This is part of Krys Suzuki’s series on preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Links to the rest of the series follow at the end of the article.
If you’re struggling to learn kanji, you’re not alone. For many Japanese language learners, kanji represents the epitome of difficulty. Not only are there thousands of them, but so many of them look the same! How do you even begin to memorize them all?
The trick is: you don’t! Learning kanji won’t happen by rote memorization alone. Least of all kanji for the JLPT, where their job is to trip you up by purposely showing you similar ones, often without context.
So how do you study kanji for the JLPT? You start by focusing on kanji radicals!
What Are Kanji Radicals?
Kanji radicals, or “bushu” (部首) are smaller “sets” of strokes that make up a more complex kanji. All kanji consist of one or more radicals.
There are 214 radicals, of which about 51 are most common. As you can see, there are a lot fewer radicals than kanji! And learning them will radically improve your ability to remember kanji (pun absolutely intended).
How Kanji Radicals Work
Each radical has its own name and meaning. Some can function on their own as a separate kanji, while other only work as part of a kanji.
By knowing what these radicals represent, you can usually guess a kanji’s general meaning. In the instances where a radical’s meaning is not directly related to that of the kanji, you can still make associations called mnemonics that can help you remember (more on that later).
Why Kanji Radicals Are Useful to Know
Radicals are basically the alphabet that forms kanji, in which radicals are like letters, and kanji are words. In order to read the word ‘cat’, we must first be familiar with the letters ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’. Even if you know the first two letters, if you don’t know the sound that ‘t’ makes, you might confuse ‘cat’ with ‘car’, ‘cap’, or ‘cab’.
The same with kanji. Also, similar to how you look up English words in a dictionary by their first letter, you search a kanji dictionary by radical. In this way, even if you have absolutely no idea the meaning or pronunciation of a kanji, if you recognize the radical, you can look it up! (Online dictionary jisho.org and smartphone app imiwa? are two of my favorites!)
Finally, learning radicals is also similar to how we learn the alphabet first in English. By first grade, most children already know all 26 letters of the English alphabet. However, they certainly don’t know every word! And no child would be able to memorize every word in the English dictionary by sight alone, without even knowing their ABCs.
However, this is what many students of Japanese attempt to do. Memorize kanji by recognition or stroke order, without even knowing the radicals.
How to Use A Kanji Dictionary
Apps like imiwa? and jisho let you search for radicals by number of strokes. However, you might not always find some radicals on the list.