There seems to be a great many nicknames, but only one official name for each radical. I'm thus more inclined to learn the latter, but I'm left wondering about the practicality of that. All of the other radical lists that I've seen, whether English or Japanese, only list the nicknames. Are the official names rarely used in Japanese? Is it worth learning them? What about the nicknames, should I learn all of them? And most importantly, which names will show on the Kanji Kentei (漢字検定{かんじけんてい})?


At Japanese elementary and middle school, students learn the 通称 names in the table in the linked page. Virtually every native Japanese adult knows しんにょう and ぎょうにんべん, but not 辵部【ちゃくぶ】 nor 彳部【てきぶ】. I don't know where these "official" names are used.

On 漢字検定, it appears that the names of 部首 are not directly asked. Instead, you need to write the radical itself (example). This is probably because there are no official names for these radicals while there are too many nicknames found in various dictionaries. Still it can be safely said that average Japanese people learn radicals using one of the "nicknames" on the right column.

I can't tell how many radical nicknames you need to learn... It depends on what you want to do by learning these names.

  • On lower levels they are actually asked, although in the form of a multiple-choice question with multiple "nicknames" listed for a single radical. kanken.or.jp/kanken/outline/degree/example/…
    – macraf
    Dec 9 '17 at 11:32
  • If the 'nicknames' are the only ones ever asked in the 漢字検定, and the 正式名称 is not used anywhere, perhaps we can conclude that it isn't worth memorizing the official names? I wish it was all a bit more standardized!
    – kandyman
    Dec 12 '17 at 21:41

The 名称 are based on the imported Chinese words (音読み). The 通称 are based on the original Japanese words (訓読み). Describing a kanji based on the 名称 will be technically correct among scholars but may be ambiguous if the listener is not fluent in the official names. The 通称 are more easily understood because they're drawn from common words.

For example, 台 would be easily understood as a katakana ム over a kuchi 口. But if I described it as a #28 しぶ on top and a #30 こうぶ on the bottom, it might not be as widely understood, even though that's technically a flawless description.

Yet the 通称 are only as useful as you already understand Japanese. For native speakers, these are used simply because everyone would know the word already, and they're unambiguous. For example, "さんぶ" could still be ambiguous because it could be 三 or 山, while "やまやまへん" clarifies that you mean "the mountain one."

My advice for early learners is not to learn the radical names. It's a lot of work for not much payoff, and you risk looking overly bookish in your usage. It would be like an ESL student learning the AP style differences among French brackets {}, regular brackets [], and parentheses ().

Rather, as you go along and learn vocabulary, you'll come up with your own mnemonic devices for remembering kanji, and will allow you to form your own 通称 that will be just as effective as those "official" common descriptions.

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