みず (mizu – water)

Kanjis are Chinese characters imported to Japan around the 400 a.d. They are ideograms formed with lines and curves called strokes, that convey a meaning instead of a sound. Traditionally, these strokes were written with a brush; the pattern and flicks of the stroke, which indicate the order and direction in which we write them, are helpful when recognizing the kanji.


Kanjis are combinations of well-defined sets of strokes. For every kanji, there is one such set of strokes, called the kanji’s radical, that gives the kanji its particular meaning (semantic component) or sound (phonetic component). For example, the radical of the kanji for fountain, 泉, is the radical for ‘water’, 水; thus, the radical 水 says that the kanji 泉 has something to do with water. Likewise, the radical of the kanji for flower, 花, is the radical for ‘grass’, 艹; thus, the radical 艹 says that the kanji 花 has something to do with vegetation.

There is no standard place in a kanji in which we will find its radical, but commonly it will be on one of the four sides of the kanji: on top, like in 花 (flower); at the bottom, like in 泉 (fountain); on the left, like in 泪 (tear); or on the right, like in 化 (change). In these cases, semantic radicals tend to appear on the left and top of the kanji, while phonetic ones tend to appear on the right and bottom. Some radicals might cut or surround the kanji, partially or totally, like in 囚 (prisoner). Here are these kanjis, with their radicals in red:

It should not surprise us that the ‘tree’ radical, 木, is the radical of the ‘tree’ kanji, 木. Actually, the ‘tree’ radical and the ‘tree’ kanji are one and the same. The ‘tree’ radical is also the radical for the ‘grove’ kanji, 林, which has two parts: on the left, the ‘tree’ radical that gives the ‘grove’ kanji its ‘tree-related’ meaning, and on the right, a kanji that, in this case, coincidentally, happens to be the kanji for ‘tree’. And finally, the ‘tree’ radical is also the radical for the ‘forest’ kanji, 森, which has two parts: on the top, the ‘tree’ radical, which gives the ‘forest’ kanji its ‘tree-related’ meaning, and on the bottom the kanji for ‘grove’, 林. Hence, the ‘tree’ radical is the radical of the kanjis of ‘tree’, ‘grove’, and ‘forest’, and indicates that all these kanjis are related to trees:

a. tree – き; b. groove – はやし; c. forest – もり.

All kanji have to fit within an imaginary square box. As shown above, the kanji 林 has the radical 木 and the kanji 木 side-by-side, so to fit them in the square box we have to squeeze them sideways, i.e., to make them thinner. On the other hand, the kanji 森 has the radical 木 on top of the kanji 林, so to fit them in the square box we have to squash them, i.e., to make them shorter.

We can still recognize the radical 木 regardless of whether we squeeze it or squash it, because 木 has a simple appearance and few strokes. However, a radical with many strokes is difficult to squeeze or squash, so it is often the case that such complex radicals would have one or two simpler versions, with less strokes. For example, the radical for ‘water’, 水, has the alternate form ⺡. Both 水 and ⺡ have identical meanings, but we will use 水 when we are stacking the radical, and ⺡ when we are placing side-by-side:

water – みず

fountain – いずみ

simplified radical
water – みず

tear – なみだ

Some radicals, by design, have a specific shape. Vertical thin radicals, like “water”, ⺡, are always on the left or right of the kanji, while horizontal short radicals, like “grass”, ⺾, are always stacked:


flower – はな

potato – いも

Another way in which a radical can appear in a kanji is surrounding it, either partially or totally. For example, when the radical for ‘box’ or ‘enclosure’, 囗, surrounds the kanji for ‘person’, 人, we end up with the kanji for ‘prisoner’. Both 囗 and 人 are, by themselves, radicals, but the kanji for prisoner, 囚, has only one radical that gives it its meaning, and in this case it is 囗; 人 functions here simply as the kanji for ‘person’ that is being surrounded by the radical 囗 for ‘enclosure’:

box, enclosure

person – ひと

prisoner – しゅうじ

A radical doesn’t necessarily need to have a small number of strokes; instead, it might convey a simple concept that might require a large number of strokes. Not many few-stroke radicals are also kanjis, but most many-stroke radicals are. An example is the radical for ‘rain’, 雨, with 8 strokes, which is also the kanji for ‘rain’; this radical gives meaning to the kanjis for ‘cloud’ and ‘thunder’:

rain – あめ

cloud – くも

thunder – かまきり

Stroke order

Every kanji is either a radical, or has a radical; if it has a radical, we can remove it and be left with either a simpler kanji, or a radical; and we can repeat this until we are left only with a radical. Thus, we can distill every kanji into a combination of radicals and simpler kanjis.

When we find a radical in a kanji, usually we write the complete radical before moving on to a different part of the kanji; there are exceptions, like the surrounding radicals like 囗, for which we write the kanji contained in the radical, if any, before closing the bottom of the radical. Thus, learning the order of strokes of a radical helps us to write all kanjis based on that radical. However, in most cases, we write each part of the kanji completely before moving to the next part of the kanji. For example, consider the kanji for ‘flower’, 花. The radical of 花 is ‘grass’ or ‘vegetation’, 艹; if we remove it, we are left with the kanji for ‘change’, 化. The radical of 化 is ‘spoon’, 匕; when we remove it, we are left with the radical for ‘person’, ⺅. Hence:

English Kanji Kanji’s radical Kanji minus radical

Kanjis, in general, are written from top-to-bottom and/or from left-to-right. Hence, to write the kanji for flower, 花, we just need to write its three parts 艹, ⺅, and 匕, in that order, from top-to-bottom and/or left-to-right. As long as the strokes for each individual radical are correct, the strokes for the complete kanji are likely to be correct. The following are the actual strokes for 花, as described in Jisho, which agree with the above description:

The kanji 花 is its radical 艹, and the kanji 化; the kanji 化 is its radical 匕 and the radical ⺅

Hence, instead of specifying each stroke of the kanji, we can simply specify the main parts of the kanji, and the order in which we should write each of them. Thus, if we happen to know the order of the stokes of the 艹, ⺅, and 匕 radicals, we could describe the stroke order of the kanji 花 as:

Describing the stroke order of 花 as the stroke order of the 艹, ⺅, and 匕 radicals

Or, if we happen to already know the 化 kanji, then we could describe the stroke order of the kanji 花 as:

Describing the stroke order of 花 as the stroke order of the 艹 radical and the 化 kanji

However, once we know the stroke order of each of the parts of a kanji, we can omit the beginning stroke of each part since, after all, we already know their stroke order:

Describing the stroke order of 花 by describing each of its parts

or we can omit the description of the parts themselves since, after all, we can already recognize them:

Describing the stroke order of 花 using the 艹, ⺅, and 匕 radicals; and using the radical 艹 and the kanji 化