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Radical Kanji: Intermediate Japanese for Understanding Kanji ‘Pieces’

Learn how to break down kanji into easier, bite-sized chunks.  

By 3 min read 1

Japanese is a beast of a language to study. Right from the get-go, you have kanji, hiragana and katakana. A whole three alphabets to tackle, and that’s just at the start of your Japanese journey. It might seem daunting. And to be honest, it is.

Luckily, along the way to becoming the kanji master you want to be, there are some tips and tricks that you’ll assuredly pick up. Who will help guide you along this path, though, you may be asking? Let the kanji quiver in fear—the kanji hunter is here. That’s me. I’m the kanji hunter.

Learning about radicals was one of the best things that helped me on my kanji learning journey. So in this article, we’ll go over one of the most common radicals and how it will help you in your journey to catch them all. Unfortunately for your time, though, there are many more kanji than Pokemon.

Kanji is Like a Language Puzzle

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It’s all coming together.

You may wonder, “What the heck even is a radical?” We could get technical, but let’s keep it simple. A radical is a “piece” of a kanji. Kanji aren’t just arbitrary squiggles—they’re multiple arbitrary squiggles that are really small and close to each other.

For example, the kanji for silver is ギン, and it is made of two “pieces”: きん on the left-hand side and こん on the right-hand side.

These are the radicals. On the left, is the kanji for gold (also meaning metals in general) and Friday (金), and on the right is 艮, which refers to the northeast direction in the zodiac. If you learn to recognize radicals, you’ll see kanji less as arbitrary squiggles and more as tapestries of smaller images! There.

This Calls for a Chart!

The kanji べん, (lit. left radical of a character) describes where the radical is located. The 偏 radical will always be on the left side. For example, in 銀, the left radical was 金.

Let’s look at a very simple radical: くち (くち), or mouth. More specifically, let’s look at 口偏, or kanji with the 口 radical on the left:

Kanji Kunyomi Onyomi English
すう キュウ Inhale, suck
はく Spit, vomit
ふく スイ Blow, breathe
よぶ Call, call out

Notice how a skinny 口 is on the left of each kanji? That’s why it’s the 偏!

And here’s another tip about radicals. Not only do each of those kanji contain the radical for “mouth,” each kanji’s meaning actually relates to mouths!

Radicals can help you understand a kanji’s meaning. While this is not a universal rule, nor should you rely entirely on radicals to deduce the meaning, it’s still a valuable tool for your kanji kit.

Going back to 銀, even if you don’t know that kanji off the top of your head if you know the 金 radical, you can likely figure out that it probably has something to do with money, gold or metal!

Put it All Together

Let’s review the 口 radical from above. In Japanese, “to inhale” is すうう (すう). Here are some words and sentences that use 吸:

Japanese Romaji English
きゅう Kokyuu Breathing, respiration
はなからきゅうしてください。 Hana kara kokyuu shite kudasai. Please breathe from your nose.
きゅうしゅう Kyushuu Absorption, suction
こちらのそうふるくなっていますのできゅうしゅうりょくひくくなっています。
Kochira no soujiki ha furui node kyuushuuryoku ga hikukunatteimasu. This vacuum is old, so the suction power has become weak.
しんきゅう Shinkokyuu Deep breath
しんきゅうをしましょう。
Shinkokyuu wo shimashou Let’s take a deep breath
きゅうけつ
Kyuuketsuki Vampire
きゅうけつとウェアウルフのたたかいはさいきんあつくなってきましたね。
Kyuuketsuki to ueaurufu no tatakai ha saikin atsukunattekimashita ne. The fight between the vampires and werewolves has really been heating up recently.

And that’s it for the first kanji hunter course! Come back for more if you want to put radical fear into the hearts of all kanji. I will leave you with some words of encouragement using our star kanji of the day:

こちらの情報をしっかりと吸収して、より良い日本語の学習者になりましょう, or “make sure to properly absorb this information, and let’s become better Japanese learners!”

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  • Henr says:

    Japanese doesn’t technically have an alphabet because they use syllables
    An alphabet uses only one .
    Hence the name alphabet

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