165 - Totally Radical!

You have heard it one million times now, I am sure: “Kanji is hard!”

I am not here to say it’s not; I know that kanji can be difficult for foreigners, especially westerners. But I think it comes down to two main reasons.

The first is time. It takes Japanese people up until 6th grade to learn around 1,000 kanji characters, and as most of you have heard, it takes about 2,000 to be able to read a Japanese newspaper. The 常用漢字 (じょうようかんじ) or, "Jouyou Kanji List" has roughly 2,000 characters and it is the standard list that Japanese people use on TV, in novels, and in newspapers. When you are a beginner this can seem like an insurmountable task. But we are not children (most of us anyway). We have the capacity to figure out the best way to memorize all these characters. It will take most of us a lot less than 12 years to master this kanji list.

The second reason foreigners think that kanji are hard to learn is attitude.I am not just talking only about the attitudes of people learning kanji; I am also talking about Japanese people.

Maybe it is because Japanese people remember endless years of learningkanji in school, or maybe the rumor is true that they think their language is so “unique” that no one can learn it properly; either way, when Japanese people talk about kanji it is always in the same way: “Kanji is hard!”

Even teachers in my language school were known to go easier on western students about their lack of kanji skills.

My point is, this attitude seems to be a great excuse for westerners who are learning Japanese. I hear it all the time, “Even Japanese people say it’s hard; how am I supposed to learn it?!” Excuses, excuses. Can you see my disappointed “mom-face” shaking my head at you? Try to picture it now.

Changing your attitude will change the way you learn. Think about it this way instead: You are functionally illiterate until you can recognize the majority of the Jouyou Kanji. This sounds like something you want to work on, right?

Now that I am done being disappointed in you, I guess I will try to help you with the mountain that is the Jouyou Kanji List. Remember, I never said it was easy, just not as difficult as most people make it out to be.

There is some really good news for you all, and that good news is radicals. Radicals are the small parts of the kanji that make up the whole. If you have not studied radicals yet, you are about to get a headful of knowledge! Radicals are totally radical! (Forgive me for that one...)

Taken from the kanji radical Wikipedia page, I want to go over the first 18, most common radicals. Together they appear in 50% of the Jouyou Kanji. So learning just 18 little symbols can give you clues to about 1000 kanji?! Sign me up! (Of course, sometimes you will see a radical and it will have no relation to the kanji whatsoever. This does happen, but most of the time it will give you some kind of hint as to what the kanji is about.)

The six radicals that occur the most frequently and make up 25% of the 2136 Jouyou Kanji:

*Note: Bear in mind that kanji usually have many pronunciations. I am not going to list all of them for each kanji I write, so please bear in mind that the readings I wrote down are only the most common ones, or the ones that appear in the meaning I listed.

(くち) mouth
This radical is a kanji that on its own meaning mouth, but also appears in otherkanji like: 名() meaning “name,” 吐く(はく)meaning “to spit, to vomit,” and 右(みぎ)meaning “right,” because most people eat with their right hand.

水/氵 (みず) water
The radical氵looks much different than the kanji 水 that it represents, but both mean water. It appears in kanji like: 汗(あせ) meaning “sweat,” 池(いけ)meaning “pond,” and 波(なみ) meaning “wave.”

(き) tree
The tree radical appears in the kanji names for all types of trees as well as: 林(はやし) meaning “woods,” 森(もり)meaning “forest,” and 桜(さくら) “cherry tree.”

人/亻 (ひと) person
Sometime the亻radical isn’t very helpful, as humans are involved with so many things in the world, but it can sometimes give you clues to certain kanji like: 体(からだ)meaning “body,” 住(じゅう)meaning “residence,” or one of my favorites, 休み(やすみ)which means “to rest, to take a break.” If you look closely, that lastkanji is a person and a tree, so I always think of a person leaning on a tree, and that means relaxation. Isn’t kanji awesome?!

手/扌 (て) hand
This radical appears in kanji like: 打つ(うつ)meaning “to hit,” 投げる(なげる)meaning “to throw,” and 技()meaning “skills.”

心/忄/⺗ (こころ) heart
This kanji is always described as "heart" but it means more like "feelings" and "soul" rather than your actual heart. It appears in kanji like: 息(いき)meaning “breath,” 悪い(わるい) meaning “bad,” 怖い(こわい)meaning “scared,” and of course, 愛(あい)meaning “love.” (Look closely at that last one, it's small!)

These next twelve radicals that together with the above six make up 50% of Jouyou kanji:

(こと) word
This radical appears in kanji like: 語()meaning “language,” 話(はなし)meaning “story/speak,” and 読む(よむ)meaning “to read.”

(ひ/にち) sun/day
You will find this radical in 早い(はやい)meaning “early,” 昨(さく)meaning “yesterday,” 星(ほし) meaning “star,” and 暑い(あつい)meaning “hot.”

(いと) silk/幺 thread radical
They show thread and silk as two separate radicals on the Wikipedia page, but they usually go together. They appear in kanji like: 紙(かみ)meaning “paper,” 終わり(おわり)meaning “end,” and 結ぶ(むすぶ)meaning “to tie.”

(にく) meat, organ / 月 (つき) moon
This can get a bit confusing because when the 肉 radical is written, it is written as 月. This is because 肉 was written very quickly and eventually appeared as 月. Therefore, most kanji with the 月 radical are now related to organs, meat, or flesh. For example: 肌(はだ)means “skin,” 背()means “back,” 肝(きも)means “liver,” and 脳(のう) means “brain.”

(つち) ground
This radical appears in kanji like: 地()meaning “the earth,” 坂(さか)meaning “hill, slope,” 場()meaning “place,” and 塩(しお) meaning “salt.”

辶 go/road radical
This radical appears in kanji like: 近い(ちかい) meaning “near,” 送る(おくる)meaning “send,” 追う(おう)meaning “chase,” 進む(すすむ)meaning “to advance,” and 迷う(まよう)meaning “to be lost.”

艹 grass/plant radical
This radical is used in kanji like: 花(はな)meaning “flower,” 草(くさ) meaning “grass,” and 薬(くすり) meaning “medicine.”

宀 roof/crown radical
You can find this radical in kanji like: 家(いえ、うち)meaning “house,” 守る(まもる) meaning “protection,” and 宝(たから) meaning “treasure.”

(かい) shell
This radical is a bit tricky. By itself the kanji means “shell” or “shellfish.” But when used as a radical, it refers to “money” or “value.” This is because in ancient China shells were supposed to represent value. So this radical appears in kanji like: 買う(かう)meaning “to buy,” 費() meaning “cost,” 賃(ちん)meaning “wages,” and 貸す(かす)meaning “to lend.”

(おんな) woman
The meaning is pretty straight forward, and although it can appear in kanji that have nothing to do with women, it also appears in kanji like: 妹(いもうと)meaning “younger sister,” 好き(すき) meaning “like or love,” 妻(つま) meaning “wife,” and 妊(にん)meaning “pregnancy.”

阝 wall (left) / village (right) radical
This radical had 2 meanings, depending on where it is placed in the kanji. When it is on the left, it means “wall,” such as: 隠す(かくす)meaning “to hide," and 隅(すみ)meaning “corner.” When it appears on the right side, it means “village,” such as: 都(みやこ) meaning “capital,” and 郡(ぐん) meaning “district.”

(きん) gold/metal
The last one is pretty straight forward, appearing in kanji like: 針(はり)meaning “needle,” 鉄(てつ) meaning “iron,” and 銃(じゅう) meaning “gun.”

I hope this was a good start for you when it comes to kanji radicals. It would be super if I could share with you all my love of kanji. I mean, you are starting to see how cool kanji are, right?! If you like learning about radicals, go to the Wikipedia page and brush up on the next 30, which appear in 75% of all the Jouyou Kanji. Once you have them down I think you will be surprised at how much you can decipher when learning new kanji.

This lesson was written by Cassy L., a guest contributor:

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