Is memorizing radicals actually useful?

I’m not sure memorizing them really helps with anything. First off, you’re memorizing a useless name for a shape that may appear in some kanji and doesn’t always mean the actual kanji. Sometimes I feel it does more harm than good by confusing definitions. However, I do think it boosts your memorization skills. What are your thoughts?

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I used the WK menmonics, so the radicals were obviously indispensable for me.

If I couldn’t recognise a kanji in and of itself, I would just name the radical parts that make up the kanji. Often, naming all these elements would trigger the memory of the mnemonic, and by extension remind me of the reading or meaning of the kanji.

I know not everyone uses the mnemonics the same way (or at all), but for me it’s the one reason why WK works for me while trying to cram kanji based on their appearance alone is useless to me.

Mileage will vary from person to person, as with every learning tool. :slight_smile:


Depends on the names and meanings associated with the radical. I don’t know how WaniKani teaches them, because I haven’t used the programme, and I don’t intend to. I can tell you, however, that knowing what radicals mean, regardless of whether or not they can function as individual kanji, helped me on many occasions to guess the basic meaning of a kanji in Mandarin, along with (an approximation of) its pronunciation. In Japanese, these skills still work: I can make guesses about the meaning of kanji that don’t exist in Chinese, and I can guess on’yomi by using radical/component knowledge. Knowing kanji components is extremely useful, but only if you know that they mean. As such, names like ‘poop’ for 幺, for example, may not be all that helpful, since it’s actually another thread symbol… however, since it can also mean ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’, it may be helpful to think of it as something like ‘short thread’ or ‘single thread’ (because a single thread is isolated and thus often insignificant). Ultimately though, you can use whatever works for you, as long as its memorable and the radical’s meaning is accessible to you. (PS: a lot of kanji meaning is about lateral thinking, so the basic meaning of a component may not be directly linked to a kanji’s meaning, but an associated concept might be e.g. 暇 (ひま) contains a 日, but that only works because the Sun is linked to the passage of time. Otherwise, well… free time has nothing to do with the Sun itself.)


When writing, for me it’s easy to confuse similar looking kanji, and remembering all the bits here and there is hard so I rely on the mnemonic a lot of the times to remember their exact form (at least guru items). A good example where the mnemonic recently helped me is with 疑, which I would’ve had no chance of remembering otherwise.

Now not everybody needs to handwrite kanji, but just throwing it out there.


“Radicals” in WaniKani are really kanji parts that have (often bizarre) names for the purpose of mnemonics. So they won’t always be useful in guessing the meaning of the kanji. In my opinion, the WaniKani radicals are only useful if you intend to use the mnemonics. Otherwise they aren’t that helpful.


Hm… thanks for the clarification. Well, I guess they’ll be useful for remembering the shape of kanji in any case, even if that means meanings will have to be handled separately from time to time.

I have not tried writing many kanji yet but based on how hard it was to learn how to write kana, I already know the radicals are the only way I’ll be able to write kanji without copying them. Once I have kana down, my writing practice will be the 50 most frequent radicals.

I use mnemonics with very few modifications so to me - who only knew how to read the roman alphabet and some bits of greek and cyrillic - the radicals are key to learning kanji. For the “true” radicals, I also find the sound can increasingly be guessed as I learn more so it has a use there as well.

The goal here is long term memory so once you’re done learning all the kanji, I imagine the made up radicals will vanish from your memory anyway. Except for poop of course!

With radicals, YMYOM (You make your own mileage).

Some of the traditional radicals are handy to keep in mind. Fire on the left usually means a fire related word. The Cowrie radical 貝 usually means money/trade (buy, prize, expense, savings, etc).
Water is really hit or miss. Sure most water things have it, but so do many law and culture related words for some reason. Person is simply too broad to be of use.
Still, broadly speaking, I do use looking to the components quick to refresh my memory. “Wait, that tree on the left! That was the one for lumber, not the half-dozen near identical kanji where it isn’t quite the wood radical!”
That sort of thing.


I kind of agree that they’re only useful if you use mnemonics, but I also kind of disagree :stuck_out_tongue:

I do think they help to train your brain to break kanji up into their simpler parts. Otherwise it’s a case of “remember this whole picture!” from the very beginning. That’s okay when the kanji are simple and quite distinct from each other, but they quickly become much more complex.

Even if you don’t use mnemonics, going through the process of learning constituent “radicals” probably makes it a lot easier for you to visually understand a kanji when you see it, and you probably get better at distinguishing between similar kanji much more quickly than somebody who jumps straight in with individual kanji.

I’d be interested to know if there has been any research on the different approaches.


I totally agree with you that the radicals help to be able to break down the kanji and reduce the mental load. And even the “silly” WK radicals do quite a good job, and they are usually not too much in the way when later learning the “real” radicals (speaking from my own experience here).

BUT what really annoys me is when the WK radicals get you on the wrong track altogether… The worst example so far has been the kanji 衆 (populace). WK says this is “blood” at the top and then “hair” and “tofu” at the bottom. But when writing the kanji, the stroke order of the bottom part is: First the two strokes in the middle (i.e. the left half of “tofu”), then the two strokes to the left (i.e. “hair”) and then the two strokes to the right (i.e. the right half of “tofu”). That means that for this kanji the WK radicals get ripped apart and mixed in a different order, and that is painful and plain unnecessary.

Another really annoying difference is that WK does not properly distinguish radicals that are drawn differently, e.g. the “spirit” in 社 vs. 裕 (there is one more stroke) or the “winter” in 処 vs. 故 (the horizontal stroke is separate vs. combined with the downward stroke) and lots more. WK is very much focussed on the “general shape” of the kanji but does not pay attention to those details.

I wonder how other Kanji-teaching tools (e.g. RTK) handle these nuances?


RTK separated them so the “spirit” with an extra stroke is “cloak”, the “winter” is instead “taskmaster” (separate stroke) and… uh… I forgot, I think something about legs? (combined stroke). Another one is 未 and 末. WK has “Jet” for both, RTK has “not yet” and “extremity”. The RTK meanings are far more useful IMO.

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Whoa, I never realized this before :scream:

Thanks for explaining RTK, I like that they put much more care into those fine nuances!


I don’t see a good reason why at times WK avoids Kangxi radical system which is supposedly the most common. Can someone explain that?

I think somewhere WK mentions that a lot of the radicals have names thay aren’t super useful, in appearence or name. It is easier to make a memonic involving 冂 as “head” than it is for “wide”, for example

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Wait. There’s another Hilbert. :grinning:

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I mean… the earlier you forget about them the better right? That is, if you can actually remember both the meaning and readings of the kanji in question. I’m 47 levels in right now and I must say, I don’t really pay close attention to the radicals used; like I’ll look at them and keep them in the back of my mind for when I really can’t recall, but usually they are kind of forgettable.

Radicals can also cause a bit of confusion for me personally as I’ve completed RTK in the past, which uses its own radicals.

Not all elements that can appear in kanji are kangxi radicals. So you have to “make up” things at some point anyway if you want to make mnemonics for kanji this way, so they went with just using words that fit their mnemonics, rather than sticking to kangxi radical names that can be bland or vague.

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Not sure how to explain the ‘winter’ thing in a way that’s not confusing, because the meanings aren’t easily visible from the current character shapes, but 夂 is an inverted foot and is often linked to the idea of stopping, as well as that of ‘coming/arriving from behind’.攵is a hand holding something and tapping/hitting etc.

For the other pair, 衤is a simplified 衣 (clothing), and 礻is à simplified 示 (table for offerings to the gods).


Thank you! I knew about the 示 because that’s the name of that radical (しめすへん) but I had not looked into the others yet. Always helpful (and sometimes very surprising) to understand where the small radicals come from.

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Everyone should find what works for them, but I will say that WK’s radical system has been working for me.

After knowing hiragana / katakana for years, and completing LingoDeer / similar grammar teaching apps, I had the ability to recognize a small handful of the most common kanji by reflex, but I still was totally unable to build on that to learn new ones on purpose. No matter how hard I tried to stare at it and say “ok… “friend” is the one with two characters… and the pointy thing… and the swoop…” I just got nowhere. Even if the radicals are meaningless, creating building blocks in my head has made it so that I can learn.

And, although the goal is to read fluently w/o thinking too much, now that I am far enough along in WK that the amount of things I’ve learned is sort of overwhelming, the radicals are also a back-up that lets me know I can always figure out what I’m looking at if I’ve learned it before.

I haven’t compared WK’s radicals to other systems, as I simply don’t have time to wonder if I should be taking a different approach to kanji as long as this one is working for me.