I recently acquired The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, and all of the characters inside are ordered by radicals. I understand what a radical is in the most basic sense--sub sections of Kanji Characters that reoccur in many different characters throughout the language. I also understand that they often affect the meaning of the overall character.

I am largely self taught, with the exception of an advanced college course that I took. I have studied some kanji Characters, and can read about 400-600 characters. However, in my experience I have not received any formal training in radicals.

So, how do I determine which radical in a character is the primary radical?


I'm still studying this on my own, so you don't have to answer this if you don't want to. I think I'll be able to figure it out eventually. If you know a simple way to explaining the order of radicals, or the best way to study them, that would be welcome too.

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    Related: japanese.stackexchange.com/a/44210/5010
    – naruto
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 4:15
  • Ok, so I'm opening a can of worms. Got it. So why does the Character Dictionary I own say that they ordered the Kanji by all radicals present in the characters, thus implying that characters will reoccur if they have multiple radicals?
    – ajsmart
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 4:22

1 Answer 1


There is a list of steps here.

According to that page, here are the places, going in order, that you should look for the radical:

1. The entire character

If the entire character is a radical, then... well, that's the radical. Examples are 人 and 火. Also, if the character only contains one radical (not listed in one of the 214 Kangxi radicals), then obviously that is as well.

2. Enclosures

Anything covering 2-4 sides of the character. Examples are 气, 凵, or 囗.

3. Left

Radicals on the left of the compound, but not underneath anything (e.g. 言 in 罰 does not count). There are tons of possible radicals here, but the left parts of 忙, 休, and 私 are some examples.

4. Right

Same as above, but on the right. Examples include the right parts of 次 and 部.

5. Top

Grass (艹) and roof (宀) are very common examples, in characters like 花 and 守. Note that it has to be covering the entire rest of the character, so something like grass in 描 doesn't count; the mountain in 崩 counts because it's entirely covering everything else.

6. Bottom

If the top part is complex, it may be the bottom. 力 in 勢 is an example; so is 木 in 楽 and 示 in 禁.

7. Top Left

Now we're getting a little desperate. If the entire character is split into a left piece and a right piece, but neither is a radical, then try the upper part of the left half. For example, the radical of 執 turns out to be 土.

8. Top right

If it's not in the top left, then try the top right. For example, 目 is the radical of 県.

9. Bottom right

The mouth in 君 is in the bottom right, I guess.

10. Bottom left

I can't even find any examples other than what the site I linked gave, even among non-jouyou kanji. The bottom part of 虱 is the radical (because the enclosing part isn't actually a radical), and 米 in 糶.

11. Somewhere else

There always has to be a catch-all, right? For example, 言 is the radical in 讎.

There are probably exceptions, or cases where it's hard to tell/borderline (in fact, a few examples I gave probably fall into that category). In the worst case scenario, you can at least narrow it down to two or so options and then try both.

  • They webpage is a good find. Thank you! However, is studying radicals worth my time of on trying to learn lots of kanji quickly?
    – ajsmart
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 11:37
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    Studying radicals is ALWAYS worth your time. :)
    – Tommy
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 0:56
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    @ajsmart Depends on what you mean by "studying radicals". I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you're using a physical dictionary, but after a while you'll get used to it without studying anyway.
    – Blavius
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 4:21
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    @ajsmart well, because radicals are a fundamental piece of the kanji. Studying radical gives you a better understanding of how the kanji is constructed, not to mention it might help you guessing (even though maybe very generally) what "category" does that kanji belong to (e.g. it is something related to water, it's a fish, a body part, something related to people, etc). Also many people tend to agree that they might help in memorization, as they help you "decompose" the character in smaller, easier to remember parts.
    – Tommy
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 0:32
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    This is a nice post about it (you can find more by googling why is important to study radicals): ahasensei.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/…
    – Tommy
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 0:33

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