10 Great Japanese iPhone/iPad apps

I switched my provider to Softbank from AU at the start of this month so that I could finally get on the iPhone bandwagon that I had been hearing so much about. I knew it would be a cool device but it has so far exceeded every single expectation I held for it. I run down my battery into the 20-30% range everyday from almost constant use (I even use it as an alarm clock at night) and have in two short weeks already spilled over to 6 pages of apps (even though I turned some off with BossPrefs). But, enough fanboy rant… you came here to read about apps.

Like many foreigners in Japan, my credit card’s billing address is in my home country (US), so I’m not able to access the Japanese app store. Well, not without some fiddling around, at least (check out Wide Island View’s article: How to access Japan-only apps for more info…). In any case I haven’t gotten around to trying to access the Japanese app store yet, so for this article I’ll keep things simple: all these apps can be downloaded from the US app store.

1. 乗換案内 (Norikae Annai)

Jorudan 乗換案内 app iconDeveloper: Jorudan Co., Ltd.
Price: FREE
App Store: Get Norikae Annai at the iTunes store

This one’s a no-brainer. Next to phone calls and email, finding train times is one of the most important functions that a mobile device in Japan needs to be able to execute. While on most traditional Japanese phones this is achieved by bookmarking the site, then visiting it whenever you need information, this iPhone application streamlines the process.


jorudan-1 jorudan-2 jorudan-3

jorudan-4 jorudan-5 jorudan-6

Note: Good train-finding services in Japan are only available in Japanese. This app is not an exception.

If you’re a traveler just visiting Tokyo for a few days, try the English-capable app Tokyo Underground for navigating around inner Tokyo (it’s more of a guide than a train finder). However I can’t offer any detailed opinion on it since I haven’t tried it (I don’t live in Tokyo).

2. QR コード (QR Code)

QR コード app iconDeveloper: Ryo Shimizu
Price: FREE (Pay-version upgrade $0.99)
App Store: Get QR Code at the iTunes store

Japan has two mobile traditions that other countries have yet to really pick up on. One is infrared (赤外線) data transfer (for swapping contact information quickly) and the other is QR codes. While the iPhone doesn’t have infrared capabilities, you can get this app which will whip up a QR Code containing your contact information for someone with a traditional Japanese mobile phone to scan (don’t worry, Japanese mobile phones are light-years ahead of current iPhone apps for being able to successfully decode QRs).

While primarily useful for giving your contact information, you may also want to read some QR data from time to time and my experience (I’ve tried about 5 different apps) is that this app also offers the most reliable reader. See the screenshots below for proof that it works.


Choose info to encode qr-1 get big QR code

successful read (easy) unsuccessful read (blurry) successful read (hard)

The paid version of this app offers you the ability to do stuff with the information read from a QR code. For example, if it reads someone’s contact info, you’ll have the option to add that to your address book… or if the QR code contains a web URL, you’ll be able to jump to the URL automatically. In the free version it just shows you the raw data. Since I use the app primarily to give my contact info to others, I haven’t upgraded yet.

3. 顔文字挿入 (FaceMail)

facemail 顔文字挿入 app iconDeveloper: n1system ltd.
Price: FREE (Pay-version upgrade $3.99)
App Store: Get FaceMail Free at the iTunes store
\(^o^)/ わぁいわぁい!!iPhoneで顔文字が使える~!
(゜∀゜) え?何・・・? ( ̄□ ̄;)!! 3.99ドル!!!高ぇ。
(●д●) 困っちゃうな・・・。

If you like to use Japanese kaomoji (faces made using various characters), then this is the app for you. You start drafting an email with this app and can insert various faces from different categories, and then either copy and paste them into another app or send your email draft with faces to your regular email app to finish.


step 1: choose kaomoji step 2: draft email step 3: send draft to regular email program

You get access to some faces (such as the ones I used above) for free, but a much bigger selection with the pay version and you can even add your own custom faces. I really want this app but I’m not sure yet if I want it enough to pay $4 for it. Might wait for it to go on sale or something… hmmm…

4. らじおたっち (LadioTouch)

らじおたっち app icon LadiotouchDeveloper:
Price: FREE
App Store: Get LadioTouch at the iTunes store

It’s no Pandora but at least this Japanese internet radio app doesn’t give me any problems because of my region. (If anyone knows of a better Japanese internet radio app, please let me know)


LadioTouch splash screen ladiotouch channel select ladiotouch channel info/play screen

I’m not an expert on internet radio so this comparison might be completely wrong… but the way it works reminds me of how shoutcast radio stations felt like 8 years ago or so. You can’t skip songs, and you might have to check through a few channels before you get a decent signal and something that is actually playing music rather than talk radio. Although on the other hand Japanese talk radio could be a good way to improve your Japanese…

I wonder if this app works outside Japan?

5. SkyBook

skybook app iconDeveloper: aill
Price: $3.99
App Store: Get SkyBook at the iTunes store

What you say?! 7000 Japanese classic short stories and novels by authors like Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, Natsume Soseki, Dasai Osamu and Mori Ougai?! On iPhone?! YES, please!!

This app allows you to search and download from a huge collection of free (= copyright expired or copyright released by author) fiction and non-fiction titles at Japan’s Aozora Bunko (the 7000 titles are not automatically available to you for offline reading, you have to download them from within the app). But in fact what SkyBook does is not what sets it apart, as there are a number of apps that access the same collection in the same way (some for free). The beauty of this app is how well organized and presented it is. Books you download get placed on a nice slide-able bookshelf and you get great options for customizing your view (although I like the default settings best). Searching Aozora with SkyBook is also much less painstaking than with some of the other apps.


skybook title select screen skybook download select screen skybook downloading

skybook reading and word lookup skybook in app goo dictionary search

As a bonus tip, if you come across a word you don’t know or can’t read, touch it for two seconds to open up a search dialog for the word that goes to Goo’s dictionary (= the of Japan). You can look up the word quickly and then go right back to reading without ever closing the app, beautiful! This app is a must-have among must-haves for anyone with sufficient Japanese reading skill.

6. 大辞林 (Daijirin)

大辞林 daijirin iphone app iconDeveloper: MONOKAKIDO Co., Ltd.
Price: $21.99
App Store: Get Daijirin at the iTunes store

This app gives me an otaku-gasm every time I open it. For those of you who don’t know… Daijirin is kind of like the Webster’s or the Oxford dictionary of Japanese; it is arguably the single-most defining modern Jap-Jap dictionary there is, a truly massive tribute to the Japanese language, and this app pulls everything together perfectly for the iPhone.

Get this, all 238,000+ entries in the dictionary are laid out in a beautiful grid which you can scroll both horizontally and vertically. You can literally scan word to word across the whole language! Now that alone would be enough to keep me entertained for hours, but the dictionary has also added illustrations for many popular entries, more entries than were in the most recent print edition and a bookmark and history function to help you build your next vocabulary list. The cherry on top is that you can also select any word within a definition to jump to the definition for that word.


daijirin splash screen daijirin word-field

daijirin search daijirin touch word in definition jump

Yes, it is Japanese only, made by and for Japanese people. It may look expensive compared to most other apps, but to have this on your iPhone is worth several times what they’re asking.

Now all we need is the Daikanwa for iPhone…

7. Imiwa?

   Developer: Pierre-Phi di Costanzo
Price: FREE
App Store: Get Imiwa? at the iTunes store

While it’s not the monster dictionary that Daijirin is, “Imiwa?” is an amazing feat in and of itself. This Japanese-English iPhone app is great for quick translations and has a surprisingly complete and reliable index of words. I honestly think this is as good as or even better than the Genius J-E dictionary that is in most people’s hand-held electronic dictionaries (but not the E-J dictionary as I will explain in a moment). I have this app, use it frequently, and highly recommend it to anyone, including all travelers, students of all levels, Japanese native speakers, and anyone else who comes into contact with Japanese on a regular basis.

I do however have a couple reservations about this program. My biggest gripe: all data is indexed by Japanese word. This is great for looking up a Japanese word in English, but not so great if you’re going the other way. A search for an English word brings up a list of difficult-to-differentiate Japanese words that contain your query in their translation/definition, and you have to check each of these entries one by one, a pretty frustrating process that can also make it easy to pick the wrong word.


Kotoba sample entry 1 kotoba sample entry 2 proverb

kotoba english to japanese search kotoba questionable example sentence spacing

Also, a recent update seems to have resolved a lot of issues with bad and incorrect example phrase translations. But I still can’t help but be wary when the romanizations for many sentences have had their spacing inserted by someone who clearly had no business doing so. Imiwa? does differentiate between “Certified” and regular examples, thankfully.

8. 漢字でQ (Kanji de Q)

漢字でQ kanji de Q iphone app iconDeveloper: GYRO Inc.
Price: $2.99
App Store: Get Kanji de Q at the iTunes store
uquery link: 漢字でQ

Think you’re good at kanji? Think again. This app provides a simplistic yet fun quiz-game interface to help you polish your Japanese with around 4000 難読 (nandoku = difficult to read) words. This app was intended to be challenging for Japanese natives so it’s definitely only for advanced learners.


kanji de Q : splash/menu screen kanji de Q: correct answer kanji de Q: incorrect answer

kanji de Q: corrected answer kanji de Q: quiz result

This app also makes for a great party game if you’re out with Japanese people. There’s a few apps like this but this one seemed to me to have the largest and best selection of words.

9. Kamehameha

kamehameha app iconDeveloper: Issay Yoshida
Price: FREE
App Store: Get Kamehameha at the iTunes store… NOW!
uquery link: Kamehameha

Yeah right, as if there was any chance at all that I would not list this toy.


Ka~~~~meeeee~~~~~~!!!! HA~~~~~Meeeeeeee~~~~~~~~~!!!!!!!!!!! HAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaa~~~~~~~~~~~!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Press start to begin “charging” your Kamehameha beam, and when you’ve built up enough energy (= when you’ve struck fear into the heart of your opponent by dramatically saying ka~~me~~ha~~me~~!), then you thrust/swing your iPhone forward to release the beam (HA~~~~~!!!!!!!).

Just remember to check to make sure your iPhone has its usb cable unplugged first… and be careful not to actually hurl your several hundred dollar 3GS into a concrete wall or your friend’s forehead.


TSUZUMIN app iconDeveloper: Tempus Fugit, Inc.
Price: FREE
App Store: Get TSUZUMIN at the iTunes store
uquery link: TSUZUMIN

Instant Japanese atmosphere. I love these sounds.

Tsuzumin app

Check out Nihonshock's Basic Japanese cheat sheet! Free PDF, looks great on iPhone/iPadOne more thing

Studying Japanese? Nihonshock offers a free digital Basic Japanese cheat sheet (in PDF form), and it looks awesome in iBooks! It’s totally free, so go get yours today. If you like it, there’s a whole set of advanced cheat sheets available in printed form, and also a digital version of the Numbers and Time cheat sheet for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

Final Word

Well, that’s all for now. If I find any more awesome Japan-related apps around the app store I’ll be sure to let everyone know. I might post a follow-up article on apps from the Japanese store once I get around to figuring out how to get in… anyway, follow me on twitter since that’s the one place I will definitely post cool apps I find, even if I don’t get around to blogging about them.

Further Reading

Here are a couple links to more articles around the internet with Japan-related iPhone app info. Happy surfing!

Posted under Living & Enjoying Japan by Nihonshock.

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