Kanji Radicals – What are they and how do you use them?

Kanji RadicalsKanji radicals are essentially little pieces of kanji. They can also be kanji of their own. There are somewhere around 214 radicals that are used in kanji and they range from one stroke all the way up to 17 strokes (It’s 龠、やく, flute – in case you were wondering)

Radicals can be quite useful because they can hint at a kanji’s meaning, pronunciation, or origin. It can also help you break down complex kanji into radicals instead of a bunch of strokes. They can come in handy when you are trying to come up with mnemonics, too. On the JLPT, it is important to know radicals because on the test they will often switch the radicals of kanji to test you in the kanji section of the exam.

So, they are can be pretty darn important. Today, I’m going to hand you some tools that will hopefully demystify the crazy world of kanji radicals.

How to Find Kanji Radicals

Where are these kanji radicals in the first place? Where are they hiding? In your closet? Between the sofa cushions? Nope, it’s much easier than that. There are actually a few places in a kanji that you can look and find these little guys.

1. The kanji can be a radical

Some kanji are made of just one radical and that’s it. Actually, a lot of the JLPT N5 kanji is made of single radical kanji like this. Kanji like 口, 女, 山, 大, and日.

2. The radical can be in the right, left, top, or bottom

These are the simplest to find. These radicals are in kanji that are usually made of only two radicals. Although the can be made of more than two radicals as well. Kanji like (日+月)= 明 or (田+心)=思

3. Radicals can form enclosures

Enclosures enclose other radicals or strokes of the kanji. They can be in the lower left like 進, top left like 原、in the top right like 式、they can form a C-enclosure like 区、an upside-down ‘U’ like 開、or surround the whole thing like 国.

4. Radicals can be somewhere else

Radicals can also be floating around somewhere else in the kanji with other strokes that aren’t radicals. There are a lot of kanji in this category, but a few simple ones that come to mind are 鞄, 望, or 鏡.

How do you use kanji radicals?

Kanji radicals can be used to look up kanji in Japanese dictionaries. A good example of this is the multi-radical kanji function of the WWWJDIC site or the corresponding iPhone App Imi wa? You can find kanji that you don’t know very well fairly quickly by isolating the radicals and using them to look up new words.

You can also use kanji radicals to simply remember kanji. Instead of them being a giant mess of strokes, you can break them down into radicals. This can make identifying them and writing them (if you need to) a lot easier.

The radicals can also be used to make mnemonics for you to remember the kanji and their meanings. You can break down a kanji into radicals and make a little story using the names of the radicals to help you remember. It can be as simple as 男is man, because a man uses his strength 力 in the rice field 田.

Radicals are especially invaluable for the JLPT because the kanji section is full of 似いている漢字 or look alike kanji. These kanji usually have just one radical different than the real kanji they are imitating. By knowing what the different kanji radicals look like, you can notice the differences and pay attention to them when you are studying kanji.

So, there you have it. How to find and use kanji radicals. The earlier you learn these kanji radicals the better. To help you, you might want to pick up the kanji radical cheat sheet that Tofugu.com made. It has most of the commonly used kanji radicals listed with some funny names to help you remember them by.

If you are studying for the JLPT, you may also want to pick up the White Rabbit Press Flashcards that have the radicals on them as well. I also detail some hints on how to study kanji in my 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make on the JLPT eBook which you can pick up for absolutely free up in the upper right corner of the blog.

Action Steps

1) How do you study Kanji for the test? Do you use mnemonics or something else?

2) What are some other resources that you use with kanji radicals?

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Bob May 20, 2011, 4:24 pm

    This knowledge even impresses my Japanese friends. They never studied radicals. So 古 is ten + mouth = ten generations or old (furui).

    • Mac May 22, 2011, 10:53 am

      Good Mnemonic Bob.

      Yeah, most kanji study books I’ve seen just go over tons of drills and readings. Pretty boring stuff really. Although it sometimes has it’s place if you want to practice kanji writing.

  • Mark February 25, 2013, 5:05 am


    Just want to ask how can learning Mnemonics help learning the readings of a Kanji?

    • Clayton MacKnight February 25, 2013, 6:50 am

      You just need to make mnemonics up for the different readings of the kanji to help you remember them. Something like kanjidamage.com does.

      • Mark February 26, 2013, 4:32 am

        I see. How about compound Kanji? Example is 入口. Is Mnemonics still workable for this?

  • lazuli July 26, 2013, 6:49 pm

    Kanji radical cheat sheet can be useful^^ thank you for the good resources as always^o^v

    PS: how do I know which JLPT level should I take? I think I’m between N2 and N1 and I wanna try to get JLPT this year (finally lol) but I really don’t know if I should risk failing by taking N1 or choose the safer N2 test ;D

  • Shawn September 2, 2013, 8:08 pm

    Nice article! I have one question, around how many of all the radicals are kanji themselves?

    • Clayton MacKnight September 3, 2013, 2:46 pm

      Mmm, about half of them are their own kanji is my guess. So, probably around 50 or 60.

  • Miriam April 10, 2014, 4:37 am

    Hi! I just found out about your website yesterday, and I’m loving it!

    I’ve been studying Japanese for over ten years, but in small bites (basically I start, top, restars, restop…). Kanjo has always been a bigg challenge, and a main reason for me to quit so many times.

    When I first heard of radicals, I didn’t get it, and I was affraid it was just one more thing to memorize. But I’m so happy to find out they can actually help me to memorize those big kanjis that looks so much the same! Hahaha It really maies me want to go back to studying Japanese!

    Thanks for the article, and the amazing website! 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight April 10, 2014, 11:36 pm

      I’ve never really worked that hard to memorize all the radicals, but it does help to at least be familiar with them, especially for the test because they will prey on you by changing just one radical in the kanji section.

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