Kanji Radicals: The Cornerstone of Kanji Mastery

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I remember a few years ago, before I had even started learning Japanese, whenever I saw one of those kanji characters I was always so confused as to how someone could actually learn to read one of those things, let alone memorize tens of thousands of them! Tiny, complicated characters without rhyme or reason? I’ll pass!

That was silly of me, because I didn’t know the secret…

What is Kanji Radical?

Kanji Radicals: the Building Blocks of Kanji

As it turns out, learning kanji doesn’t just have to be endless hours of staring at character after character, trying to remember the difference between 名 and 各, 音 and 意, with brute memorization. Instead, almost every kanji character can be broken down into components and radicals. A kanji’s radical is its primary component, by which it is classified and sorted in the dictionary.

Let’s look at the kanji () , which means “idea; feelings; meaning,” and appears in words like 意味(いみ) “meaning” and 意識(いしき) “awareness; consciousness”.

意 is made up of three components: 立 “stand”, 日 “day”, and 心 “heart”. The radical of this kanji is the 心 component.

kanji radicals: components in kanji 意

Kanji Radicals vs Strokes

Kanji components can also be further broken down into their individual strokes. When you study proper Japanese handwriting, you will learn all about the different types of strokes and how to write them properly.

This illustrates the kind of “hierarchy” of kanji construction. We start with strokes, which build components and radicals, which build kanji, which build words.

Let’s explore this hierarchy with another kanji, (きゅう), which means “rest; retire”:

kanji radicals: stroke hierarchy in kanji 休

Classify Kanji Radicals by Their Functions

Kanji Radicals Can Indicate Meaning

Similar to English, where we have prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and roots, all of which indicate a modicum of meaning, a kanji’s radical can sometimes give hints as to the kanji’s meaning. Now, this is not nearly as reliable of a general rule as it is for English words, as you will see, but it can still be useful for giving your memory a sort of “hook” by which you can remember each kanji.

Let’s look at another common radical – (みず) , which means “water”. Now, this radical is pretty interesting, because it actually appears in different forms: in addition to the standalone form 水, it can also appear in the form of three strokes on the left side 氵. There are a few other radicals that do this. In fact, we already saw that the 人 radical (“person”) also appears in the form 亻.

Now we know that 氵 means “water,” let’s look at a few kanji that use it to see if we can spot a few similarities in meaning:

  • (かわ) – “river”
  • (なみだ) – “tears”
  • (さけ) – “alcohol”
  • (いけ) – “pond”

… and the list goes on. Unfortunately, though numerous, these examples are cherry-picked. There are plenty of other kanji that use the water radical that no longer carry much (if any) connotation to water anymore:

  • (けつ) – “decision”
  • () – “government; cure”
  • (はく) – “overnight”
  • (ほう) – “law”

kanji radicals: kanji with radical meaning water

So, although the kanji radicals originally had a lot more significant meaning to them, unfortunately, you can no longer rely on them to be related to the practical meaning of the kanji.

Kanji Radicals Can Indicate Reading

Similarly to how some components can hint at the meaning of a kanji, some other components indicate reading instead of meaning. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule, but for some components it works surprisingly well.

An important note: in this category, many of the reading indicators are compound components, i.e. they are made of multiple sub-components.

Let’s start with 复, which is not really used by itself, but when it appears within another kanji, that one tends to be pronounced フク: (ふく), (ふく), (ふく). If a kanji contains 生, it is more often than not pronounced せい: (せい), (せい), (せい). There’s a myriad of these so-called “phonetic components,” an excellent write-up of which can be found here.

Wanna know why the pronunciations of the 复 and 生 are represented in different ways? Read this article to learn the difference between hiragana and katakana.

kanji radicals: kanji with radical sei as reading indicator

Can Kanji Radicals Work Like Kanji?

If you’ve been studying Japanese for very long, you’ll know that 水 is the kanji for water, and not only a radical. Like 水, a few other kanji can also be radicals. We already saw 人 and 心, and 日, 口, and 言 also make this list.

However, not all kanji components are also kanji. For example, ⻌ is a common kanji component, but it is not a standalone kanji. So are 宀 and 艹. You can find a complete list of all the kanji radicals here.

One of the most popular kanji learning methods, Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), focuses on learning kanji by remembering them as constructions of smaller kanji components that have certain meaning keywords attached to them. Kanji components often do not stand alone as their own kanji character.

kanji radicals: some kanji radicals can be standalone kanji while some cannot

Why Should You Learn Kanji Radicals?

Kanji Radicals Can Accelerate Kanji Learning

The most obvious reason for learning kanji radicals is understanding that kanji are not just arbitrary jumbles of strokes that one must memorize, but that rather, they are modular organizations of even smaller kanji components that are significantly easier to recognize and process. With this realization comes the ability to more quickly learn new kanji, figure out how to write them, and remember what they mean.

Kanji Radical Can Help You Expand Vocabulary

Another great reason to learn the radicals is that when you come across an unknown kanji in your studies, say in a manga or on a street sign, you’ll need to look it up. Nowadays just about every online Japanese learner’s dictionary has a kanji radical search function. For example, check out the one on Jisho.org by clicking the “Radicals” button to the left of the search bar. And, even if you’re not using an online dictionary, paper dictionaries also sort kanji by radical. If you’re anything like me, you’re looking up kanji all the time, so it will be worth your while to learn the radicals, even if it’s just for this point.

How To Learn The Kanji Radicals?

If you’ve come this far and decided that you should learn the kanji radicals, I recommend that you first check out KanjiAlive’s great technical overview. They list 214 different radicals, and most of them are pretty simple. If you’re just getting started learning kanji, it’s not important to memorize the name of each radical – just its form, meaning, and position should be enough to get going. 

7 main groups of kanji radicals according to their position in the character as categorized by Kanji Alive: hen, tsukuri, kanmuri, ashi, kamae, tare, nyou
7 Main Groups of Kanji Radicals According to Position Categorized by Kanji Alive

Resources for Learning Kanji Radicals

When I started studying kanji for the first time, I focused on three primary things:

  1. I started out learning Japanese using the Genki textbooks, and they contain a good list of starter kanji to learn. I would recommend learning the radicals and components of every single kanji in both Genki I & II well before moving on. Make sure you are writing out all of these by hand!
  2. I went out and bought Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (a.k.a. RTK). This book holds a somewhat legendary status among modern Japanese learners. It easily breaks down kanji into their different components and teaches them in the easiest order to understand.
  3. I also recommend Chase Colburn’s Kanji Study Android app. This app is well worth the money if you want to support it, otherwise, the free version is great for beginners, too.

However, once you reach a higher Japanese level, it might be worth your while to go back and memorize the names of at least a few of the most common radicals so you can talk about kanji in Japanese with your new friends. There are also some free Anki decks and free Memrise courses that can help you on your journey.

How To Find A Kanji’s Radical?

Let’s say you’ve encountered a new kanji that you have never seen before, and you want to know the structure of the character. Maybe it contains a new radical or a variation that you’ve never seen before. Luckily, there are some handy web applications you can use to break down the character and learn about how it’s constructed.

For instance, let’s say you’ve encountered the character (そん) (honor, precious), and you don’t know its radical. Let’s pop it into KanjiAlive and see what it has to say.

kanji radicals: detailed explanation of 尊 by Kanji Alive
Explanation of 尊 on Kanji Alive

Not only does KanjiAlive provide the stroke order, readings, meaning, and other such information, it also shows the radical, which, in this case, is (そん), meaning “inch, thumb.”

Other online dictionaries, such as Jisho.org, also support similar features.

Kanji Radicals with More Than One Form

Keep in mind that some radicals have multiple forms! Water has 水 and ⺡, small has 小 and ⺌, etc.

Some radicals only appear in certain locations in a character. We have ⼵, which takes up the bottom and the left, leaving space in the upper right for other components. On the other hand, ⼞ only leaves space on the inside for other components. As kanji become more familiar, you will get used to the locations in which each radical usually appears.

Final Words

Leaning Kanji don’t have to be overwhelming! Even though thousands of them exist, they are almost all some combination of the 214 radicals. Learn the radicals and you can learn the kanji. The process of learning the kanji will still be long, but there is a system behind them that can be understood.

Key points to remember:

  1. Kanji are made up of radicals and components
  2. Kanji are sorted by their radicals
  3. Some components provide meaning (semantic components), others provide reading (phonetic components)
  4. Learning kanji components gives you the building blocks to understand the construction and structure of kanji
  5. You can learn kanji!

Best of luck to you in all of your studies! 頑張って!

Resource List 

Here are some of the resources mentioned in this article, along with a few extras!

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