Relation between kanji and radical

I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I feel a few kanjis could be said to be composed by multiple different combinations of radicals.

For example, the “ten thousand” radical, 万, is composed by the leaf (can’t find the character) and sword (刀) radicals. But I feel they could also be composed by the ground (一) and power (力) radicals, or the leaf and power.

I wonder, are the radical kanji relation something different teaching methods made up? or is it there an actual relation based on meaning/etymology/etc?


Welcome to the site!

When you’re studying on WaniKani, you should assume that the compositions are just what the creators felt was easy to remember, or made for an interesting mnemonic story. They aren’t aiming for historical accuracy, if there is some historical composition.

With regard to 万, it basically had that shape as is from when it was originally created thousands of years ago. Apparently one proposed meaning for the original shape is a dancer/musician. So, it’s basically a drawing of that, and not a combination of any other shapes.

The more complex kanji get, the easier it is to see all the combined shapes. The basic ones tend to just be based on drawings of things.

If you’re curious you can look that kind of thing up, but that’s not WaniKani’s focus. They’re just giving you a tool for memorizing the shapes as an English speaker.

Also, note that this character is not actually used to mean 10,000 in traditional Chinese, I’m fairly sure. That character is 萬.

万 was merely used as a replacement for 萬, since 万 is easier to write. And that became more common to do.

So the meaning of 万 didn’t originally have anything to do with numbers. It just absorbed all the meanings 萬 had when people used it that way.

If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you can go down a rabbit hole for every single kanji.



Interesting. I wasn’t sure about how the relation between kanji and radicals worked, but it makes sense that it’s based on different teaching methods. It definitely makes it easier (at least for me) to learn the kanjis as composition of simpler radicals.

The “ten thousand” kanji was just an example, but your comment is really interesting. I don’t know why, but I find etymology fascinating.

I feel once I understand the reasoning behind why something is the way it is, I can remember it more easily. Even if it’s just almost random like swapping from 萬 to the modified dancer shape 万. When I see that, I’ll think about a dancer and remember this story, my brain just works that way ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I’m just thinking that one of those changes “because it’s easier to write” is the use of the “genius” kanji, 才, as “years old”, just because they have the same pronunciation and the original “years old” kanji, 歳 (I think, haven’t been taught it yet). If I just had to memorise that 才 is both “genius” and “years old” it would be harder for me because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I could definitely live with that as I’m Spanish and we have polysemic words. But somehow knowing that we use 才 because of its pronunciation just makes it stick for me.

Do you know of a place where I could go to find this kind of stories behind the kanjis? or do you just google until you find something?

Thanks again! :slight_smile:

One thing to note is that historically Japanese has had a common set of radicals, but they are not used the way Wanikani and other modern kanji learning methods use radicals. The historical radicals were used for dictionaries. The shapes you find them in the kanji can also vary quite a bit. Here is a good overview article:

One simple example is the WK radical leader, is really just a variation on person in the traditional systems.

You might enjoy this book:


Wiktionary also has pretty good etymologies.

Awesome. Thanks for the great references! I’ll look deeper into them :slight_smile:

WK radicals are not necessarily identical to other radicals elsewhere. Some Kanji have a radical that is associated to its pronunciation and other radical that is associated to its meaning. See the userscript [Userscript] Keisei 形声 Semantic-Phonetic Composition My favorite family (where the reading has no or few exceptions) is:

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One can also check the authors’ website (use the search function):


Thanks for sharing! (I just saw your reply :smiling_face_with_tear:)

I need to dig deeper into the semantic-phonetic composition thread you linked. Thanks!

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