All About Radicals in the Japanese Language

Japanese school girl doing kanji practice at home

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In written Japanese, a radical (bushu) is a common sub-element found in different kanji characters. Kanji are the equivalent of letters in Arabic-based languages like English. 

Japanese is written in a combination of three scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji originated from Chinese characters, and the Japanese equivalents are based on ancient spoken Japanese. Hiragana and katakana developed from kanji to express Japanese syllables phonetically. 

Most kanji are not used in everyday conversational Japanese, although it's estimated that more than 50,000 kanji exist. The Japanese Ministry of Education designated 2,136 characters as Joyo Kanji. They are the characters frequently used. Although it would be very helpful to learn all of Joyo Kanji, the basic 1,000 characters are sufficient to read about 90 percent of the kanji used in a newspaper. 

Radicals or Bushu and Kanji

Technically speaking radicals are graphemes, meaning they're the graphical parts that make up each kanji character. In Japanese, these characters are derived from written Chinese kangxi radicals. Every kanji is made of a radical, and a radical itself can be a kanji.

Radicals express the general nature of the kanji characters, and provide clues to the kanji's origin, group, meaning, or pronunciation. Many kanji dictionaries organize characters by their radicals.

There are 214 radicals total, but it's likely that even native Japanese speakers can't recognize and name them all. But for those new to the Japanese language, memorizing some of the important and frequently used radicals will be very helpful as you try to learn the meanings of many of the kanji. 

When writing kanji, in addition to knowing the meanings of the different radicals in order to better understand the words they spell, it's key to know a kanji's stroke count (the number of pen strokes used to make the kanji) and stroke order. Stroke count is also useful when using a kanji dictionary. The most basic rule for stroke order is that kanji are written from top to bottom and from left to right. Here are some other basic rules.

Radicals are roughly divided into seven groups (hen, tsukuri, kanmuri, ashi, tare, nyou, and kamae) by their positions.

Common Radicals

The "hen" are found at the left side of a kanji character. Here are common radicals that take the "hen" position and some sample kanji characters. 

  • Ninben (person)      
  • Tsuchihen (earth)       
  • Onnahen (woman)  
  • Gyouninben (going man)
  • Risshinben(heart)
  • Tehen (hand) 
  • Kihen (tree)
  • Sanzui (water)
  • Hihen (fire)
  • Ushihen (cow)
  • Shimesuhen
  • Nogihen (two branch tree)    
  • Itohen (thread)
  • Gonben (word)  
  • Kanehen (metal)  
  • Kozatohen (time)

The common radicals that take the"tsukuri" and "kanmuri" position are listed below. 


  • Rittou (sword)  
  • Nobun (folding chair)
  • Akubi (gap)
  • Oogai (page)   


  • Ukanmuri (crown)
  • Takekanmuri (bamboo)
  • Kusakanmuri (grass)
  • Amekanmuri (rain)

And here is a look at common radicals that take the "ashi," "tare," "nyou" and "kamae" position. 


  • Hitoashi (human legs)
  • Kokoro (heart)  
  • Rekka (fire)       


  • Shikabane (flag)  
  • Madare (dotted cliff)
  • Yamaidare (sick)


  • Shinnyou (road)  
  • Ennyou (long stride)


  • Kunigamae(box) 
  • Mongamae (gate)
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Abe, Namiko. "All About Radicals in the Japanese Language." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Abe, Namiko. (2023, April 5). All About Radicals in the Japanese Language. Retrieved from Abe, Namiko. "All About Radicals in the Japanese Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).