Traditional radicals as a way to help learn kanji

Has anyone here studied the traditional 214 radicals that Japanese dictionaries use to organize the kanji?

I have a couple of Japanese dictionaries that list the 214 and while there is a lot of overlap with the WK radicals, it is definitely it’s own system.

WK seems to have gone with the approach of “more is better”, in terms of having over 500 radicals to help you visualize and memorize the kanji. It’s similar to the Heisig approach of having a ton of memorable images to juggle and mix together.

The native Japanese radical system is stricter, in that there are only 214 radicals, and each kanji is assigned a radical that is used to look that kanji up in the dictionary. I know my Japanese professor was very strict about telling us which part of each kanji we learned was “the” radical - in other words, there’s a component in each kanji that has priority of place over the other components.

It’s a subtle difference, but I have found that it sometimes helps me learn new kanji in the level-30s, where I’m currently at, if I can find the component of the kanji that is the “official” radical. I think that Japanese people probably mentally organize kanji in groups based on the core radical, since that’s how they are arranged in the dictionary.

It’s basically just another way of organizing the vast ocean of kanji, and every little trick helps. I was curious if anyone else has investigated this and whether they found it helpful!


I think it depends what you’re doing. The traditional radical system was useful for looking a character up in paper dictionaries, but who does that these days? Conversely, if you’re trying to memorize kanji by mnemonics, you need a system that defines labels for every part of every character, not just a subset, and you probably want to separate out some cases where a traditional radical has two common written forms, and perhaps also cases where traditional radicals have confusingly similar meanings. Most of the western mnemonic-based systems pay at least some attention to the common traditional radicals, because they’re often linked to meaning.

Overall, unless you’re going the traditional “just brute force rote memorize everything” route, you probably want a western-style mnemonic system; and if you use one of those you probably don’t want to mix-and-match between systems or with the trad radical names if you can avoid it, because the overlaps and differing names will just get confusing.

Edit: that said, if checking the trad radical when you learn a new kanji is helping you, go for it!

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All good points. I do think it probably confuses things a bit to study more than one set of radicals, and you are also right that looking things up in a paper dictionary is a thing of the past.

I think it’s partly a matter of my own study methods that has led me to look at the 214 radicals as a resource. I am definitely not the most efficient studier - my approach seems to depend on a certain amount of overlap and reinforcing things by drawing on different resources.

I think most of the meanings of the traditional radicals more or less match up with the meanings of the same radicals in WK, so it may not really be a big issue in the end.

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Long live WaniKani!
When I originally started Japanese, I studied original radicals, but it was so hard with so many variations of same radical, then I would often be miscounting number of strokes, and okay I am glad I did it, but then I discovered Heidi’s, which was a huge help.
After giving up on Japanese for maybe 15 years or more, when I came back WaniKani existed, which by breaking down the whole kanji into many radicals as needed makes learning easier. Geoduck, blackjack, wolverine kicks etc are my heroes.
I still have a couple of huge print dictionaries, that have obscure kanji, and I still know how to search without much problem, but it isn’t necessary today.


Heisig not Heidi:)


While I haven’t delved into the original radicals, I think WK’s method works for WaniKani. We’re already learning the kanji in a different way than the Japanese school kids, and if your method gets you to remember the kanji, that’s all that really matters in the end

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Not studied, but:

Well, precisely. WaniKani’s raidcals are mnemonic components, intended to teach you how to recognise the entire kanji, not simply the one component you need in order to look it up in the dictionary.

It’s kinda not, though. It’s imported from Chinese. Some of those radicals don’t even exist in modern Japanese kanji.

One wonders exactly what Heidi’s method would be. Having adventures in the Swiss Alps until you learn all the kanji?


So, a couple things. 1st WK actually does a fairly good job with using the same basic radicals that traditional Japanese does, though it changes the name a bit. For example, tsunami is easier to remember than three water for kanji like 海 and so on. 2nd, WK will combine radicals in complex kanji that are commonly paired together to make it easier to remember. Finally, sometimes the radicals highlighted in Japanese material is just a method to sort them, like others have said.

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Lol, that was a ps to my post where ipad thought Heidi was more interesting than Heisig!


Thanks for the link! This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to find out more about. All the points you make are well taken - thanks again.


That is amazing link, thank you!


There is one official radical for every kanji, but it doesn’t help you memorise the meaning or reading at all. For example, 阻 means “thwart” but the official radical is 阝 (mound/dam) instead of the “top hat” radical that would help you memorise the reading ソ. That’s why memorising the official radical is not very useful for beginners.



I am actually adding synonyms to the radicals wherever possible. It’s one of the things I would like WaniKani to have, alternative meanings with traditional names. It’s of etymological interest too, and etymological knowledge helps to remember. But I am having trouble deciding what name to add, since different sources give different names.

If my experience as a Chinese speaker is in any way similar to theirs (I mean, hanzi and kanji are the same thing, even if there are different variants for many of them, and the 214 radicals are from the Kangxi Dictionary if I remember correctly, and that’s Chinese), I don’t think that’s quite it. The ‘core’ radical (typically listed as the 部首 in kanji dictionaries) is often useful, but it’s not always helpful for mental organisation, especially when it’s something obscure. For example, let’s consider this kanji:

Apparently the on’yomi is かい. In Japan, this is on the Kanken 1, but in Chinese, it’s actually a pretty well-known character because it’s part of the word for beggar (乞丐 qǐgài), and beggars fairly commonly feature in stories from Ancient China. (I’m not being insensitive here: it’s a fact, and in some Chinese legends, there are clans of powerful beggar martial artists, so they aren’t necessarily presented in a negative light.) The point is this though: the radical for this character is…「一」. I’m completely serious. How’s that going to help you learn this? That’s up to you to work out. That or you make use of similarities to other kanji to help you (which is what I would recommend).

In essence, the designated classifying radicals are often helpful in my experience because they give you an idea of the general ‘theme’ of the kanji i.e. what its meaning is probably linked to. However, not all of them are helpful, and honestly, those that I find really useful are typically the ones that have clear meanings, like 火, 氵, 土, 扌 and so on. I do use those to help me, though I certainly don’t have a mental dictionary organised around them – if you were to ask me to name everything I know that contains 火 as a classifying radical… I would probably be able to give you a few kanji, but that’s not usually how I think about these things. I don’t have such mental lists. To me, the point of these things is to help me understand what kanji mean and remember what they look like. Teaching radicals is important, and good on your professor for doing so. However, in my experience, not all of them are useful, and not all of them are known by native speakers (e.g. I can guarantee you that most Chinese and Japanese speakers who haven’t used a 部首 table to look kanji up would be surprised to know「一」is a classifying radical, because very few common characters besides 一 itself seem to use it as a standalone component).

If I may, I’d suggest you just pick a name that’s representative of the meaning of the radical in your opinion. It’s fairly likely that the reason multiple names exist is just a translation issue. (Granted, Japanese and Chinese often give slightly different names to radicals, and within Chinese, at the very least, there are often slight variations, but the main parts of those names generally stay the same.)


Very interesting and helpful to hear the perspective of someone who speaks Chinese! This discussion thread has been a big help in general, hearing everyone’s take on the subject.

You make a good point with the radical for 丐 - sometimes the official radical exists to help you look the kanji up, and has no further use.

It seems like the bottom line is that there is no silver bullet - sometimes a traditional radical can help, sometimes the phonetic radical can help (if there is one), sometimes you take the WK/Heisig approach and assign all the components their own role in a story, etc.

The kanji/hanzi are so ancient that I suppose it’s wishful thinking to hope there is some kind of completely ordered system behind it all. I think the learning sequence of “meaning first” - the approach Heisig took in his Volume One - has worked for me. I started out with “Remembering the Kanji” and got used to the idea of each kanji being a field of meaning before I started learning any readings.

I put this post up because I am getting stalled out midway through WK and I feel like having a rock-solid grasp of the radicals is a prerequisite for continuing. Going to make some flash cards of the entire WK radicals list, since there are still many that I don’t have instant recognition of.

Thanks again for all the feedback!

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When I first read your post, I was going to ask you about this author Heidi, who I haven’t run into in 4 years of buying kanji books!


I don’t know if ‘meaning first’ is necessary, but yes, I tend to find that meanings of kanji are in some sense more important/fundamental than their readings, especially when you consider the fact that kanji have been used across several languages (e.g. Chinese languages, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) over the course of history with substantial success (albeit literacy rates weren’t always great). People aren’t going to say kanji the same way everywhere, but they usually represent(ed) similar ideas wherever they’re used.

I wish you all the best with radicals! I know that I personally tend to pick up new kanji by breaking them down into parts that I can remember fairly easily, even if they aren’t official radicals, and then learn what sequence they appear in (thanks to stroke order). Having some way to remember them part by part, as opposed to all at one go, is definitely helpful, at any rate.

Out of topic derailment about Heidi

Maybe this Japanese guy might have some idea :stuck_out_tongue:

Takeo Ischi - Einen Jodler hör ich gern (Musikvideo) - YouTube


Elusive and hard to find:)

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I just downloaded Shinjigen as I enjoy kanji for kanji. It turns out radicals the easiest way of looking them up.

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