115. The "Grain" Radical: 禾

According to Kanjigen, the autonomous non-Joyo kanji 禾 (カ, いね) means "millet," "rice" or "grains in general." But when 禾 is a radical, we'll call it the "grain" radical.

This shape can still mean "rice" or "rice plant," as it clearly does in this kanji:

(1656: rice plant; lightning)

However, 禾 can't be considered the "rice" radical because that name is reserved for another:

radical 119: 米, the "rice" radical

In English, the 禾 radical actually has a second name, which is "two-branched tree." More on that in a moment.

The Japanese Name for This Radical

The Japanese refer to the 禾 radical as のぎ. When it's on the left side of a kanji, as it almost always is, のぎへん is even better.

As to what のぎ means, it's simply の (from the katakana ノ) plus ぎ (a voiced reading of 木, き, "tree"). That is, someone perceived the top "branch" of 禾 as resembling the katakana ノ. So there's a piece of katakana dangling from the treetop!

Photo Credit: Hideo Suzuki

With this talk of trees, it feels right to spot 秋 (140: autumn) in the woods! The on-duty radical in this kanji is 禾. This photo is from 森林植物園 (しんりんしょくぶつえん: Forest Park), located near the Rokko Mountains of Kobe. Here we're seeing the name of a trail:

秋草 (あきくさ: plants that flower in autumn)
小径 (こみち: path, lane)

In this case, we read all four kanji with kun-yomi. Lovely!

Distinguishing 禾 from Other Radicals

Although I've opted to call  the "grain" radical, the alternate term "two-branched tree" offers one benefit. It enables us to establish a clear relationship between our radical and two others:

radical 75: 木, the "tree" radical
radical 115: 禾, the "grain" or "two-branched tree" radical
radical 127: 耒, the "plow" or "three-branched tree" radical

The pattern should be clear, though I don't see 木 as having just one branch.

As long as we're drawing lines in the sand (or in the trees!), here's one more radical to differentiate from 禾:

radical 186: 香, the "perfume" radical

It's easy to think that a radical is an indivisible unit, but we can split this particular atom. When we do, we find grain. That is, according to Henshall, the 禾 in 香 (1255: fragrance, sweet smell; incense; perfume) actually means “rice plant” or “grain plant.” Meanwhile, the 日 in 香 is a simplification of 甘 (1093: sweet; fragrant; tempting; indulgent). Originally, these combined to mean “aromatic millet.” Eventually, 香 came to mean “fragrance” and “incense.”

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In Narita Airport, a sign not only informs us that fragrances are for sale but also contains a terrific crop of radicals! There's one in each line of Japanese. I'm talking about 香, 米, and 禾. Here are the words in the sign:

香水 (こうすい: perfume, fragrances)
化粧品 (けしょうひん: cosmetics)
免税 (めんぜい: duty-free)
売店 (ばいてん: shop)

Position and Shape of the Radical

Let's return to 禾. Within the Joyo set, I can find just one instance in which this five-stroke radical is not on the left side of the character:

(1355: excellent; superior)

This is also the only time I've seen the shape of the radical change a little. The radical widens to fill the space above the 乃.

In two more characters the 禾 is off to the left but isn't alone there:

穀 (866: cereal, grain)
愁 (1357: melancholy)

Mostly, though, this radical takes up the entire left side, as in these examples, which are probably some of the first kanji you learned:

科 (81: subject of study; department, course)
私 (876: private, personal; I, me)

Photo Credit: Corey Linstrom

Our "grain" radical lies at the center of this sign for a dental office: 歯科 (しか: dentistry).

Where's the Rice?

It's a bit strange to think that there's rice in either 科 or 私, which couldn't be farther from a rice paddy in meaning.

Henshall says that in the case of 科, we have 禾 (rice) + 斗 (measure), giving us "to measure grain." This came to mean "sift or sort," then "category," and later "section," expanding even to "course."

As for 私, it breaks down as 禾 (rice) + ム (self), yielding "to give one's own rice." This extended to "private; personal; things pertaining to the self."

In a few other kanji with the on-duty 禾 radical, the character has a financial meaning. That's because rice is big business in Japan (and China). I'm referring, for example, to this kanji, which we saw in a photo:

税 (727: tax, duty)

Henshall says that 税 means "to divide up rice and give (part of) it away," a reference to paying a tithe or tax. Long ago, the Japanese paid taxes in the form of rice.

In other cases, it's really hard to imagine the connection to rice. Here are two of the most surprising cases:

(1355: excellent; superior)

We saw this kanji earlier. Henshall says in his newer edition that this 禾 was originally the pictograph of a "grain plant" but not specifically "rice," though some misinterpret it that way. Scholars disagree about what the phonetic 乃 contributes here. 

秒 (380: second (of time); 1/60 of a minute)

In this kanji, Henshall says, the 禾 means "grain plant," rather than "rice plant." And 少, which usually means "few, little," conveys "minuscule" here. Originally, he says, 秒 referred to "the tip of the ear of a grain plant." Then it came to mean "tiny bit" and then something even smaller than a minute—namely, a second!