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Kanji: Radicals

Learn how to recognise the structure of kanji and become familiar with the concept of identifying and looking up a kanji compound by looking at its radical.

Please see the Handout for students for the tasks introduced below.

Handout (Word 133KB)

Forms of Kanji

Kanji can be divided into four main groups according to how they are formed: しょうけい(pictographs), (sign characters), かい(kanji with combinations of meanings), and けいせい(kanji with combinations of meaning and sound). けいせい are kanji made up of two or more components, one representing sound and another representing meaning, and they make up the majority of kanji in daily use. The components which give the meaning are calledしゅ), radicals. Although けいせいmay look complicated, once they are divided into radicals and other components, they become simple. Radicals are classified into seven types, based on where they appear.

Note: The radical 月 originates from two different kanji.
eg. 脳 (brain) 肺 (lung) 胴 (torso) eg. 朝 (morning) 期 (term) 明るい (bright)
The left-side came from 肉, called にくづき. The right-side came from 月 (moon).

As mentioned above, radicals are classified into seven types. Some radicals have more than one position. For instance, the radical 貝 sometimes appears on the left 「販」(へん) and sometimes below 「買」(あし). The radical gives meaning to the character by hinting at the general nature of the item, so characters with the same radical share a common feature.

Task 1:

Find the common feature in the following groups of kanji and fill in the ‘radical’ and ‘English’ sections. (This task is useful not only for kanji learning but also for developing literacy and understanding of language as a system.)

Task 2:

Classify the following kanji according to their radicals

Kanji Readings

There are 2 kinds of kanji readings in Japanese:
おんみare readings that are based on historical Chinese pronunciations, and are generally used in compound words of two or more kanji. Many kanji with a common radical have identical or similar おん
くんみare native Japanese readings of kanji. These readings bear no relation to the origins of the kanji, but have been ‘assigned’ to their kanji based on meaning. Note: The majority of kanji compounds useおんみ , but there are some くんみcompounds such as かいもの(and くんみ!).


Students are given a list of kanji or a set of kanji cards and create as many compound words as possible, reading them out loud or listing the readings. Alternatively, a list of readings can be given in hiragana and students search for the appropriate kanji.

Using a Kanji Dictionary

Text such as these headlines from にちごうプレス, the Australian Japanese-language newspaper, enable you to see kanji used in an authentic context, but how do you find the meaning of kanji you cannot read? A かんえいてん(Kanji-English dictionary) enables you to do this. Here we give some information and suggestions for using a kanji dictionary.
When you look at the headlines above, you may be able to guess the meaning of some of the words from contextual clues such as katakana and numbers, but in order to find the meaning AND the reading of a kanji you need a かんえいてん. The most common way to search for a kanji is according to the 部首(ぶしゅ) (radical). Once you have decided on the しゅ, go to the しゅさくいん(radical index), usually found on the inside covers of the dictionary. The radicals are displayed according to number of strokes (かくすう). For example, in the case of 「」, you look for the radical 「 」, and search according to the number of strokes on the right side, in this case 7 かく. If the しゅis not immediately obvious, try a number of possibilities from the components of the kanji.

To develop the ability to accurately count the number of strokes in a kanji, students may do tasks such as the following:


Rank the kanji in order of number of strokes

Once students are able to accurately count strokes, they can be given tasks using dictionaries. The following task can be done using the headlines above.


Find the meanings of:

Additional Resources

Kanji Introduction

Teacher’s Notes: Kanji Introduction (PDF 94KB)

Origin of the characters for Kanji, Kanji word-building

Teacher’s Notes: Origin of the Characters for Kanji Kanji Word Building (PDF 75KB)

Country names in Kanji

Teacher’s Notes: Country Names in Kanji (PDF 79KB)

Kanji examination

Teacher’s Notes: Kanji Examination (PDF 57KB)

Resource created by Kaori Sasaki (March 2005).

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