“Radical” Aspects of Kanji Characters

Donald C. Wood

        Every once in a while the issue of replacing Chinese characters (kanji) in the Japanese Language with phonetic hiragana arises.  In February of 1996 there was a small debate over this in the pages of the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.  One argument for doing away with the ideograms is that it takes too much time and effort for foreigners to learn the written language.  What would happen if foreign students in the United States called for the abolishment of ambiguous spellings and pronunciations in the English Language to make studying in English more convenient?  They would probably not even get a response.

        Studying kanji does take time, and memorizing them takes more time, but there are some keys to learning the forms, meanings, and pronunciations of kanji characters, and one of those keys is “hen.”  No, hen is not a bird, and not “strange,” either.  Hen (偏) is one classification of “bushu” (部首), known in English as “radicals.”  Understanding radicals is the key to building a strong comprehension of kanji, and once one memorizes the types of radicals, and their names and meanings, the pronunciations and definitions of kanji become more clear.  The system of classifying radicals has been around for nearly twenty centuries.  The current system, which utilizes 214 “parent” radicals was introduced in 1716.  Radicals can be classified by stroke count for easy reference, but are primarily divided into seven categories, depending on where they appear in kanji characters.

        Hen, the most numerous type of radical, appear on the left side of kanji, such as the left half of the character 村 (mura).  The figure is a variant of the character for tree, 木 (ki), and is, in fact, called “ki-hen.”  It is not surprising that nearly all Chinese ideograms that stand for types of trees contain this element.  Another common hen is “gon-ben,” the seven-stroke element on the left half of 語 (go), which is a variant of the standard 言 (gon).  Since 言 relates to speech, one can assume that any character containing it’s radical form stands a good chance of also relating to communication.  The next category of radicals is known as “tsukuri” (旁).  These appear on the right side of kanji characters, such as the right half of 親 (oya), which is called “miru,” since it comes from the kanji 見 [(mi)ru], meaning “to see.”  Another example is the three-stroke element in left half of 形 (katachi), aptly named “san-zukuri.”  “Kanmuri” (冠) means “crown,” and these, predictably, hover over kanji characters.  For example, the top section of 草 (kusa), “weeds” or “grass,” is called “kusa-kanmuri.”  Without its crown, 草 is simply 早 [(haya)i].  Both of these ideograms, however, also have the pronunciation “sou.”  Another example is the top of 京 (kyou), which is called “nabe-buta.”  Nabe (鍋) means “pot,” and “futa” means “lid,” so “nabe-buta” is the lid of a pot, which is exactly what it looks like.  “Ashi” (脚) are the legs of kanji.  For example, the two-stroke bottom section of 元 (moto) and 兄 (ani) is called “hito-ashi,” literally a person’s legs.

        These four classifications of radicals are generally the most common.  Together, the names for these types comprise the word “henboukankyaku” (偏旁冠脚)、another word for bushu, or radicals.  The other types are “tare,” those which partly surround a character on the upper-left, “nyou,” those that partly surround a character on the lower-left, and “kamae,” those which surround a character on three or more sides.  The radicals are descended from original, or parent, kanji.  Some kanji, such as 山 (yama) have given birth to more than one radical.  There is yama-hen, as on the left side of 峠 (touge), which means a mountain pass or ridge, and also yama-kanmuri, which appears in 崩 (hou), to crumble.

        There are many books made especially for English-speakers who wish to study kanji characters.  However, a very useful aid in studying the ideograms would be an actual school textbook.  There are those that contain the entire collection of kanji recommended for each grade level from the first year of elementary school through the last year of high school.  These should have lists of the radicals, and their names and origins, in them.  The books which were mainly referred to in order to write this article are The National Textbook Company’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, edited by Jack Halpern of Showa Women’s University, and the somewhat dated A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese, published by Tuttle, which contains only the 1,850 basic characters and lists of the “kana” syllables.