Natalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code has been an Amazon Top 10 Best Seller in Phonetics and Phonics since April 2019.
18 December 2019
Christmas is such a special time, particularly in the West, and of course our concept of the date is based on the Birth of Christ – it’s almost 2020 years since he was born.
So it’s amazing to think that a thousand years before baby Jesus was born in that famous manger to Mary and Joseph, people in China were inventing a kickass writing system.
Rather than using 26 letters like the English alphabet, they based their system on 214 symbols or radicals, each of which indicated a certain concept or physical object.
The radicals give us an insight into what was important to people at the time. They can be roughly divided into 13 categories, depending on which way you look at them.
Most of the radicals represent real objects: nature (sun 日, moon 月, river 川), natural materials (bamboo 竹, wool 毛), body parts (hand 手・才, mouth 口), types of people (child 子, woman 女, king 王), food (rice 米, beans 豆), animals (horse 馬, sheep 羊), warfare & weapons (knife 刀, halberd ⼽ , axe 斤), man-made tools (net 罒, plow 耒, desk 几), supernatural (dragon 竜・ 龍, demon 鬼).
A smaller proportion relate to abstract concepts like verbs/language (speech 言, worship 示 ・礻, see 見) and math & measurement (numbers like 1 一 & 2 二, big 大, small 小, east 東, west 西).
The final group of radicals could be described as enclosures. These are shapes that act as borders, tops or bottoms of kanji, and represent concrete things like a pot lid 亠, and abstract ideas like movement 辶 and sickness 疒.
Getting your head around the radicals is a key step to mastering kanji. Whether you learn kanji meanings by their historical meanings (etymology) or just make up your own stories (a la Henshall’s Remembering the Kanji), the radicals are truly the building blocks of kanji.
Choose a category and try to master all the radicals in that group. If you learn about one group a month, you’ll pretty much have them down by next Christmas!
Here’s our list of radicals by subject:
This article is based on content in The Kanji Code.
The Kanji Code provides a list of 150 phonetic components to improve your Japanese reading skills. For each component, example kanji and common words that use the corresponding ON reading are provided.
Bookmark our List of Radicals by Subject so you can check radicals or 部首 (bushu・ぶしゅ) as you encounter them.