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Is Learning Radicals Better Than Memorizing Kanji?

I've seen a few sites on the internet saying that learning kanji radicals is quicker than memorizing the kanji itself. Should I memorize the radicals in an attempt to learn kanji faster or is this an unreliable way to approach kanji?

July 10, 2019



Neither 'learning the radicals' nor 'learning kanji' are great ways to approach Japanese imo. Going out of your way to specifically learn radicals is a waste of time, but you should pay attention to them as they make it easier to remember how to write. What I mean by that is learn vocabulary and make a mental note of what that vocab's kanji look like. What do 話、読、調 and 誰 have in common? Eventually you'll start seeing patterns anyway, whether you spend time studying radicals or not.

'Learning kanji' isn't a bad thing (obviously), but learn them as you see them in vocab as opposed to things like Heisig's RTK where you spend hours looking at individual characters without really understanding their context/meanings. So again, learn vocab, make a mental note of what the kanji look like and see if you recognize them in other words. For example, if you know 検査 you know one half of 調査 and if you know 調査 you know one half of 調子 - if you think like that you'll remember them more efficiently.

Different things work for different people but that's my pov.


Some would say yes. I personally have trouble memorizing kanji radicals and then trying to memorize an individual kanji. I try to learn them in-context. Then I don't have to pour over ON-yomi and kun-yomi only to get caught up in exceptions.


With question like these, it is best to feel out different ways and then ask yourself. Different methods suit different people. You will have to find the way that fits you best.

Some prefer learning them through context, some don’t. I went through the Heisig’s RTK vol.1 which will teach you how to write the kanji in the correct stroke order, how to distinguish similar looking kanji from each other, and anchor their approximate meaning in English to your brain in order to speed up your Japanese vocabulary learning afterwards. It takes about 150-170 hours (or 2,5 - 3 months) to finish (that’s 2200 kanji) if you do it like it is supposed to be done. If you choose to review, then you will of course spend more time on it. It’s highly efficient in what it is for. Some people can spend many years learning all those kanji and most probably stop after a while. I couldn’t get myself to learn Japanese like that, I wanted to learn the language but thought it was too demotivating to see random strokes for years and not understand them. Thankfully that problem doesn’t exist anymore.

But, it might not be for you, it’s a bit of a risk, to invest a few months almost solely on intense kanji study with the RTK method and find out it’s not for you. There are other ways like Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course and Wanikani.

But if you find out it’s for you, the learning of Japanese will become much much enjoyable. It’s an investment so you will enjoy the fruits later. You basically don’t need to learn new kanji at all, depends on how much you will want to know, but for the first many years you probably don’t except a few here and there and it’s not a big deal, it all really depends on what kind of media you will to consume.

What’s left is that you will pretty much only have to learn more about the versatility, how they’re used in words, of the kanji that you already know to a very good extent.

I am progressing through the Core 6000 vocabulary deck and all the words and example sentences are full of kanji (the deck has roughly 1700 kanji in it) and I don’t have any problems with it at all. I am also familiar with most of the words and probably all of the kanji that the new Japanese tree here has.

What’s also pretty cool, having learned all the common use kanji beforehand is sometimes you can guess the meaning of a kanji compound word you see for the first time, and if you have learned many words already and have developed bit of a feel for the readings, you can guess that too. It’s amazing. Seeing a word for the first time, knowing its meaning, how to pronounce and write it.

Last but not least. What’s generally agreed upon is that beginners shouldn’t put time in trying to learn the readings of the kanji. It is best to learn them by learning vocabulary.

Good luck!


The only way to tell if a learning method works for you is to try it. In the japanese learning community, it's very split whether radicals and individual kanji learning is of any use.

So just give it a try. If it works for you, it works for you. If it doesn't, then try a different approach.


Kanji is more important, but knowing the names of the more common radicals can help when you get more advanced. Sometimes in advanced conversation there will be a question about a homonym, of which there are many, or how to write people's names. In that case people might specify with the radical. It helps a lot in looking up words in some dictionaries, but I think those days might be over, since it's so easy to copy and paste a word into so many online resources and get the reading.

To some extent you're going to learn the radical names as you go anyway. So I wouldn't make it a priority.


Whichever way you go, it's going to be hard initially and get easier over time.

By learning kanji normally, you'll learn kanji with a bit more difficulty, and your progress will be slower than it would be if you knew the radicals. But as you learn kanji, you will naturally start picking up the building blocks over time. As this happens, you'll slowly pick up kanji faster and faster, however you'll might get stuck a bit periodically. You will be picking up kanji that is far more immediately useful though.

By learning the radicals first, you basically put immediately useful kanji on hold for a bit and prioritising 200 kanji that are used to build nearly all others - A lot of these have no readings, are not used stand alone, and don't have meanings on their own. You're making it really difficult for yourself initially, however after this initial investment you'll be blazing through the kanji and be learning them rapid fire.

Whichever way you go, you'll end up in the same place: you'll know lots of kanji and be familiar with most of the radicals. Just focus on whichever method works best for you.


Many radicals are simple kanji themselves, so you are likely to learn them anyway.

They just make many kanji less meaningless, and thus easier to remember.


It depends on what suits you better, and that can even change while you progress. For me it was usefull in the beginning, but as the knaji became more and more complex, it became easier to me just to remember the Kanji. That being said, knowing some of the radicals helps a lot if you want to look up a Kanji on wesites like jisho.org.


I saw advice somewhere to learn vocabulary instead of just kanji or radicals. And with that I agree.

If you learn vocabulary you'll start to see patterns in the kanji (for example 今、今日、今晩・いま、きょう、こんばん) which can have different readings. but also with the radicals to understand the meaning.


Knowing the individual Kanji for 今, 今日, 今晩 is fine too though. If you have the Kanji for now and the Kanji for day, logic would dictate that now + day = today

Edit: Unless you're talking about reading and not meaning, in which case disregard me.


Maybe my story was fuzzy. But if you learn the word itself (reading), you'll see the pattern (meaning of the kanji) automatically. The words are pronounced/written completely different, and the first kanji doesn't change its meaning. With more words you'll notice the same.

Ergo learn the words, how to write them down in hiragana, and slowly you'll understand the kanji, and later you'll see the pattern in the radicals.


I personally use Hadamiztky & Spahn's book, which does include vocabulary. I do not pay attention to the radicals specifically, but I do recognise them often, and make links myself. In their book, there are often some Kanji in succession that share a radical, which makes this easier.


ok first lets clear up what it even means to "learn kanji" in the first place. leaving out being able to write them all from memory (since unless you plan to start writing everything in japanese too, this isn't worth learning as a beginner and i usually a big waste of time), you wanna: 1. be able to recognize the kanji in words, and have a good idea of it's "meaning" (in quotes because a kanji's "meaning" isn't always cut and dry, sometimes it has multiple subtle meanings but there are trends you notice in the words its in as you learn new words in context, and that's what i consider the "meaning") 2. be able to read it based on how it's pronounced in said words (DONT just try to memorize isolated readings either. just learn words and the kanji in those words, from context)

that's pretty much it. and so for your question, YES knowing the radicals helps with this. not just because some (not ALL! just SOME) radicals give a hint to the kanji's meaning, but also because being able to see each kanji as radicals put together, makes them feel a lot less daunting.

DO NOT and i repeat DO NOT think this means combining radicals is always going to create some logical meaning for each kanji. it will not. focus on learning WORDS in CONTEXT and you will get better at the meaings of kanji as they appear in words with related meanings. like how the kanji 感 appears in 感覚 (sensation)、感触(texture)、感情(feelings), words that all have to do with feeling and sensing. i pretty much agree with ayamedori's take, except i don't see writing them as a priority unless you want to (i do so sometimes for fun... recognizing them is much more important if your priority is reading stuff and enjoy japanese media... plus most "writing" in the language these days is typed so even chatting with natives you wont need to be able to write them out)

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