第6課: Introduction to Kanji I: The Radicals

 Japanese, as we have learned, is written with a mix of different writing systems put together. In Lessons 3-5, we learned about the Kana writing systems: Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ. These systems alone, though, do not comprise all the characters that are used to write Japanese. Japanese is also written with characters called Kanji 漢字. These are symbols which originated from China that were then adapted to write the Japanese language.

Unlike with Kana, it will be impossible to learn every Kanji all in one go. This is because over 3,000 individual characters are commonly used. The use of Kanji is undoubtedly the hardest aspect to writing Japanese, but it is also the most rewarding.  

In this lesson, we will learn about how Kanji are constructed. By doing so, you’ll be able to get an idea of how they are formed and written down. In the next lesson, we’ll learn about how Kanji are read as their pronunciations are varied and must be learned on a case-by-case basis. Because this is an introductory lesson with no actual vocabulary given, you do not have to memorize any of the Kanji provided as examples.

The Building Blocks of Kanji

Kanji are completely different from ひらがな and カタカナ. Whereas these systems look like foreign alphabets, the same cannot be said for Kanji. In fact, Kanji don’t even correspond to specific sounds like the letters of an alphabet or syllabary would. Instead, Kanji represent actual units of meaning, and to accomplish this, they are composed of one or more building blocks. These building blocks are known as radicals.

All Kanji in existence are composed of one or more 214 distinct radicals.

  

阝  扌
 Long Stride Village Hand Heart  Beast Ice Barb

These are just five examples of some of the most common radicals. Radicals will always have one (or more interrelated) meaning(s) assigned to them, allowing the reader to make an accurate educate guess as to what the Kanji they’re in mean. This means that if you see, for example, 忄 in a Kanji, it has a good chance of having a meaning related to emotion.

Many radicals happen to be independent Kanji themselves. After all, they each possess some core meaning. Not all radicals can be used this way, but this is due to historical happenstance.

Mountain

Earth

Tree

Fire

Thread

These radicals also happen to be used as independent Kanji with the same meanings. Just like the previous radicals, when you see them in other Kanji, their meanings are incorporated into said resultant Kanji. To demonstrate this, below are five Kanji using the radical for “fire.”

Disaster

Flame

Burn

Smoke

Ash

As demonstrated by these examples, the same radical can appear slightly differently depending on where it is in a Kanji, but the meaning the radical adds to the character doesn’t change. 

The Types of Radicals

On the topic of shape, radicals come in seven types based on how they fit in Kanji. These types also help determine how characters are written—the stroke order. Radicals can fit into more than one type as there is some give and take involved when combining radicals together.


  1.  Busyu - hen.png  : Left-Side Radicals

The first category of radicals establishes the general rule that strokes of Kanji are generally written from left to right. These radicals, naturally, are found on the left-side of a Kanji. Let’s look at the radical 亻 meaning “person.” When you see it to the left of a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with people.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character 他 meaning “other(s).”

 

To demonstrate how the radical 亻 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Body

Companion

Relation

Buddha

Rest

Terminology Note: These radicals are also known as へん radicals in Japanese.


  1. Busyu - tsukuri.png  : Right-Side Radicals

The second category of radicals follow the rule of strokes being written left to right, meaning that these radicals are written last. Let’s look at the radical 鳥 meaning “bird.” When you see it to the right of a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with birds.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character 鳴 meaning “chirp/cry.”

 

To demonstrate how the radical 鳥 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Duck

Dove

Stork

Chicken

Seagull

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as つくり radicals in Japanese.


  1. Busyu - kanmuri.png :Upper-Side Radicals

The third category of radicals establishes the general rule that strokes of Kanji are generally written from top to bottom. Let’s look at the radical 艹 meaning “grass”. When you see it in the upper-half of a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with plant life.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character 花 meaning “flower.”

 

 

To demonstrate how the radical 艹 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Potato

Tea

Seedling

Strawberry

Sprout

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as かんむり in Japanese.


  1. Busyu - ashi.png  : Bottom-Side Radicals

The fourth category of radicals follows the rule that strokes of Kanji are generally written from top to bottom, meaning that they are written last. Let’s look at the radical 心 meaning “heart,” which is a variant of 忄from earlier. When you see it in the lower-half of a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with emotions.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character meaning 思 “think.”

 

 

To demonstrate how the radical 心 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Forget

Wish

Anger

Concept

Romance

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as あし in Japanese.


  1.  Busyu - tare.png :Hanging Radicals

The fifth category of radicals follows the general guidelines of writing strokes from top-down and left-right. They appear hanging over the rest of the character in an r-shape.  Let’s look at the radical 疒 meaning “sickness.” When you see it hanging over a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with sickness.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character meaning "disease".

 

To demonstrate how the radical 疒 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Pain

Fatigue

Symptom

Epidemic

Cancer

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as たれ in Japanese.


  1. Busyu - nyou.png  : Bottom-Wrapping Radicals

The sixth category of radicals follows the general guidelines of writing stroke orders from top-down and left-right. Consequently, because they begin at the far-left side of a Kanji, they are written first. Let’s look at the radical 辶 meaning “movement.” When you see it wrapped to the left-side and bottom of a character in an l-shape, you know that the Kanji has something to do with movement/distance.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character 近 meaning “close/nearby.”

 

To demonstrate how the radical 辶 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Vicinity

Lost

Passing Through

Patrol

Crawl

Variant Note: The radical 辶 can alternatively be seen as 辶 like in the Kanji above for “crawl.” The extra dot appears in not as common characters.

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as にょう in Japanese.


  1. Busyu - kamae(1).png : Enclosure Radicals

The seventh and final category of radicals all enclose the rest of the character they’re in. Technically, categories 5 and 6 can be seen as enclosure radicals, but they’re conventionally treated separately. Various kinds of enclosure radicals exist. They can either fully enclose the radical like the icon above or appear like the following icons: Busyu - kamae(2).png Busyu - kamae(3).png Busyu - kamae(4).png Busyu - kamae(5).png Busyu - kamae(6).png. Though stroke order depends on what sub-type the character is, they all follow the general principles discussed.

Let’s look at the radical 囗 meaning “enclosure.” When you see it to surrounding the entirety of a character, you know that the Kanji has something to do with some confined entity.

To demonstrate how these radicals are written, consider the character 回 meaning “revolve.”

 

To demonstrate how the radical 囗 contributes meaning-wise to Kanji, consider the following characters.

Country

Surround

Harden

Map

Prisoner

Other example radicals of this category include 門 (gate), 凵 (open box), 匚  (on-side enclosure) 冂 (upside-down box), and 勹 (wrapping enclosure).  Of these, all but the first are nearly purely elemental, providing the full shape to the character it is a part of. Below are some example characters utilizing these radicals.

Hear

Picture

Same

Fragrant

Ward

Question

Can

Book

Color

Doctor

Terminology Note: These radicals are known as かまえ in Japanese. 

Spelling Noteオン readings are in カタカナ; くん readings are in ひらがな. In reality readings are normally only given in ひらがな unless the word is a loan. 

Picture of What's to Come

The chart below, extracted from www.jisho.org, displays all 214 radicals according to their stroke count. There is no need to look up each and every radical, nor is there any need to necessarily learn what their names are or all the Kanji made with them. There is far too much information for that to be possible or practical. Treat this as a mapping of the knowledge to be acquired on your journey. 

  


Next Lesson → 第?課: Introduction to Kanji 漢字 II: ON & KUN Readings