30. The "Mouth" Radical: 口

With the "mouth" radical, things couldn't get much simpler. In its purest form, this radical is a square. It's called the "mouth" radical in English and means "mouth" in many of the 70 Joyo kanji in which it's on duty. The shape of the autonomous 口 (20: mouth) kanji is a pictograph of an "open mouth," says Henshall. It's all adding up to one big mouth!

Japanese Terms for the "Mouth" Radical

As for Japanese nomenclature, we can refer to this radical as くち in examples such as these:

同 (187: same)    
和 (416: harmony)
各 (438: each)

However, くちへん is the term for this radical when it slides to the left of a kanji and grows narrow, as in these examples:

吸 (837: to suck in)
呼 (856: to call)

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

A lantern on Sado Island (north of Honshu) bears these kanji: 大和屋. The first two combine as the word 大和 (やまと), likely referring to ancient Japan. And then -屋 (-や) means "store."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

You have to love all the geometry here! On a squarish dish rotated to look like a diamond, we find square desserts stacked just so. Inside those squares (with the browned edges giving those shapes more definition), there are circles (or speech balloons?) containing the symmetrical kanji 吉 (1142: lucky). Our radical is on duty in that character.

Avoiding Confusion with Other Radicals

It may not seem that a simple rectilinear shape would prompt confusion, but it's possible to see radical 30 by mistake in this kanji:

国 (123: country)

That character actually features 囗 (radical 31: enclosure), a larger box that contains the rest of the shape.

Similarly, one could think that a kanji includes our radical when in fact the square belongs to one of these:

尸 (radical 44: corpse)
已 (radical 49: oneself)
戸 (radical 63: door) 
日 (radical 72: sun)
毋 (radical 80: mother)
田 (radical 102: rice field)
目 (radical 109: eye)
石 (radical 112: stone)
虫 (radical 142: insect)
言 (radical 149: word)
谷 (radical 150: valley)
豆 (radical 151: bean)
足 (radical 157: foot)
邑 (radical 163: right village)
酉 (radical 164: saké)
歯 (radical 211: tooth)

I could list more, but I think you have the idea!

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

All the kanji shown here contain squares, but only 古 (109: old) actually features radical 30. In 堂, radical 32 (土: earth) is on duty, whereas 博 is filed under radical 24 (十: cross). We need to read this shop name from right to left as 博古堂 (はっこどう). Check out the link; they do beautiful woodworking!

The "Mouth" Meaning in Several Kanji

Let's return to the idea of simplicity. Our radical means "mouth" in the following kanji, according to Henshall, the source of all the etymologies:

名 (71: name)

This 口 means both "mouth" and "to say," combining with タ, "evening," which also acts phonetically to express "to call." In the dim light of evening, it was necessary to identify people verbally by calling their names.

品 (382: item)

Here we have "three mouths," originally indicating a "group of people." This definition evolved to mean "assemblage," then "a group of things," rather than people.

命 (394: life)

This character combines 令, "order," with 口, "mouth; to say." Our radical serves here to emphasize that the order was issued. And that issuing of an order came to symbolize an expression of the will of those who govern one's life (including gods). In that way, 命 evolved to mean "one's lot," "fate," and eventually "life."

含 (1118: to include)

Although 今 means "now," it represents "cover" here. If something is covered by the mouth, it's contained in the mouth. Thus, this character came to mean "to contain" and "to include."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This clever take on 品 (382: item) turns the third square of that kanji into a saké glass with an ume (Japanese plum) branch sticking out of it. When I took the picture I unfortunately omitted the 一 (one) above the 品, but you can see the whole logo at the manufacturer's site. In fact, the site has an animated version of the image in which the pink flowers bloom! That home page also features a picture of a bottle pouring out these words:


梅* (うめ: Japanese plum); 
酒* (さけ: saké)

This must be a play on the following:

Bloom, ume blossoms!
The saké tastes good!

咲く (さく: to bloom);
美味い (うまい: delicious)

That is, the imperative 咲け (Bloom!) sounds just like 酒. Also, うまい often changes to ウメエ in colloquial pronunciation, echoing the yomi of 梅.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

At Mayasan Tenjo-ji, a mountaintop temple in Hyogo Prefecture (on Honshu), 命 (394: life) appears on a stone in this string of kanji:


The last three are non-Joyo. The word 延命 (えんめい) means "prolonging life." The meaning of the whole isn't entirely clear to my proofreader, but he supposes it translates as "Jizo Bodhisattva who prolongs people’s lives."

Other Meanings of the "Mouth" Radical

For all its simplicity, our radical has a few tricks up its sleeve.

We've seen 口 as "to say." It can similarly mean "words," as in this kanji:

哲 (1628: philosophy; wise)

Whereas 口 means "words," 折 means "to break," acting phonetically here to express "correct" and probably also "understanding," says Henshall. Therefore, 哲 means "correct words (full of understanding?)" and has thereby come to symbolize wisdom.

It's not much of a leap from "mouth" to "words," but let's venture further afoot. The 口 shape can also represent the following things, says Henshall:

an opening, particularly in a building, as in 啓 (1197: to enlighten)

a window in a house, as in 向 (278: to turn toward)

a container, as might be true in 合 (121: to combine)

a circle, as is true of the top of 員 (228: organization member)

a vagina, as in 商 (317: commerce) 

an anus, as in 后 (858: after)

Photo Credit: Kevin Hamilton

A 送水口 (そうすいこう: water supply pipe) is the place on a fire hydrant where one would attach a hose. So the autonomous 口 kanji means "opening" here.

A Quiz About Our Radical

In the February 2014 newsletter, Mark Spahn (coauthor of The Kanji Dictionary) issued a challenge: How many Joyo kanji can you make by adding two strokes to 口? The additional stroke does not need to touch the 口 structure. Here are 22 answers (though there may still be more) that may or may not feature the on-duty 口 radical:

右 (2: right (as opposed to left)) 四 (26: four) 石 (45: stone)
石 (45: stone) 田 (59: rice field)  目 (72: eye)  
古 (109: old) 台 (166: a stand)  兄 (267: elder brother)
号 (281: number) 申 (322: to report) 由 (399: reason)  
加 (431: addition) 史 (496: history)  司 (497: to officiate) 
句 (655: phrase)  可 (816: -able)  甲 (1243: shell)
囚 (1353: prisoner)  召 (1387: to summon) 占 (1491: to possess) 
叱 (2026: to scold)    

Photo Credit: Taisaku Nogi

In Fukui City (Fukui Prefecture on Honshu) one can find the gravestone of Sanai Hashimoto (橋本左内), an Edo-era samurai, scholar, and revolutionary. A kanji we've seen, 哲 (1628: wise), heads off this word in the upper right:

啓発録 (けいはつろく: Inspiring Memorandum)

The text on the stone is something Hashimoto wrote at age 15! Ten years later he was decapitated as part of the Ansei Purge, but he managed to do a great deal in his short life. He studied medical science in Osaka, became an assistant to Shungaku Matsudaira (the governor of Fukui Province), and served in the cabinet of the Tokugawa shogunate government. Hashimoto advocated restructuring that government and opening Japan to the West so as to introduce advanced technologies.

You can find a full explanation of the text in essay 1576 on 稚 (immature, childish; young), but briefly the five sentences on the stone mean “Let us be rid of immaturity, activate our spirits, work out plans, endeavor to learn, and choose good friends.” Great advice! By the way, the 一 atop each column on the stone merely indicates that a new column has begun.