The following tools became imperative for communicating and trying to do simpler tasks without asking my co-workers to help me with everything. Hopefully they’ll be of some use to you as well (if you aren’t a Jedi-master of language learning).
Top 8 Survival Tools for Living in Japan (without much Japanese)
1. The iPhone (or iPod touch) – I know, Apple is taking the world by storm these days, and normally I am not one to get caught up in fads. I didn’t bother getting an iPhone until arriving in Japan, though Apple and I have been close my entire life (anyone remember the original iPods?). You can do just about anything with an iPhone or iPod touch, including learn Japanese; use reference tools (J-E dictionary); search Google maps to find your location or search for directions; look up restaurants and hotels; determine train times, and the list goes on. Of course, you may all be just salivating for an iPad instead…
2. ShinKanji – (an iPhone/iPod touch app) Use it as a reference tool for looking up kanji by radical or writing strokes, or figure out the kanji for a particular word and common compounds by typing in the appropriate hiragana. I used this all the time at the supermarket, and still do occasionally if I'm running errands and need to know what a particular kanji (or word) is. *Note: Kotoba now does kanji radical searches as well.
3. iTranslate – (iPhone/iPod touch app) Though not entirely accurate (don’t use the results on a regular basis or always believe the translation is completely correct), this tool is helpful to just plug in what you want to say in English, and then the person you are trying to communicate with can *usually understand what you are trying to get at. I use it only in dire circumstances – a dictionary is probably better to try first.
4. Kotoba – (iPhone/iPod touch app) I was using J-ENesis for awhile, but eventually switched over to Kotoba, due to all the good reviews out there on the web. It’s a free Japanese-English dictionary, and I’m cheap, so couldn't argue with that. Not to mention, you can now search and look up kanji – similar to ShinKanji, although not quite as good in my opinion.
5. Katsuyo – (iPhone/iPod touch app) This app is all about verb conjugations. Which, if you know at least some Japanese, then you probably know what a pain verb conjugations can be at times (until you’ve memorized them all). Just plug in the dictionary form of the word you are looking for (or an English equivalent) and voila! All the most common conjugations at your disposal.
6. Google translate – (web app) Everyone has an online translator they prefer, but I used Google Translate from the beginning. Though the results are typically choppy and not the greatest of translations, the main message is usually understandable. Useful for web pages, sentences, paragraphs, etc.
7. Dictionary (Mac OS) – Since you all know now that I’m one of those Apple geeks, it's probably obvious I use a Mac. The dictionary app is amazing, as it has both a Japanese-English dictionary and a general Japanese dictionary available. Though I’ve used PCs, I haven't looked for a dictionary app on any Windows systems, so I can’t say I have any to recommend. PC users, feel free to let us all know what you use (if you use a dictionary on your computer) in the comments below. I know there are plenty of online dictionaries, (like the famous EDICT - which also is used to formulate many of these dictionary apps and sites). So Windows users, online or on the computer? Or both?
8. Rikaichan on Firefox (Firefox plugin) – I was late to the Firefox following, but once I started using this versatile browser, I found Rikaichan to be incredibly useful. Hover over kanji or words and a little box pops up with the meaning and kana. However, I don’t recommend it for big chunks of text or overwhelming web pages unless you have a decent grasp of Japanese. It is much more helpful once you have some kanji and vocab under your belt.
*Update* Google Chrome has Rikaikun, similar to Rikaichan in Firefox. I've been trying it out recently and seems to work just the same.
Now, please don't mistake this list as my top apps for learning Japanese. These are all of course useful for learning Japanese, but that list would be so much longer. For ideas and reviews on study resources, try here and here. In the near future, I'll write up my top study tools - meaning, what works best for a visual learner inept at audio learning.
In the meantime, what are your suggestions for top "survival" tools?