Essential Kanji is the Essential
Japanese Kanji Dictionary
P.G. O'Neill's Essential Kanji is in my opinion the best Japanese kanji dictionary you can buy. It's had rave reviews since 1973, and there are good reasons why my copy of it is dirty and dog-eared.
In Essential Kanji, the boxes that show you the stroke order are nice and large. One of the biggest reasons to get a dictionary in the first place is so you can write kanji. This one shows you how to write the kanji properly without having to squint.
In China and Japan, people have actually been known to get into brawls over proper kanji stroke order. Who knows--maybe this book will save you a black eye or two!
The English meanings for the kanji are concise and make sense. A lot of my books have very vague, overly broad English definitions that leave me scratching my head, but that's not a concern here.
At the back of the book, there is also an alphabetized index of readings to characters.
That means that if you know how a word is pronounced, you can find that word in the alphabetical list and then find the kanji that make up that word. In my experience, not all kanji dictionaries have this, so being able to hunt down the kanji for a particular word is a big bonus.
But Essential Kanji is also good because it doesn't stray from the expected. As is usually the case in many a Japanese kanji dictionary, the kunyomi are italicized and the onyomi aren't.
As you could expect, the characters range in complexity, with the stroke counts going up to 20-something stroke characters.
Also, the book is durable and just the right size. The makers of some kanji dictionaries try to be helpful by making a book that can slip into your pocket. The trouble with that is the contents of the book are also small, and the pages would smear or tear easily. Essential Kanji is the size of a standard paperback, and its pages can take some abuse without falling apart.
The only slight downside of the book is that it doesn't progress from the most useful kanji to the more obscure ones. The basic premise behind the book is that it starts out with the ones that are simpler to write and progresses to the more complicated. It succeeds in doing that.
The reason that's a problem is because some of the kanji that are useful to know early on are actually a bit complicated, and some of the less useful ones are surprisingly simple to write. Essential Kanji somewhat succeeds in blending the most useful with easiest to write, but doesn't quite hit the bull's eye.
My Humble Overall Opinion
Essential Kanji would be a decent, if not fantastic curriculum by itself for kanji. But in terms of being a Japanese kanji reference tool, I think it is superb.
Essential Kanji, P.G. O'Neill. Weatherill, 1973. ISBN: 0-8348-0222-8
Did you know...
The Japanese people consider eating in the street to be very bad manners.