What Are Kanji Radicals?

If you’ve been following along in our Joyo Kanji Challenge, or even just learning kanji on your own, you have surely come across kanji radicals. What are radicals, exactly?

Radicals in kanji, 部首 (bushu, ぶしゅ), are similar to roots of words in English. For instance, the root “bene” in English, means “good.” So when you see the word benefactor, or benevolent, you know each of those words are related to the root word.

Kanji radicals are similar to this, but they aren’t always as straightforward as the Latin and Greek roots we are used to learning. More often than not, you will not be able to figure out the meaning of a kanji by knowing its radical. Bummer, I know! But a radical can help you to remember different kanji and to tell them apart.

One of the most important functions of radicals is to categorize kanji and make them easier to look up. If you need to find a particular kanji but don’t know the meaning or pronunciation, knowing its radical will save you LOTS of time. Most kanji dictionaries are listed by radical in order of stroke number. So kanji with a radical with one stroke would come first. Kanji radicals go all the way from one stroke up to 17 strokes! Most online dictionaries will also be organized this way, letting you pick which radicals you recognize from the kanji you want to find!
You can try it out here at our free kanji dictionary.

Can you show me a radical already???

OKOK, let’s look at an example with the radical 日:
You may recognize this as the kanji for sun, or day—which is correct—but it is also a radical. While some radicals are also standalone kanji, other radicals (such as ⻌) can only be used as part of a kanji and don’t mean anything on their own.

So by itself, 日 means sun or day. Then we can look at the kanji 明 which means ‘bright light.’ The radical of 明 is 日. In this case, the kanji is related to the meaning of the radical, but that won’t always happen. While 月 is part of the kanji, and is also a radical, there is only ONE true radical per kanji!

Now let’s look at an example with the radical: 水

水 is both the kanji for water and the water radical. So by itself, 水 means water. Then we see the kanji 氷 is verrry similar, but has one extra stroke. This is the kanji for ‘freeze.’ So here is another case where the radical is related to the meaning of a kanji.

Now let’s look at the kanji for ‘to cry:’ 泣

What is the radical here? 氵…Surprise! It is ALSO water! Some radicals have multiple forms depending on where they can be found in a kanji. Water itself has three forms: 水, 氵, and 氺. These are known as modified radicals or radical variants. When 水 is on the left, it becomes 氵. When it is on the bottom, it becomes 氺. Altogether, there are 46 radicals with variations.

If we look closer at this kanji we can see it is the water radical 氵 + 立 which is the radical for ‘stand up.’ So the kanji for ‘cry’ means ‘water stand up?’ Like we said, adding together meanings of different radicals won’t always help. But at least here there is a semantic connection. Consider the kanji 職 which means ’employment.’ The radical for this kanji is 耳…or ear! I have no idea what ears have to do with getting a job, but it seems important!

So now that we know what kanji are, let’s answer a few questions you probably have.

How Many Kanji Radicals Are There?

In total, there are 214 historical kanji radicals used in Japanese kanji. While there are 214 radicals, some radicals are far more common than others, and some are no longer used at all! But 214 is the number most commonly used as radicals from the original KangXi dictionary.

You will often see all the kanji radicals arranged in a chart by ascending stroke order such as this one:
kanji radicals

How Do I Know Which Part Is the Radical?

This is an excellent question, and a very hard one to answer. While the first letter of a word is easy to find (duh!) the radical of a kanji can be in many different places. While kanji are “built” from many different radicals and parts, again, each kanji has only ONE radical! It is important to remember this, because even though a kanji may have three parts you recognize, only one of those parts is its radical. A kanji can also have some extra “parts” that aren’t radicals at all! Oh Japanese, you always keep us on our toes!

In order to find a radical, of course you must know where to look! So let’s review the different positions of radicals in a kanji:

へん (hen) radical left position へん Left-side radicals
left kanji radical
つくり (tsukuri) radical right position つくり Right-side radicals
right kanji radical
かんむり (kanmuri) radical top position かんむり Radicals on toptop kanji radical
あし (ashi) radical bottom position あし Radicals on the bottombottom kanji radical
かまえ (kamae) radical enclosed position くにがまえ radical enclosed position ぎょうがまえ
radical enclosed position けいがまえ radical enclosed position はこがまえ
radical enclosed position つつみがまえ radical enclosed position きがまえ
radical enclosed position もんがまえ
Enclosure radicals
enclosure kanji radical
たれ (tare) radical top-left position たれ Radicals that hang down
hanging kanji radical
にょう (nyou) radical bottom-left position にょう Radicals that wrap around the bottombottom wrap kanji radical

For a much more exhaustive guide on how to find the radical of a kanji, you can check out this guide from Tofugu.

Which Kanji Radicals Are Most Common?

This is a very important question to ask because, while there are 214 radicals, some are MUCH more common than others. In fact, of the 2,136 joyo kanji, 75% of them share the same 50 radicals, and 25% of joyo kanji share the same 6! As we said before, recognizing a radical doesn’t mean you can guess a kanji’s meaning, but it can certainly help give you some direction and will allow your brain to better categorize kanji when you see them. Let’s take a look at the most common kanji radicals:

6 Most Common Kanji Radicals: Top 25% of Jōyō Kanji

くち mouth

水 (氵, 氺)

みず water

tree

人 (亻)

ひと person

手 (扌)

hand

心 (忄, ⺗)

こころ heart

 

Radicals for Top 50% of Jōyō Kanji

こと word

ひ / にち

sun / day

いと

silk

thread radical

にく

meat / organ

つき

moon

つち

ground

go / road radical

grass / plant radical

roof / crown radical

かい

shell

おんな woman

wall (left) / village (right) radical

きん

gold / metal

Knowing those 20 radicals means you can learn 50% of all the Joyo kanji–that’s over 1,000 different kanji! But let’s learn 30 more and we will have covered over 1,600 of the 2,136 kanji needed to be fluent in Japanese.

Radicals for Top 75% of Joyo Kanji

いち one

刀 (刂 )

かたな sword

じゅう ten

rice field

火 (灬)

ひ / か fire

おお big

やま mountain

食 ( 飠)

しょく eat / food

くるま vehicle

walking person radical

eye

あめ rain

犬 ( 犭)

いぬ dog

玉(王)

たま / おう king / ball jewel

いし stone

ちから power

衣 ( 衤)

ころも garment

ゆみ bow

竹 (⺮)

たけ bamboo

また again

攵 (夂)

action radical

示 ( 礻)

しめす show on an altar radical

とり alcohol

くにがまえ enclosure radical

grain radical

广

building on a cliff radical

sickness radical

きん / はば cloth

corpse radical

すん thumb / inch

Of course, you want to learn ALL 2,136 of the Joyo kanji, and so you will learn the rest of your radicals as well! Here are the remaining 164 ‘rarer’ radicals that make up just 25% of the Joyo kanji:

 むし insect 蚯 蚓 強 触 蟻 蟹
 とり bird 鳫 鳮 鳱 鳳 鳴 鳿 雞 鳴 鴻 鴛
足 (⻊)  あし foot 跑 跨 跟 跪 路
 うお fish 鯉 鮑 魛 魜 魝 魞 魟 魠
 うま horse
馮 馴 馳 駐 驚
 おおがい big shell 頃 項 順 須 領 頭 頩 頂
 こめ rice
料 断 奥 糊 麟
 かくのかわ leather, rawhide 靴 鞍 鞅 鞍 鞭
 あな cave 空 突 窅 窘 窩 窶 竇
走 (赱)  はしる run 赴 起 超
 もん gate 間 閑 関 闘 閉 開 閏 間
 かみがしら hair 髮 鬚 鬆 鬍 髦
 あくび yawn, lack 欣 欽 欧 欲 歌
牛 (牜, ⺧)  うし cow 告 牟 牧 物 特 解
 ふるとり old bird 雀 集 雁 难 雀 雅
歹 (歺)  がつへん death, decay 死 列 殕
 はね feather, wing 習 翀 翁 翔
 け fur, hair 毟 毡 毦 毫 毳 耗
 ふね boat 航 船 艦
 ほね bone 骼 髒 髀 骿 骾
風 (𠘨)  かぜ wind 風 颱 飄 颿 颪
 かわら tile 瓧 瓮 甄
 みみ ear 取 聞 職 叢
黒 (黑)  くろ black 點 黛 黱 黨
罒 (网,罓,⺲,⺳)  あみがしら net 買 罪 置 羅
歯 (齒)  は tooth, molar 齡 齠 齗
 みる see 規 親 覺 觀
 つの horn 觚 解 觕 觥 觸
羊 (⺶,⺷)  ひつじ sheep 着 羚 翔 着
 いのこ pig 豕 豚 象
 おに ghost, demon 魂 魁 鬽 魄
 むじな cat, badger 豹 貌 貓 貉
麦 (麥)  むぎ wheat 麴 麵 麱 麨 麺
 がんだれ cliff 厚原
 さら dish 盂 盉 盍 監 蘯
 かのほこ spear, halberd 成式弐戦
 にすい ice, 2-stroke water 冬冶冷凍
 とらかんむり tiger stripes 虎 虐 彪 虒
 しろ white 皃 的 皆 皇
鹿  しか deer 塵 麃 麋 麉 麟
 たつ stand, erect 立 音 産 翌 意 新 端 親 競
 なめしがわ tanned leather 韋 韓 韜
 とめる stop 正 歩 此 步 武 歪 歲
 み body 躬 躲 軀
 けがわ skin 披 彼 波
 ほこつくり weapon, lance 役 投 殴 殷
 ほう way, square, raft 方 放 旅 族
 とぶ fly 飜 飝
 ねずみ rat, mouse 鼢 鼣 鼤
 らいすき plow 耔 耝 耨 耰
 こ ko?) child, seed 子孔字學
 かた (a) slice 版 牌 牒
 かん can, earthenware jar 缶 缸 窑 陶
 かなえ tripod, cauldron 鬶 鬷 鬸
 うす mortar 桕 舅 舂 鼠 插
 まめ bean 豈 豐 豎
尢 (尤,尣)  まげあし lame
面 (靣)  めん face 靦 靨
 むのほこ spear, pike 茅 矜
 つつみがまえ embrace, wrap frame 勾包
 はこがまえ box frame
 や arrow 医 族 矩
 さんづくり hair, bristle, stubble, beard 形彦
 ち blood 洫 衁 衅 衆
 おの axe 斦 斧 新 斥 斬 斷
 うり melon 呱 瓞
長 (镸)  ながい- long, grow; leader
 たに valley 谿 豀 谸
 ぎょう go, do 行 衍 術 衝
 にんにょう legs, human underneath 兄元
 まきがまえ inverted box, window frame 内再
 にじゅうあし two hands, twenty
 はな nose 鼼 鼽 鼿
爿 (丬)  しょうへん split wood 牀 奘 牃
 きび kibi?) millet 黏 黎
 つづみ drum 鼗 鼘
卜 (⼘,⺊)  ぼくのと divination to 占卦
八 (ハ)  はちがしら eight, eight-head 公六共兵
戸 (戶,户)  とびらのと door, house 戸戻所
 ろ salt 鹹 鹼 鹽
 おと oto?) sound 韶 韻 韾
乙 (乚)  おつ second, latter 九也
黄 (黃)  きいろ yellow 黊 黌
小 (⺌, ⺍)  ちいさい small, insignificant 小少
卩 (㔾)  ふしづくり seal 印危卵
 む private 去參
 べん frog, amphibian 黿 鼈
 なべぶた pot lid 亡交京
 つくえ desk
 てつ sprout
 いわく say 書 最 晉 曷 曹 曾
 においこう fragrant
爪 (爫,⺥,⺤)  つめ claw, nail, talon 爬 爯 爭 爰 爲
 からい spicy, bitter 辜 辟 辣 辦 辨
 ふゆがしら winter 夏 夆
 ゆうべ evening, sunset 夕外多夜
 みずから oneself 自 臫 臬 臲
高 (髙)  たかい tall, high 髚 髛
 あさ hemp, flax 麼 魔
丿  の , ノ) bend, possessive particle no 久之乎
 とます dipper, measuring scoop 料 斡
 した tongue 乱 适 話 舍
 あか red, bare 赫 赭
 わかんむり cover, wa crown 冗冠
 に two 五井些亞
西 (襾,覀)  にし west 西 要 覊
入 (𠆢)  いる enter 入全兩
巛 (川,巜)  かわ river 川州巡
 しにょう branch 攱攲
 ぶん script, literature 文 斊 斈 斌 斐 斑 斕
彐 (彑)  けいがしら pig’s head
 あらず wrong 靠 靠 靟
 さむらい scholar, bachelor 士壹
 いたる arrive 致 臸 臺
亀 (龜)  かめ turtle, tortoise
 うけばこ container, inbox 凶出函
 とうがまえ fight 鬧 鬪
 あまい sweet 柑 甜 酣
 うまれる life 牲 笙 甥
耂 (老,⺹)  ろう old 耆孝耋
 しかして rake, beard 耎耐耑
 ぼう line, stick
 くらべる compare, compete 皆 批 毕 毖 毘 毚
 いろ colour, prettiness 色 艴 艷
已 (己,巳)  おのれ oneself 己巳
 にら leek 韱 韲
 くび neck, head 馗 馘
 はねぼう hook, hooked stick 了事
 さじのひ spoon hi 化北
聿 (⺻)  ふでづくり brush 律 書 建
 やく flute
 せい even, uniformly 齋 齏 齏
亡 (匸)  かくしがまえ dead, hiding frame 亡 妄 忙 忘 盲 荒 望 慌 網
 たくみ t work 工左巫差
 きがまえ steam, breath 気 汽 氧
青 (靑)  あお green, blue 靕 靖 靜
毋 (母,⺟)  なかれ- do not; mother 毋 母 毎 姆 梅
 こう mix, twine, cross 爼 爽 爾
 しん minister, official 臥 宦 蔵
 しきがまえ ceremony, shoot, arrow 式弑
疋 (⺪)  ひき bolt of cloth 疏 楚 胥 延
 はつがしら footsteps 発 登
 しんのたつ morning 辱 農
 のごめ divide, distinguish, choose 釉 釋
 さと village, mile 野 野
 かなえ sacrificial tripod 鼏 鼒
竜 (龍)  りゅう dragon 龖 龘
无 (旡)  むにょう have not 无 旡 既 旣
 ぐうのあし track 禹 禺 禽
 れいづくり slave, capture 隸 隺
 てん dot 丸主
 うじ clan 氏 民 紙 婚 氓
 ちち father 斧 釜
用 (甩)  もちいる use; (throw) 佣 甬 甯
 ます opposite 舛 舜 舞
 ほし dry 平年
 いんにょう long stride
 きばへん fang 芽 呀 牚
 ちょう herbs, sacrificial wine 鬰 鬱
 ふつ embroidery, needlework 黼 黻
 げん dark, profound 弦玆
 うしとら stopping 良 飲 很
 すいにょう winter variant

 

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