in Aedict3's word search.

*4 "GNU Image Manipulation Program", before you get any odd ideas...

*5 previously you'd have to copy the character onto paper and then use the drawing to rewrite the character into the dictionary, or use another device with a Japanese dictionary. Either way, the new solution is much more elegant.

*6 good enough that I took the time to upload pictures, which I don't often do. Also its difficult to explain just how elegant the app is without them.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Handwritten Japanese Input by Google

+Google's handwriting engine is free and highly accurate for writing Japanese characters
-If you already have good handwriting recognition as part of your dictionary, you likely wont need this

Having rediscovered that I own a blog, I thought I'd have another delve into the experience of using Japanese with Android, and quickly came upon the existence of Google's very own handwriting recognition (apparently its been around for months now, though).

I was very happy to see this for 3 reasons: 1) Google provide their input methods for free, 2) Google's products tend to work very well with each other

Reason 1 doesn't really require introduction, everyone loves a freebie, and anyone who has read any of my previous rants will know I am a techno-miser.

For point 2, I'd like to point out how all of Google's input methods* have a shortcut where you long-press the space bar to switch input methods. Thus you can switch between English, Japanese, and handwriting method fairly simply. (Many of the iWnn methods require that you pull down the notification menu and select the input method dialog from there).

So, lets do a little test. I randomly took whatever Japanese happened to be on my desk, in this case "電気料金等払込取扱票"**. Not particularly challenging, but a nice string of characters. So, I'll use a few handwriting recognition apps/input methods to see how good they are at recognizing my numpty attempts at copying these words by hand. The method counts as correctly predicting if it shows the character I want in the suggestions it displays.

Google handwriting recognition 100% correct, of which 100% were the 1st suggestion
Kanji Draw 60% correct, of which 50% were the 1st suggestion
Swype (In handwriting mode) 100% correct, of which 100% were the 1st suggestion
Aedict3 KanjiPad Extension 100% correct, of which 70% were the 1st suggestion
MyScript Stylus Beta - 90% correct, of which ~70% were the 1st suggestion

Similarly, the results for "納付書兼領収剤通知書"*** were:

Google - 90% correct, of which 100% were the 1st suggestion
Kanji Draw - 50% correct, of which 80% were the 1st suggestion
Swype - 90% correct, of which 100% were the 1st suggestion
MyScript Stylus Beta - 100% correct, of which 90% were the 1st suggestion
Aedict3 KanjiPad Extension - 100% correct, of which 90% were the 1st suggestion.

Evidently, the methods are neck-and-neck.

I'll keep Swype installed and hope that one day they'll release an update with prediction on par with Google's (Swype's language switching is faster and easier than Google's, but I've grown dependent upon how Google correctly interprets my input in the easier-to-use 12-key format).

However, I am thinking of switching from Google to Swiftkey. Why? Swiftkey's Japanese beta offers: one-tap switching between English/Japanese with very good prediction*4 in both languages and swipe input for English*5.

The other reason for this is that handwriting is only really useful when you need to input a character you cannot copy/paste and do not know the pronunciation of: ie. a random word you find in a book*6. The only reason I ever have for doing this is to look something up in a dictionary. Consequently, having bought into*7 the whole Aedict bundle (which I still think is the best dictionary around, despite previous misgivings*8) it makes sense to use the dictionary's kanjipad.

Also, note that I changed the settings of the Aedict handwriting recognition to search for kanji with the wrong number of strokes because the added accuracy saves time in the long run (if you're as sloppy a writer as me).

*at least, the ones I've used
** Yeah, I also find it depressing that the most prominent Japanese on my desk happens to be my electricity bill...
*** So many bills :(
*4 Google Japanese Input's English prediction is, for some reason, awful. Also, by very good Japanese prediction, I mean I can type "かつこうにいくとおもつた" and have it converted into "学校に行くと思った". However, Swiftkey didn't recognise the word 電磁気学 like Google does.
*5 Swype offers swipe input for both languages, but I never found it particularly reliable for Japanese, which I presume is because of the short consonant-vowel pattern of the language. Swiftkey seem to realise this and offer swipe for English and a 12-key layout for Japanese as default.
*6 or bill! (-_-;)
*7 technically, I only bought the Aedict KanjiPad Extension for the test above...
*8 And I still wouldn't recommend the Aedict OCR app.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Yochien 幼稚園 - Starting Preschool in Japan - What it Means for Your Child, Time, Wallet, and Sanity

Figure 1: Specifications for a box to contain a child's tools for playtime.
Note the needlessly specific specifications that make what would be a 
simple trip to the 100-yen store many times as expensive in time and money.


Executive summary

Preschool education in Japan is an over-subscribed, unstandardised mess. I'll surely be glad my child attended, but it's everything that needs to be done until then that riles every rational bone in my body. My choices of education appear to be "no education until age 6" or "Christian preschool", complete with vaguely-defined charges and mandatory DIY children's accessories.

Warning. Applying for preschool in Japan may make you homesick.


Herein lie the experiences of one fallible man and his family, trying to make ends meet on the fringe of Tokyo. I'm unsure of how relevant my experience is to anyone else in the country. Additionally, I was educated in the United Kingdom, which schooled me at negligible expense, albeit in the soggy, grey sort of way that everything tends to happen in the UK. This under-exposure to financial hardship* has undoubtedly clouded the glass through which I see the Japanese education system**.

*I would like to point out that this isn't due to having wealthy family; unlike many so-called "university students", I underwent the increasingly rare right-of-passage of making it through university without a stipend from my parents.

** Or indeed the health system, real-estate, etc., etc..


When to get your child educated***

I approached childcare with the same angle I use with most things; "Can it wait?" To be fair, I've spent much of the last year ensuring I've had the financial stability required to relocate my wife and children from Kagawa*4 to Saitama, and prior to that, getting my foot in the door of a university in Tokyo.

Nonetheless, the technical answer is "yes", compulsory schooling starts with primary school*5, and so my daughter will be joining the local preschool at the ripe age of 5. Nonetheless, this being later than I started school, I've been keen on getting my daughter some form of education for a long time now, and while my wife was in hospital, I used kindergarten to care for my daughter while I went to work*6. Anyway, pre-schools (which is what I will call "yochien" here) are generally entered from ages 3-6.

*** Yes, I will keep writing second-person for my titles, despite the first-person narrative; this is a blog for the grammatically masochistic. I will also keep up the footnotes, just to make things even less tidy. 

*4 Land of Udon, temples, and -if you ask the Japanese- more udon.

*5 Or "elementary school", if taxation without representation upsets your sensibilities.

*6 I survived a total of 2 months in a 1R ("one-room"*7) flat in Yokohama whilst supporting my daughter and trying to successfully translate for money, and write research documents for the promise of money. Those single parents that do that sort of thing every day of their parenting lives deserve all the help they can get. And a medal.

*7 The "One room" being a combined bedroom and kitchen. Toilets and hallways are not counted in Japanese estate agentese.

Finding education for your child

So, having successfully ported my family from Kagawa to Saitama*8, our first priority was to get our daughter's education sorted. Therein manifested problems 1 and 2, which are "the lack of preschools" and "nursery school requirements", respectively.

Within walking distance of my fledgling, car-less family are precisely 2 preschools, thus we're very short on options. Both preschools are ostensibly Christian schools*9, and more-or-less at maximum capacity. This led us to broaden our search to include nursery schools ("hoikuen"), which would be less educational and more focused on play. Given that many preschools also take the play-focused approach, hoikuen are a reasonable approximation of preschools, and tend to be far more numerous (with at least 3 within a 8-minute walk of our house).

However, it quickly became apparent that the nursery schools were not an easy option due to their requirement that both parents be working. We reasoned that we could probably weasel our daughter in by using our 4-month-old son as reasonable grounds for not having sufficient time to spend on our daughter; however, my wife discovered through conversation that it is likely that such an application would likely be refused. Additionally, my wife was concerned about the possibility that our daughter might be taken out of nursery school when our son reached a more "manageable" age of 1. Thus, I remain slightly sceptical about the existence of this problem, as due to the above concerns we never proceeded as far as making an application.

*8 Still have some incompatibility issues due to unmet dependencies for Sanuki Udon (I currently live above an udon shop, and have yet to eat there because "udon in Saitama is so expensive"); however, as a quick workaround, there is always ramen.

*9 Which should be a non-issue, given my primary school education included prayer each morning; however, now that I've given in to rational thought, the idea of someone teaching my children that, essentially, fairies are responsible for all of the mysteries of this world... Doesn't sit too well with me.

Applying for education for your child

Eventually we settled on the larger of the 2 preschools in the area, and they offered us a look around. The staff were helpful, kindhearted people of the sort you might hope to find in a preschool. Additionally, my fears of brainwashing were belayed by assurances that the preschool honoured the spirit of Christianity more so than the actual spirits of Christianity. They even gave me a rhinovirus so that I could get an authentic preview of childhood education as viewed from a father's perspective. Excellent! Where do I sign up?

The preschool provided us with the application form after we visited them for the tour. However, of course, once signed, there is the issue of financing this little endeavour. The nyugakuhi ("school entrance fee") for our chosen institution was 90,000 yen. Given that I'm fed up with the aforementioned delays to our daughter's education, and my eagerness to have the school accept our application, I've not been so crass as to ask what that money is used for; however, I will point out that I will also be paying additional initial costs of around 20,000 yen for equipment/clothing etc., and a monthly fee (of around 20,000 yen) too. Assuming the monthly fee covers teaching expenses, and the equipment will be paid for or provided by ourselves, I do wonder, for a preschool with about 20 children per teacher, "what on earth is this sum of money for?"

Preparing your child yourself for preschool

Occasionally, I am suddenly struck by the fact I am here, in Japan, living my dreams amidst that misty, bamboo'd, fairytale image of the East that drew me here in 2007. Sometimes, rather than be "struck" by this magnificent contrast, I am entirely bowled over*10.

By far the biggest surprise, even more so than the existence of a entry fee for preschool*11, was the outline of "things to do before your child enters school". It starts out asking for a photo of the family together (fair enough, I guess, over 100 kids, they're going to want some visual reference, though I'll be damned impressed if Teacher of class A knows which parents a pupil of class G belongs to, even with photos). It continues with a reasonable list of items such as a rucksack, scissors, etc., and specifications for those items. This is where things go a bit odd "Letter bag. This is a blue, vinyl bag. It is used to store letters at the preschool." Is a "letter bag" really necessary? How about the rucksack, that's also a container for holding things, right? "Album: We make an album with pictures that the child has drawn, which is for the graduation ceremony." OK, so having not attended either of my higher education ceremonies, I'm biased here, but a graduation ceremony for 6-year olds? I knew they had them for primary school, but damn it that is just pretencious. 

Things get worse. On the next page "Items to be prepared yourself", the words prepared yourself are key here: "Smock: ... The instructions for making the smock will be explained during the meeting for school entry preparations". 

I'm sorry. I must have read that wrong. No, it really does say that. We're obliged to make a smock, as we shall learn at the "meeting for school entry preparations"*12. Wow, Japan. Just wow. Global trade, record quality control at reasonable prices and we have to make our own child's clothing now? I mean, I know this smock is just to keep dirt off the expensive clothes, but it would literally be quicker to go to the second hand store clothes and grab something there. Probably cheaper too, as now we need to buy everything necessary to make a smock from scratch.

I know I'm getting rhetorical now, but really! I can use trains as fast as helicopters, watch robots play badminton*13, access lightning fast internet, and eat possibly the most refined food in the world, but children's clothing is a DIY job? Somebody pass the education system a link to wikipedia, they have a lot of catching up to do...

We also need to make an additional 2 bags: 1 for a cup, and one for a lunchbox. As if lunchboxes with handles never existed. Another two bags are also requested, which we'll buy if possible, but they have very precise size specifications (32 cm by 45 cm and 30 cm by 35 cm). We also need to make a "child's tool box", 9 by 15 by 28 cm, "please attach decorations (buttons, ribbons, pieces of felt, lace etc.) as desired". 

I asked my wife whether this strange list of DIY necessities might have something to do with a vestigial post-war "make do and mend" approach to preparing children's things for school, and she said "yes, probably. But we have so many more things these days, so they've probably all been added too". She also says that the above isn't a particular surprise to her, and that the main concern of parents will be in finding materials unique enough to befit their pretenciousness*14. 

Apparently, there also exist companies that will make the above items (this link is Japanese), and these can cost  more than what you might pay for branded items. So, there is hope for those with more money than time, but not much hope for common sense.

*10 Such that I even write blog articles subtly(?) infused with impotent rage!

*11 Hell, I've paid "key-money" twice and I was informed enough to be rightly surprised when my deposit for my 1R in Yokohama was actually returned to me! Anything that is slightly "one-off" in Japan, such as entering an institution or changing address, seems to have at least one vaguely-defined fee attached.

*12 "Yeap. That's it, I'm writing that blog article."

*13 To be honest, I randomly witnessed this through the window of one of the halls of the university I work at while I was walking home one night, so that was one of those "some things money can't buy" moments

*14 not exactly in those words, mind.


Preschool is set to drain my wallet, my time, and my patience. I only hope that my daughter gains, through socialising with people of her own age, what my wife and I cannot teach her at home.