Radicals, Useful or Useless?

I’m referring to this one List of kanji radicals by stroke count - Wikipedia

… i mean, Wikipedia being internally inconsistent and / or wrong is definitely not unheard of…

I know it as しんにょう, here is called that way.
I understand what you say, I just didn’t think enough about it, still don’t agree learning something that is just wrong, as the real name indicates how it is written in the Kanji.
Can’t be helped, it is necessary to level up anyway.

I understand alo’s point and agree with it. If you think I’m starting a crusade, maybe re-read the bit you’re quoting.

Oh, didn’t realise you were joking. You tend to come across a bit strong.

… Like this post, for example.


I didn’t see this being mentioned anywhere but I feel like people have missed the point on the usefulness of radicals. They can be extremely useful for remembering or even guessing the onyomi pronunciation since they’re borrowed from Chinese, which also generally has similar pronunciations for similarly written words. For example:

荘、装、壮 (sou)
姓、性、牲、生 (sei)
製、制 (sei)
政、征、整、正 (sei)
精、清、静、青 (sei)
漂、標、票 (hyou)
被、披、彼、皮 (hi)
版、販、板、飯、反 (han)

And this is just off the top of my head. There are a lot more that follow the same pattern. All of these onyomi pronunciations basically come for free once you memorize the major contributing radical (I’ve listed them at the end in all my examples). Yes, there are some that break this rule but it is still a useful shortcut for those times where you just need to guess. Don’t be lazy, learn your radicals!


Aye, that’s the purpose of the Semantic-Phonetic Composition script. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I picked up on all of these patterns and more (such as 召 しょう ) just from using WaniKani. I haven’t had to learn radicals from other sources.

Exactly, radicals are a shortcut. Once your reading gets faster than 5 characters a minute, you don’t even see or parse every stroke. You end up looking for radicals. It’s kind of like how in English you can scramble the middle of a word, but as long as the fsirt and lsat lterets are the smae you can slitl firuge out the mneinag of the secentne. Imo this is not even a debate. Not learning radicals will seriously handicap learners once they go from intermediate to advanced.

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No doubt recognizing radicals is important, but I don’t think which names you give them or the size of the radical set matters that much.

I agree for some of the more complex radicals, but a lot of the simple ones actually tell you something about the word. I wrote an old post that I’ll copy and paste here:

The one big example I can think of that annoyed me quite a bit at the time is the “fish stick” radical. In China/Japan, it’s actually taught as the “heart” radical because almost every character it’s associated with has something to do with emotions (情・快・懶・懐). That way when you see it you’ll know it has something to do with feelings.

As long as the radicals are named properly, it can help with comprehension and reinforcement of word meanings.

I’ve looked for unknown kanji using radicals I have learned on Wanikani, so for me, pretty damn useful.

I believe it’s taught as the heart radical because it’s a simplified form of 心. WaniKani has changed the radical name since you started, I know it as the soul radical. WaniKani likes to give different names to different variations of radicals which I think is a good idea.

But the name doesn’t really matter once you’re reading fast enough because you don’t stop to think of the name of the radical, your mind just uses the radical’s shape to make a guess as which kanji is being used.

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Sure, but you don’t get there overnight. Memory is all about reinforcing different pathways. If you can recall the same thing in 5 different ways, you’re developing long term memory faster than someone just brute-forcing one memorization tactic over and over again. This is why learners are encouraged to dive into real-world materials as soon as possible, because seeing a word in context develops yet another pathway. Almost none of the mnemonics or tricks you used while learning will matter once you become fluent. The question is what’s the fastest way to get there?

I’d say that a memorable mnemonic is a fast way to get there.

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I’d say this is the main reason radicals are useful. There are just too many kanji that really only differ with a single radical. So unless you recognize them, you’ll run into trouble knowing which kanji is which.

Saying that you can somehow just “know” the kanji just upon seeing it, sounds like a farfetched fantasy. There are over 50 000+ kanji out there.

Good luck with that I say! >_>

(some people have perfect visual memory, but even then, surely knowing radicals will help A LOT :sweat_smile: )

45000+ of which are irrelevant to everyday life.

If experienced readers really needed to look at each individual radical in each individual kanji, rather than just apply basic pattern recognition and intuitively resolve ambiguity through context, kanji would be completely dysfunctional as a script. Will they need to carefully look at a kanji they are not overly familiar with from time to time? Sure. Will they need to do that for most of the kanji in any given text? Honestly, I doubt it.

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You are confusing things here. To begin with knowing radicals is how you understand also kanji that you don’t recognize. So saying they are not common, is irrelevant to the discussion. The fact is, Japanese has a ton of kanji. And just recognizing them by sight, is just fantasy. You’ll use the radicals to make assumptions about meaning.

The second part is that you will recognize a lot of kanji just on sight. But that only happens for really simple kanji, or AFTER you’ve been using the radicals as a support for your memory. And as soon as you end up being uncertain about a kanji, you’ll have to fall back on reading and understanding the radials for comprehension.

So, you’ll be needing radicals even after burning some kanji, as they simply are very visually similar to several other kanji. Radicals is just how you differentiate them.

I’m interested actually, what is the correlation between wanikani levels and radical preference?
You might not need them for the less complex kanji at the start, but when the kanji gets more and more complicated and similar, they are a blessing sent from heaven.


I do not disagree with most of this: radicals are useful to memorize kanji and to distinguish them while you are not yet fluid, and to approach kanji you do not know.

However, I uphold that a fluent reader will be able to distinguish most of the kanji in any given text - not just the simple ones - without actively needing to analyze the radicals and digging through their memory. The key here is that having “burnt” a kanji is not the same level of familiarity a fluent reader will have.

And yes, there are 45k+ kanji that most Japanese people have never even seen. They will occasionally see one of them and then they need their radicals. That is true. However, in any real text, these kanji are bound to be really, really rare.

And if a reader really needs to actively look at individual radicals within more than, say, 5% of the kanji in any given text, I cannot imagine they’d reach any kind of reasonable reading speed.

When you are talking about people who are still in the process of memorizing fairly common kanji, you are talking about people who are by definition not fluent.

So I agree that it is impossible for a learner to just distinguish kanji at a glance, and that it is impossible for anybody to know all kanji, but I disagree that a fluent reader needs to rely on knowing and analying radicals when reading an average text. That doesn’t make sense.

For reference, here is a study according to which fluent readers can achieve reading speeds of ~120 words / minute in mixed kanji / kana script: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/82696105.pdf

Such a speed would not be attainable for anybody who needs to pay close attention to individual radicals within any given kanji, similar to how you couldn’t reach comparable speeds in reading Latin script if you were actually reading individual letters (i. e. the experience of anybody reading a language they don’t actually speak).

I’d still say that you’re slightly missing my point. You’re hedging your comment and that’s because you cannot completely do without the radicals. Be it rare or not.

I think about it like this. There are people with absolute pitch. This is an ability you possibly can learn if born with the right genes. But that being said, unless you receive musical training and theoretical concepts for how to discern sound - you’ll never acquire absolute pitch. It’s not magic or something you are born with. It’s a learned ability in how to perceive, interpret and distinguish sound.

And that is what radicals are. They are the theoretical concepts that help us parse complex visual information in kanji. To say that you are not relying on them, even when you recognize a kanji on sight, is just not true. You are in fact using the radicals as part how to perceive, interpret and distinguish the kanji.

Whether you’re conscious about this process or not is irrelevant. It’s still part of the visual information you’re using for recognition.

So, being fluid is really only about being conscious or not about this process of recognition. That doesn’t change that you are using radicals as part of the theoretical framework for visual recognition.