48. The "Katakana E" Radical: 工

The "katakana e" radical  looks identical to this autonomous kanji:

工 (113: manufacturing, construction, engineering; craftsperson)

Thanks to the meanings of this kanji, radical 48 is sometimes called the "craft" radical, but I'll stick to the name "katakana e." That seems perfect, given the strong resemblance between kanji 113 and this katakana:

エ (katakana e)

Each shape has three strokes, but the kana is more compressed, also featuring a top line shorter than the bottom one.

The newer edition of Henshall calls 工 the pictograph of an "ax head," an "ax," or at least some kind of tool, possibly one for compacting soil. Or is it a chisel or an adze-cum-square (whatever that means)? Henshall presents all possibilities. For concision, I'll just call it a "work tool."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Look at the stairstep shape of the 工 in this sign. It's easy to imagine that 工 originally looked like that, but out of all the old images of 工 on Richard Sears's page, only two pictures reflect that shape.

The larger writing in the sign gives the name of an Osaka manufacturing company, breaking down as follows:

大阪 (おおさか: Osaka)

車輌 (しゃりょう: railroad cars), where 輌 is non-Joyo

工業 (こうぎょう: (manufacturing) industry)

The smaller writing provides the year in which the company formed:

昭和 (しょうわ: name of an era, 1926–1989)

60年 (ろくじゅうねん: Year 60)

Showa 60 was 1985.

What Is the Japanese Name of the 工 Radical?

The 工 kanji has two Joyo yomi, コウ and ク, and the first has given rise to two Japanese names for the 工 radical:

こう applies to these kanji:

左 (22: left)

工 (113: manufacturing, construction, engineering; craftsperson)

差 (482: difference; to cross; offer; send; measure)

巨 (1153: giant)

こうへん (工偏, literally 工 on the left side) applies to these kanji:

巧 (1242: skillful, clever)

攻 (1247: attack; specializing)

Now you've seen all six Joyo kanji with an on-duty 工 radical.

Another Japanese name for the radical is たくみ (or たくみへん when on the left side of a kanji). Which kanji corresponds to たくみ? I found these options:

匠 or 工 (たくみ: (1) workman; artisan; mechanic; carpenter; (2) craft; skill; (3) means; idea), where たくみ is a non-Joyo kun-yomi of each kanji

巧み (たくみ: skillful; adroit; dexterous; masterful; clever; ingenious; cunning), where たく•み is a Joyo kun-yomi of 巧

All three kanji are possible renderings of the radical name たくみ, but two Japanese dictionaries (Nihon Kokugo Dai-Jiten and Shin Meikai Kokugo Jiten) list 工 first in defining たくみ. 

By the way, Kanjigen presents one more way of pronouncing the radical 工—namely, え. 

Of the four possible yomi, which should we choose? I was going to opt for こう, but other radicals can be called こう—specifically 爻 (89: "mixing") and 香 (186: "perfume")—so let's go with たくみ (and たくみへん) for 工.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The word 巨匠 (きょしょう: master) combines 巨 (1153: giant), which features our radical, with 匠, one of the たくみ-associated kanji. I love the duplication of the box shape that opens to the right.

As the left column shows, the sign advertises an exhibition (-展, -てん) about Keisuke Kinoshita (木下惠介, きのした   けいすけ), who directed many movies, including Twenty-Four Eyes. I took this picture at the set of that classic tearjerker on the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. By the way, the non-Joyo 惠 is the old form of 恵.

The Mysterious Classification of 巨

It perplexes me that 巨 supposedly contains the 工 radical or even the 工 shape. Why isn't 匚 (radical 22: "box on side") its radical? Kangorin does put 巨 under the 匚 radical, and the original Nelson also classified 巨 that way, but the New Nelson files it under radical 48. Wiktionary acknowledges that dictionaries disagree about the radical classification of this kanji.

Some sources may associate  with the 工 radical because the bronze form of the kanji looked like this, according to Henshall and Sears:

As to what these strokes represent, the entire shape may depict the "hole in an ax handle that is made for the ax head to fit into," says Henshall. 

Then again, both Henshall and Sears indicate that the bronze-era 巨 could have looked like this:

This shape may have represented a "figure holding a carpenter's square," says Henshall, citing various scholars. He mentions other conflicting views, then concludes that the whole character likely means "carpenter's square."

What Does 工 Represent in Other Kanji?

Let's see how Henshall interprets the 工 in more kanji, starting with this one:

左 (22: left)

The ナ is a pictograph of a "left hand," and the 工 is a pictograph of a "work tool." 

He comments that this ナ might function as both the radical and phonetic. (This makes no sense to me, as ナ is not a recognized radical. But if it somehow qualified as the radical here, 工 would obviously not fill that role.)

We find 左 inside this kanji:

差 (482: difference; to cross; offer; send; measure)

The upper part (the bit resembling 羊) represents "shoots or buds on a young tree." The 左 on the bottom serves as the phonetic and contributes the associated sense "uneven." The overall meaning of 差 is "young shoots or buds hanging down unevenly" and by extension "difference, divergence."

So 工 is the radical of 差 and then serves double duty by appearing in the phonetic 左? Yes, Kanjigen agrees with that, probably considering 工 the radical of 差 because 工 is the radical of 左. How confusing!

Here are Henshall's etymologies of the final two kanji with an on-duty 工 radical:

巧 (1242: skillful, clever)

In one view, the 工 means "work," and the right-side phonetic represents "floating aquatic plant" with the associated sense "to bend." The overall meaning would be "to bend and make." Alternatively, the 工 could represent "ax," with the right-side phonetic contributing the associated sense "flat, even." If so, the whole character would mean "work wood with an ax and skillfully make it flat/even."

攻 (1247: attack; specializing)

This character combines 攵 (strike, hit) with 工 (work), which functions as both the radical and the phonetic, according to two scholars Henshall cites. Together these sides yield "make things using a tool." Another view is that the 工 is only a phonetic with the associated sense "hit, strike," giving "hit with whip." 

Can 工 Be Both the Radical and the Phonetic?

We've seen that 工 might serve as both the radical and phonetic in 攻. Actually in essay 1244 on 江 (bay, cove; river) I listed all these kanji as sharing the 工 shape and the on-yomi コウ:

 (113: manufacturing, コウ)  (1247: attack, コウ)
 (477: merit, コウ)  (1257: tribute, コウ)
 (862: crimson, コウ)  (1258: to hold back, コウ)
 (1242: skillful, コウ)  (1262: clause, コウ)
 (1244: bay, cove; river, コウ)  (2090: rainbow, コウ)

In each kanji the 工 functions as the phonetic, the component that provides the コウ sound. This tells us that 工 is both the radical and phonetic in 113, 1242, and 1247.

For such a simple shape, 工 presents quite a few complexities!