Radical interpretations

Before starting Japanese, I happened to have a couple years of Chinese under my belt, and with that background, I was a little interested to know the logic behind some of the ways that radicals are interpreted in WaniKani.

For example, in my Chinese classes I was taught, just for example, that:

  • the tsunami radical (as in 泳) is to be interpreted as just a “radical variation” of 水 itself, and not actually a distinct radical/character
  • the fingers radical (as in 持) is similarly just an altered form of 手 for hand, and not to be seen as a distinct radical separate from hand in any way.
  • Again, the grass (or flowers in japanese/WaniKani? Why the difference?) radical (on top of 草) is just an altered 艸, not to be seen as distinct entities.
  • when the 月 radical shows up on the left side of a character in particular (as in 腹), it is typically representative of meat/flesh, and not moon.

I was curious if this comes down to a difference in writing philosophy for Japanese/Chinese or if this is just for mnemonic purposes in WaniKani? I ask only because I’m irrationally scared that if I internalize certain radical meanings like tsunami or fingers, then a native might say “what are you talking about with these fake radical meanings? Do you mean water and hand?” if I brought them up when talking to them.

Am I just being too silly/irrational?


It’s purely mnemonic purposes in WaniKani.

WaniKani rarely analyses exactly how radicals influence the meanings of kanji, and certainly doesn’t differentiate between different etymologies. For example, the radical 礻 is a variant of 示, while 衤 is a variant of 衣, but WaniKani treats them as both the same radical.


The names of radicals on WaniKani are purely for mnemonic purposes, so the radical names you see will be unique to WaniKani.

For most of the differences you mentioned, WaniKani generally goes by looks over etymology. For example, even though the left part of 持 may simply be an altered form of 手, it looks visually different enough that they decided a separate radical for this altered form was useful. The opposite holds for 月, which looks like the moon kanji even though in a lot of cases it’s actually a simplification of 肉.

Radicals on wanikani can best be thought of as kanji sub-components which help break them down into easily recognizable parts for mnemonic purposes.


I think it’s in general good to know the dictionary-derived compositions of kanji, because that way you can find the kanji more easily if you don’t yet know the reading. However, it’s usually not a big deal as long as you know your kanji :slight_smile:

For me it made more sense to stick to the actual, rather than the WaniKani-based composition, in cases like:


I see! I may run through all the radicals again at some point to make sure I also know the true meanings in addition to the mnemonic ones. Some things (like the meat/moon distinction) may just take time to learn as I progress over the years, as in all academic pursuits. Thanks for the replies, the helpfulness and positivity of the WaniKani community in particular is always so refreshing!