159. The "Vehicle" Radical: 車

The 車 radical goes by three names in English: "vehicle," "cart," and "wheel." We'll call it "vehicle." 

In addition to being a radical, 車 is an autonomous kanji:

車 (31: car, vehicle; train; wheel)

That character, says Henshall, is the pictograph of a "long-shafted two-wheeled chariot" as viewed from above. Wait, just two wheels? Wouldn't that be a bicycle? Ah, Henshall must be referring to an ox carriage, like the one in this image from Daijisen:

Oh! In all my years of perceiving 車 as a pictograph, I never imagined that it depicted anything remotely like this ox carriage!

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In Tokyo, there's a restaurant chain simply called 車 (くるま). The nine branches serve high-quality grilled chicken from Miyazaki Prefecture on Kyushu.

What Is the 車 Radical Called in Japanese?

Just as one can read the autonomous 車 kanji as くるま, that's the name of the radical, as in these examples:

軍 (466: armed forces; team)

輝 (1132: to sparkle; brilliant)

輩 (1688: peer; generation; successively)

We'll return to kanji 466 in a moment.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

I'm amused to see the "vehicle" radical on a vehicle (the back of a truck in Hong Kong)! I'm also amused that this company is called Glorious Ice, as the name includes the "fire" radical 火 in the second character. The company sells ice cubes. With that fire around, the ice would melt at once!

Here are the two Chinese words on the truck:

輝煌 (glorious)
雪粒 (very fine snow)

In Japanese, 煌 is non-Joyo.

Photo Credit: Meri Tojo

Our radical is the bottommost component in the largest writing here. We find in 輩 (1688: peer; generation; successively).

In early 2016, at 東京ソラマチ (とうきょうソラマチ), a shopping center at the foot of Tokyo SkyTree, there was an exhibition about the famous artist Hokusai. The event included this sign, which said the following:

拝啓 (はいけい: Dear (so-and-so))
北斎 (ほくさい: the pseudonym of a famous artist, 1760–1849)
先輩 (せんぱい: senior), a respectful word used for one's elders

This exhibition was planned by Sumida Creators’ Club, a group of local creative people who apparently see Hokusai as their great forerunner. The 拝啓 北斎先輩 sounds as if the club wrote him a letter saying, “Hello, Hokusai-senpai."

What's the Radical Name if the 車 Is on the Left Side?

When 車 is on the left side of a kanji, we can call the radical くるまへん (車編, meaning "車 on the left side of a radical"). Here are some examples:

転 (354: to rotate, revolve; fall down; undergo change)

輸 (799: to transport; ship; carry; convey; transfer)

載 (1295: to load (with cargo); place on; put in print)

Of the 15 Joyo kanji featuring the on-duty 車 radical, 11 have the radical on the left. You've already seen the four that don't, including the autonomous 車 kanji itself.

Photo Credit: Kevin Hamilton

Our radical appears three times in this photo, and it's even in two adjacent kanji! Here's what the writing means on each sign:

temporary use

一時 (いちじ: temporary);
利用 (りよう: use)

place for storing bicycles

自転車 (じてんしゃ: bicycle);
置場 (おきば: place for something)

Please prepay the parking fee.

駐車料金 (ちゅうしゃりょうきん: parking fee);
前払 (まえばらい: prepayment); 支払う (しはらう: to pay)

The 一時利用 means that the bicycle parking facility is for one-time use, rather being rented out monthly or annually. The white sign is probably about bicycles, not cars, though people generally use 駐輪 (ちゅうりん) for parking a bike, not 駐車.

Why Is the 車 Radical in These Kanji?

It's not always obvious why 車 wound up in certain characters. Henshall clarifies that with etymological explanations for the following kanji.

軍 (466: armed forces; team)

The shape used to be different, representing a "vehicle with a protective encircling arm." That referred to "carts drawn into a circle to form a protected encampment," an ancient military practice. The circle of carts symbolized an "army," he says.

轄 (1090: control; linchpin)

Henshall says that  "originally referred to a wedge-shaped linchpin inserted in the end of an axle to lock the wheel in place." Thus, 轄 came to represent "controlling element" and eventually "control."

軸 (1330: axis; axle)

Henshall says that the 由 in 軸 acts phonetically to express "support." As 車 is "vehicle," 軸 once represented "that which supports a vehicle"—namely, the "axle." This meaning broadened to "spindle" and "shaft," and 軸 came to mean "scroll" because spindles, shafts, and scrolls have similar shapes! 

軟 (1673: soft; gentle) 

This might be the most surprising place to find a vehicle! Henshall says that the character used to have a very different right side, one that meant "soft." That right side combined 而 (beard) and 大 (big), a beard being a symbol of softness. (Really?!) Originally, he notes, 軟 referred to the practice of "wrapping reeds around the wheels of a vehicle to soften the ride." (What an ingenious technique!) Later, 軟 came to mean "soft" in general.

Photo Credit: Lutlam

At McDonald's in Hong Kong, my proofreader bought a 将軍 (しょうぐん: shogun) burger. That sounds intimidating—unless you like eating samurai warlords! It was a teriyaki burger, so I suppose someone gave it a name meant to evoke images of Japan!

The word 将軍 breaks down as general + army.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

A sign at an Osaka-area izakaya (pub) features 運転 (うんてん: driving), giving us back-to-back instances of the 車 shape. As we've seen, 車 is the on-duty radical in 転. By contrast, the "movement" radical 辶 is on duty in 運 (which means "to control movement skillfully" in 運転, according to Halpern).

Here are the words in the sign:

未成年者 (みせいねんしゃ: minor)
飲酒 (いんしゅ: drinking alcohol)
飲酒運転 (いんしゅうんてん: drunk driving)
撲滅 (ぼくめつ: eradication)

So the authorities intend to eliminate underage drinking and drunk driving.

By the way, 運 (231: to transport; move skillfully; operate; luck; destiny) has an intriguing etymology. Henshall defines the 辶 as "movement" and the 軍 as "army." Some scholars interpret this 軍 literally, he says, so 運 means "army on the move," by association representing "transportation" and the "fortunes" of war. Other scholars feel that this 軍 acts phonetically to express "round," as well as "circle" and "vehicle" (from a circle of vehicles). If so, 運 means "vehicles rolling along" and therefore "transport."