Taking Kanji Apart: Radicals and Components

As any learner knows, kanji are an inescapable and daunting aspect of learning Japanese. There’s more than 2000 of the little devils and each one has multiple pronunciations, multiple meanings, and a predefined stroke order. That’s a lot to learn, so it’s understandable that most teachers and books avoid getting very deeply into the radical (部首:ぶしゅ) system which in kanji dictionaries is used to order/classify them.

Indeed, learners will have no problem passing even the N1 level of the JLPT without knowing that 氵 is called さんずい or that 疒 is やまいだれ. However, in my personal experience communicating with native Japanese speakers as well as other Japanese learners, I’ve been thankful to know the names of some common radicals, and regretful that I couldn’t name more. Kanji radicals aren’t required for Japanese proficiency, but ignorance of them is a shortcoming nevertheless.

With that said, this article intends to explain the basics of kanji radicals (as well as their quirkiness), and also introduce to the reader a good beginning vocabulary on the subject.

Why radicals suck

If you’re an intermediate or advanced learner, you probably have a kanji dictionary of some kind. It probably organizes kanji by radicals, which are grouped by stroke count. And it probably has a section for kanji with no apparent radical. This is the most intuitive and effective way to get the job done.

Unfortunately, although the basic idea is the same, the real radical system used in Japan is far less intuitive than you might think. For one thing, there is no such thing as a kanji without a radical.

Even the lowly 一 (いち) has a radical (or rather, is a radical), which by the way is used to classify these guys: 三七上下不丁世且丙丑. Oddly enough, although 一 is the radical for 三, it is not the radical for 二. 二 is a different radical altogether (classifying: 五互井亜云于). I think you can see how this gets out of hand rather quickly. That’s why your learner’s dictionary uses a simplified system.

In many cases it’s impossible to tell for certain what a kanji’s radical is just by looking at it. For example, most Japanese learners would start searching for 歴 under the 厂 radical. Logical enough, but guess what: the actual radical is 止. How about 聞? Would you say 門? Nope, 耳 is the radical. And how about 巡? Think it’s 辶 ? Sorry, it’s 巛, which is also the radical for 川 and 州.

And 巛 leads me to my next gripe; single radicals have multiple forms. 火部 (かぶ: the “fire” radical) can become 灬 (not to be confused with 㣺, which is a form of 心部 (しんぶ). 水部 (すいぶ) is another shape-shifter that can become 氵or 氺. In Japanese, the meaning and origin matters just as much as the shape itself.

Your kanji learner’s dictionary has probably also invented some radicals that (although logical and helpful) don’t actually exist! Those dots at the top of 営 and 学? Sorry. How about the two dots and long stroke on 前, 美, 首? Also imaginary radicals.

Don’t despair!

Even native speakers–unless they’re actively studying kanji–don’t know radicals very well either. To get to their level you basically just need to have a general idea of how the system works including some of its quirks (like those explained above), and also remember terms for a few common radical forms.

So, let’s move on to some vocabulary! Actually, once you get the basics, most of the time you can come up with these terms on the spot. For example; 偏(へん) is the word for a radical on the left side of a kanji, so 松 is 木偏(きへん), 銀 is 金偏(かねへん), 地 is 土偏 (つちへん) , and so on.

First, a quick note: while each kanji has only one  部首 (ぶしゅ), or radical, which is used for classification purposes. Kanji are usually made up of  multiple components (要素: ようそ). Various kanji components are also referred to as “radicals” (especially in English), which in the strict definition of “radical” is incorrect. Even so, the following terms are still useful for description and communication. For example, the 部首 of 聞 is 耳, but you can still describe the kanji with the word 門構え(もんがまえ).

In this list, I tried to cover common but not obviously-named radicals. Here’s a link (Japanese) to a much more complete collection if you’re interested. The Japanese Wikipedia article on radicals is also packed with detailed info. The English Wikipedia article isn’t so shabby either.

Most radicals can be classified in one of seven types, depending on their position in the kanji.

5 Types of kanji radicals

Table: Basic Radical Vocabulary

This table gives the names of various components (in hiragana), and several example kanji for each. If I thought clarification was helpful or necessary, I added the kanji on which the component is based in parenthesis after the hiragana reading.

部首 ぶしゅ - Radical (for classification)
へん – Left-side component
さんずい (水) : 海 泳 池 にんべん (人) : 仕 休 他
にすい (氷) : 冷 凍 ごんべん : 話 語 記
こざとへん (阜) : 阪 限 降 ぎょうにんべん : 待 得 後
けものへん (犬) : 猫 犯 独 がつへん : 残 殆 殊
ころもへん (衣) : 袖 裾 裸 とりへん : 配 酎 酢
しめすへん (示) : 社 祝 神 りっしんべん (心) : 性 怖 忙
つくり – Right-side component
りっとう (刀) : 刊 列 利 ぼくづくり (攴) : 攻 改 政
おおがい : 頭 頃 頂 ほこ/るまた : 殴 段 殺
おおざと (邑) : 都 郊 邪 とます : 料 斜
さんづくり : 形 影 彩 おのづくり : 新 斬 斯
ふるとり : 難 雅 雄 また : 取 収 双
かんむり – Top-side component
くさかんむり (草) : 茶 苗 苦 わかんむり (ワ) : 冗 冠 冥
うかんむり (ウ) : 安 完 客 あみがしら (网) : 置 罪 罠
たけかんむり (竹) : 答 第 等 なべぶた : 京 交 亭
あながしら : 空 究 窓 はつがしら : 登 発
あし – Bottom-side component
したごころ (心) : 恭 慕 ひとあし : 元 兄 光
れんが (火) : 烈 無 然 したみず : 泰
たれ – Top+left-side component
がんだれ : 原 厚 厓 まだれ : 店 床 度
やまいだれ : 病 疲 症 とだれ : 戻 房 扉
にょう – Bottom+left component
しんにょう (辵) : 道 近 追 えんにょう : 延 建 廻
そうにょう : 起 越 赴
かまえ – Enclosing component
もんがまえ : 間 開 閉 ぎょうがまえ : 街 術 衡
くにがまえ : 国 園 四 つつみがまえ : 包 匂 勿

A couple other quirks

There’s a couple radicals that appear identical, but are actually considered different. Look at the these two characters:

服 肌

See that 月? Well on the left, it’s the moon radical (月). But on the right it’s the flesh radical (肉). The too components look and are written exactly the same, but if the meaning of the kanji has anything to do with the body, it’s the 肉 radical.

So in 服 the component is called つきへん but in 肌 it’s called にくづき.

Next, look at these:

今 全

The radicals of these kanji are also written and look the same, but differ according to what kanji they are based on. 今’s radical is 人, and this form is called 人屋根(ひとやね) . 全 is 入, and in this instance is referred to as 入頭 (いりがしら).

Finally, I want to mention the kanji 書. Ever thought it strange that the kanji for “writing” had the sun radical? Yes, the 日 on the bottom is the radical. But it’s not 日. It’s actually derived from 曰 (いわく). Look closely: 日 曰. 曰 is a pretty rare kanji/radical that means “to speak”.

The bottom piece of 書 is still written as 日, but just know that the kanji isn’t actually classified that way.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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