The “science” of Kanji, part 1: radicals

This is the first in a series of tips that I hope to pass on while learning kanji. I’ve been preparing for the JLPT certification for a while now, but also trying to master Japanese in general since my wife is Japanese and I want to work there someday if I can. So, getting very familiar with kanji is essential for comprehensive reading and writing skills. Kanji more than anything, requires a lot of investment in time and memorization, and you can’t short-cut this process, no matter what anyone says.

However, there are some patterns that are worth noting, and these can help. For example, many kanji use radicals as part of their components. These are called bushu (部首) in Japanese and are there a couple hundred of them. The most commonly-used ones are often very simple components one to a few brush-strokes, but there are rare radicals used for some obscure words too. Either way, kanji will usually have a radical, unless the character is so basic that it is its own radical.

For example, take the basic kanji 口 or ku, kō, kuchi and means “mouth, gate, entrance” and so on. Pretty basic kanji, frequently used on its own. Now if you look at something like 鳴, without knowing the word, can you guess what it means? If you look carefully, you can see this kanji has 口 as a component, so you can guess that this has something do with sound. In fact, 鳴 is used in words like 鳴く naku (to howl, cry, make animal noises), 鳴らす narasu to ring a bell or chime and 鳴る naru to ring or chime (bell, cellphone, etc). Or, consider another entirely different word, 味 aji or “taste, flavor” and so on. Here, again, the 口 (mouth) component is there, so you can see that this kanji is somehow related to that. The connection between “mouth” and “flavor” is clear enough. :)

A different example is ki, moku 木 for tree. Words like 林 hayashi (forest), 桐 kiri (Paulownia wood, used in Japanese Koto) and 椿 tsubaki (Camellia flowers) all involve plants, so it makes sense they all have the same 木 radical. So if you saw a new word with this radical, you can guess that it’s at least plant-related.

Not all radicals appear on the left-side of a kanji. Consider the kanji 心 shin, kokoro which appears at the bottom or right of other kanji: 意 i for “heart, feelings, thought” and 秘 hi for secret or concealed (what’s secretly in your heart for example).

Another popular kanji, 日 hi, jitsu, nichi or “day, sun, light”, appears all over the place! Consider examples like 暑 sho or “hot”, where there is a “sun” on the top and the bottom. That would make anything hot. Another example like 暗 an meaning “shadow, from memory” uses the radical on the left, but also another “sun” appears at the bottom. The one on the left though is the actual radical in this case. Lastly 曜 meaning “day of the week”. You can see that the radical for 日 sun, day, light appears in various places within the kanji, but they’re all still connected by the notion of day or light.

So, take the time to really master some of the basic kanji and their various meanings. The kanji 日 has several meanings, but they all get used as radicals in more complex kanji, so if you’re familiar with 日, you can look at more difficult kanji and still get a good idea what it means. This helps a lot, speaking from experience, when you’re doing lots of flashcards and vocabulary work and you can’t quite remember which is which. Knowing that 糸 means thread and 光 means light for example will help you remember what 縮む chijimu (to shrink, contract) and 輝く kagayaku (to shine, dazzle) respectively mean. 😀

Good luck!

6 thoughts on “The “science” of Kanji, part 1: radicals

  1. Hi, I think about kanji a lot.
    I’ve come to see this as part of how to “spell” an individual kanji.
    I have two Japanese textbooks for grade school children, that break down a kanji into a short sentence describing verbally how to write it. The Doreamon book lists about 40 stroke combinations that can be remembered by referring them to katakana they resemble or by naming the type of stroke. Then it lists 60 radicals with the names used by Doreamon (only slightly different and only used in some cases) and their real name. This is enough to describe all 1006 grade school kanji in four step sequences. Brilliant!
    I’d like to point out 月 which was a revelation to me once. 
    because of convergent simplification in kanji writing 月 can be 月 moon but also 肉 flesh
    I’m sure there are others to watch for.

  2. Wow, those childrens books sound pretty cool. You wouldn’t by chance know where to find them on Amazon JP or something would you? I used to read Doraemon comics in Japanese in younger days, but my reading skills then weren’t very good. I think now I could manage OK. Regarding the “moon” and “flesh” kanji, are you saying they have the same origin?

  3. I’ve noticed this with the kanji as well. Most notable was wood (木) being used as part of forest (林), but I’ve tried to notice those things in other kanji when I can to help memorization. It also made me think of a Japanese character from a game, Tekken, named Mokujin (木人). I knew jin meant person then learning moku for wood I would see his name really just meant wooden man (or tree person). Though knowing the simpleness of the translated name somehow took away the coolness of his Japanese name.

    I look forward to the next part in this series.

  4. Doraemon link

    and the other book that I only now realise is by the same author! 下村 昇

    The Doraemon book is nice and compact. The other books have a bit more detail but are 1 to a grade. However they only cost about 500yen each.

    about the radical 月
    “moon” and “flesh” have different origins and originally different shapes but over the years/ centuries have both been simplified to the same shape when used as a radical.
    田 is another radical that is at the end of converging simplification that I can think of.
    Sometimes it makes it hard to see the actual origions of kanji meaning.
    is an interesting site for kanji etymology.

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