Tips for Reading Kanji

One thing that advanced learners of Japanese tend to pick up is that even if you don’t know a particular kanji, you can still find information within it that can act as a guide to it’s meaning and pronunciation. One of these guides is the radical.

What Is A Radical?
In paper dictionaries, kanji are organized by their radical. The radical can be any of the following parts of a kanji:

kanji1 (2)

In short, it could be anything.

Finding The Radical
It’s tricky to find the radical at first because it could be just about any part of the kanji. My university lecturer used to tell me to look at segments of the kanji in the following order.

kanji2 (2)

If  kanji2 (3) looks like a common part of a kanji, then it is probably the radical. If not, trykanji2 (4) and so on. Once you get used to it you will start seeing the radical without having to think too hard about it.

Why Bother? I Have A Touch Pad!
These days, most electronic dictionaries have touch pads that allow you to quickly look up kanji without finding the radical. However, radicals contain important information about the meaning of kanji. If you can find the radical, then you can narrow down the meaning of the kanji you are looking at considerably.


    1. 鰯、鱈、鯨、鮪、鮎 all have the same radical, and are all either fish or sea creatures. So if you don’t like seafood and you see 鯖 on the menu, you might want to steer clear of it.


    1. 銅、鉄、鋏、銀、鉛、鈴 are all types of metal or metal objects. If you are out looking for food and you see a sign saying 鍵 there’s a pretty good chance that what they are selling isn’t going to be edible.


  1. 草、菜、茸、茶、菊、苺、花 are all small plants (or parts of them), so if you are vegetarian and see 芋 on the menu, then you are probably pretty safe to order it.

I won’t tell you what all of the different radicals mean, but if you group kanji by radical when you study, you will start to see patterns emerge. You will be surprised at how much you can understand if you look at kanji in the right way. Good luck!