Creating better mnemonics for radicals

At least there is a script for adding synonyms during lessons:


This is great. I didn’t even know this existed. Thank you!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I am arguing that mnemonics can be made equally interesting and memorable without compromising anything. In other words, nothing would be lost, even for students who don’t make it to level 60, or 30, or 5 for that matter.

As for gains, a higher awareness of semantic indicators deepens one’s understanding of certain characters and at higher levels of learning creates additional links in the mind among related concepts. Subjectively speaking, this has been enormously helpful for me in ALL my learning (not just language). Less subjectively speaking, cognitive neuroscience has shown that processes which stimulate multiple neural connections in the brain are highly effective for promoting memory.

If you know that 土偏 is the earth radical, for example, then as soon as you learn the word for “earth” you will immediately understand a Japanese speaker describing a character using that radical. You will also understand the kanji upon which the radical is based, and consequently its significance to all compound vocabulary words which use it. That is four pieces of intimately connected information, and study of each one strengthens your ability to remember and understand the other three.

Also, and I recognize my experience is that of only one person, there have been hundreds of times that I have been able to understand someone’s description of a character because of knowing what radicals are actually called. So it is pragmatically useful as well as pedagogically. In my case it is both: Because I am a highly visual learner, I cannot even remember a person’s name (or a new English word) if I don’t know how to spell it, so that I can picture it in my head. Similarly, I often cannot remember a new piece of Japanese vocabulary if I do not know which kanji comprise it. I have often found myself in situations where pulling out a pen and paper is not practical but verbal descriptions are.

Not to state the obvious, I guess, but WK teaches you that 土 is earth. They just don’t use that word for the radical in mnemonics.

Anyone who uses WK is going to learn the real meaning of the character. I doubt anyone would try to describe something like 地 as having a grave in Japanese.

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Yeah. That’s great and all but it really ought to have been a part of the main site.

Whatever. Not like it’s going to stop me from using WK. I don’t even really use synonyms. It’s just such an obvious thing.

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There was a thread not long ago where Koichi actively discussed radicals and mnemonics with the community. I can’t remember the name of it, though. I believe it was under the feedback category though.

Edit: Found it.

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And why not use it? It would be easy to do.

An additional weakness with the current setup, which I did not describe in my original post but perhaps should have, is that it requires you to keep track of which radicals use their real name and which radicals do not.

This can be extremely frustrating to a new user who is not also a brand-new learner and gets marked wrong for typing “earth” for the radical entry but not the kanji entry, and actually made me stop using Wanikani for a long time! The only reason I am here now is that Wanikani e-mailed me about their sale, and I responded with feedback that I found using Wanikani to be very frustrating but would have otherwise bought the lifetime membership. The Wanikani rep who e-mailed me back informed me of the Add Synonym function (which, it bears repeating, I did not know about because it is not available during the learning stage).

Keeping track of which radicals use their actual name and which ones use a contrived name is utterly useless outside of Wanikani and, more importantly, should not be necessary.

Part of the long-coming radical update (which is not at the scale you’re describing) includes adding all the kanji meanings to radicals as invisible synonyms. That problem will not exist when it’s implemented.

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That’s great news! In my case, its implementation might make the difference between me buying a membership or not, and recommending the site to others or not.

Not as good as my suggestion, but definitely a step in the right direction.

Fun story: All radicals were made up by some guy writing a dictionary.


Sadly, boob graves were not invented yet at that time.


It is a shame. They’re doing a new Bill and Ted, I hope they go back in time to put that one in the Shuowen Jiezi.

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I just want to address this in particular.

While of course WK is not a perfect product and is actually constantly improving in the direction the team thinks is best (while listening to feedback of the users, but not forgetting their own vision), it is also not something which was hacked together in two weeks with a lot of coffee and pizza while wearing pyjamas and living in Hawaii.

There was a significant amount of thought put into the radicals, their mnemonics and how they all fit together on each and every level and benefit one another.
You can certainly be sure, that using the “real” radical names/meaning was under consideration.
Yet still, it was decided to not use them.
Why is that?

I believe mostly, because your quoted statement is not valid. Apparently the mnemonics could not be made equally interesting and memorable or did not fit well together on every level (with what the team had envisioned).
That does not mean it was always the best decision, but you can be assured, that there was a hell of a thought process behind it.

So I find stating something like this, like it never ever occurred to the team, that they could use the “real” meanings, blatantly ignorant and insulting.

I fully believe, that of course everyone can provide feedback, but getting feedback on such a fundamental core concept from someone who just started out is maybe not that much useful, as apparently there are a lot of users who have done the WK way and are not facing this kinda problems you mentioned in your other replies.


I’m sorry you think my feedback is blatantly ignorant and insulting, but I disagree that a new user’s feedback, especially that regarding useability, is in any way less valid than that of an experienced user.

I do however agree that there are many WK users who have not faced my problem, for reasons which should be obvious enough: If you do not already know the real name for a radical, then you have nothing to be annoyed with, and of course you will not be frustrated when the website marks you wrong for using it, because you never would anyhow.

And I never made any statements denigrating the efforts of the developers, let alone suggested that it was hurriedly hacked together in the manner you described. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

Regarding whether it would truly be unrealistic to create mnemonics for the real radical names, well, I haven’t looked at every single entry on the wanikani website, but I have, from the first day I used it, seen some almost unbelievably complicated mnemonics. It is upon that that I base my skepticism toward statements such as “It’s this way because it has to be.”

You haven’t actually answered “tsuchi” or something for the 土 radical right. “Earth” isn’t the “real” name for it either.

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I’ve only heard it referred to as 土偏 (つちへん). What is the correct name?

You would have to work on your wording in that case.

The problem is WaniKani was developed with new users in mind. We often get new people come in who have been studying for years complaining about not being able to skip ahead, complaints about already knowing some radical names, etc. I can sympathize with being frustrated with getting a review wrong because you answered with a name you’ve already learned that didn’t match the WaniKani naming. However, this is what the synonym system is for.

The thing about the radicals is it’s expanded way beyond the scope of dictionary radicals. So there are many of them that don’t have official names because they don’t exist outside of WaniKani and similar sites. And they, along with the ones that do exist as official radicals, have been given names that the content team felt best suited the mnemonics. Ultimately it’s much more important for the mnemonics to have building blocks that make them memorable than it is to support the few people that actually care about the official radical names for the few radicals on the site that match the official list.

I just mean that the English word “earth” is not the “real” name of the radical. And it’s only going to have “hen” when it’s on the left side, which it often is, but doesn’t have to be. For instance in 圧 it’s just つち, because へん means “radical on the left hand side”

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I’m not grasping your distinction, Leebo. つち means “earth.” Whether it is in the “hen” position or not doesn’t change that fact, so… What exactly are you saying?