86. The "Fire" Radical: 火 and 灬

In the Joyo set, 24 kanji are ablaze with the on-duty "fire" radical, but it's not always easy to recognize this radical. We'll look at three possible shapes and locations, as well as the attendant name changes.

In its purest form, the radical looks exactly like this autonomous kanji:

火 (8: fire; Tuesday; Mars; "fire" radical)

This character, which Henshall calls a stylized derivative of a pictograph of "fire with flames and sparks," has the Joyo kun-yomi ひ. That's also the way to read the "fire" radical 火 when it has that shape.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

You can find fire in Japanese vending machines! Rather, you can find Fire, the brand name of a type of hot canned coffee! The name comes from the company's method of roasting coffee beans over fire.

Other Instances of 火 as the "Fire" Radical 

In several more kanji, the "fire" radical again looks just like the 火 kanji. Here are three examples, along with the meanings of their components:

災 (680: disaster)

The top of the character represents a "river," which means "flood" in this context. The bottom shape means "fire," of course. Fires and floods are symbols of disasters.

灰 (818: ash)

Instead of 厂, this character used to contain a ナ, which meant "hand." Thus, the character combines "fire" and "hand." Some scholars feel that the ナ phonetically expresses "to use up," making the whole character mean "used-up fire." Others think the two parts collectively mean "fire that one can hold in the hand." Both are clever takes on "ash"!

炎 (1024: flame; inflammation)

"Fire" or "flame" has been duplicated for emphasis. This character often has connotations of "excessive fire/heat."

Unless otherwise indicated, all etymologies in this Radical Note come from Henshall.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Excessive fire indeed! With 火 next to 災 (680: disaster) in this sign, we seem to have a real crisis. Thank goodness the sign is at a fire station. The words are as follows:

つけましたか? 住宅用火災警報器
Have you installed it? Residential fire alarm

つける (付ける: to attach);
住宅用 (じゅうたくよう: residential use);
火災警報器 (かさいけいほうき: fire alarm)

The question is, have you installed an alarm in your house?

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the front plate of a "modern" suit of armor (1615–1868) features a lacquer painting of the Buddhist guardian deity Fudo-Myoo as he runs over rolling waves. The flames in the background are considered part of him! They're called 迦楼羅炎 (かるらえん: "Garuda's fire breath"), a term culminating in one of "our" kanji. By the way, 迦 is non-Joyo. You can read more about this suit of armor in essay 1334 on 漆 (lacquer).

The "Fire" Radical at the Left

When our radical shifts to the left side of a kanji, two things happen. First, the radical becomes skinny. Second, its name changes to ひへん (火編: "fire" radical on the left side of a kanji).

Here are some examples, along with etymologies:

灯 (556: light, lamp) 

This character used to feature 登 on the right. That shape typically represents "to climb" but literally means "atop a pedestal," which is the sense it contributes here. Thus, the character symbolizes "fire atop a pedestal"—namely, a beacon or lamp. 

炊 (1453: to cook)    

This character combines "fire" with "lack; gaping mouth" (欠), the right side acting phonetically here to express "to blow." Thus, 炊 originally referred to "blowing on a fire to make it flare up prior to cooking," which symbolized "cooking" or "boiling."

爆 (1702: explosion) 

On the right we have "violence" or "to expose," though that shape acts phonetically here to express "to burn." It may also lend connotations of "heat" and/or "violent action." The right side also lends an onomatopoetic sound. Thus, 爆 originally referred to something "burning in a fire and bursting/exploding (violently?) with a BAKU sound." 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Every kanji in this sign features our radical! How wonderful! I'm burning with excitement! The word is 炭火焼 (すみびやき: charcoal grilling), which people usually write as 炭火焼き.

Here are the kanji sandwiching this term:

炭 (341: charcoal)
焼 (509: to burn)

Fire at the Bottom

When our radical shifts to the bottom of a kanji, radical changes ensue! The shape of the radical becomes 灬. We can read this variant in any of the following ways:

れっか (列火)
れんが or れんか (both corresponding to 連火)
よつてん or よってん (both from 四つ点)

Let's go with れっか (列火), in which 列 means "row." This alludes to the way all the dots of 灬 are in a row.

The newer edition of Henshall indicates that the dots symbolize "flames, fire," and a Wiktionary page exclusively about these four dots says that they have been simplified from 火.

Here's a character with this variant form of our radical:

照 (510: to illuminate)

The 昭 means "bright light," and the "fire" at the bottom emphasizes the brightness. 

The next two characters are interrelated, in that both originally had the 然 shape:

然 (528: as such, like)    

燃 (765: to burn)

As 然 combines "fire" with  "meat" (月) and "dog" (犬), the character originally meant "to roast dog meat," later coming to represent "to roast" or "to burn" more broadly. 

Then the Chinese added another "fire" radical to the left, producing 燃, which took over the meaning that 然 had. Later, people chose 然 to represent abstractions such as "thus, duly, as things should be." 

The upshot is that with 燃, we have a character burning from two sides! 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The first two kanji in the top sign are red, quite appropriately, forming this red-hot word:

熱烈 (ねつれつ: ardent; passionate; vehement)

Oh, and there's an internal rhyme! What more could one want?! Here are the two kanji in question:

熱 (560: hot; excited)
烈 (1929: violent; intense)

The rest of the words are as follows:

中華 (ちゅうか: Chinese food)
食堂 (しょくどう: restaurant)
日高屋 (ひだかや: a restaurant name)

As the restaurant website reflects, the romanized name is Ramen Hidakaya.

On the bottom sign we also see うまい (delicious) and 中華そば (which refers here to a basic ramen dish), plus 円 (えん: yen). 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The non-Joyo 眞 (the old form of 真) means "truth, reality" and is part of the restaurant name 眞花 (しんか). The 花 (か) doesn't appear on the sign, but the pictures of flowers are probably supposed to represent that meaning and sound!

Although I spot our radical in 焼 (509: to burn) in 大串焼き (おおくしやき: big grilled skewers), the first line jumps out more:


Look at the 12 dots underpinning that row! But don't be fooled; our "fire" radical appears only in 然. The last kanji, 魚 (98: fish; "fish" radical), is a pictograph of a "whole fish," says Henshall in his newer edition, adding that the four dots represent a tail. The same shape constitutes the left side of 鮮; that's the "fish" radical. Because the dots on the bottom of 天然鮮魚 look quite similar to each other, it's alarmingly easy to shout "Fire!" by mistake instead of "Fish"! 

Here's what the two terms in that line mean:

天然 (てんねん: nature)
鮮魚 (せんぎょ: fresh fish)

Together, these words indicate that the fish have been caught in natural environments, not at fish farms.

What's Cooking with the "Fire" Radical?

Here's another way to misinterpret 灬. In several characters, 灬 sits under a shape that can serve as an autonomous kanji, and one might assume that the top component is on fire. Consider this example:

煮 (1338: to boil)

Is this depicting a person (者) on fire?! Not exactly. This 者 acts phonetically to express "to boil" and also means "various things." Thus, 煮 represents "boiling various things over a fire."

Let's take a different case:

点 (179: point)

This kanji seems to combine "fire" with "fortune telling" (占) but actually once featured 黒 (black; "black" radical) on the left with 占 (divination) on the right. The  acts phonetically here to express "small" while lending the concept of "meaningful sign." We therefore have a "small black sign," such as a "point" or "mark."

As for the flames under 黒 (124: black), Henshall says that that kanji originally had 炎 (flame) on the bottom. The top (which was round!) represents a "grill" or "window" with soot marks from its position over the flames. "Soot" symbolizes "black." 

Taking into account the "fish" radical (radical 195) and the "black" radical (radical 203), we now have three radicals that include 灬. And there are still others with four dots at the bottom: 馬 (radical 187, the "horse" radical) and 鳥 (radical 196, the "bird" radical), as well as 㣺, a variant of 心 (radical 61, the "heart" radical).

Here are two more characters that apparently "burn" autonomous kanji:

烈 (1929: fierce, intense)

We encountered 熱烈 in a photo. And we also saw that in 列火 (the name of 灬), 列 means "row." Is a row burning in 烈? No, this 列 acts phonetically to express "to destroy" and might suggest "spreading." Thus we have a "destructive fire (that spreads?)," symbolizing something "fierce" and "intense."

(1995: bear)

This kanji seems to light a fire under "ability" (能). Actually, Henshall says in his newer edition that 能 itself used to represent "bear." The "fire" came later, he notes, adding that the 能 in 熊 may phonetically express “flames burn brightly,” giving 熊 the overall meaning “light of fire, flames burn brightly.” Meanwhile, Kanjigen indicates that the idea behind 熊 is that the meat of a fat bear burns well and that a bear was once considered the spirit of fire. 

Photo Credit: Corey Linstrom

We find 灬 in this kanji:

無 (796: without; nothing, nonexistent; not)

The flames on the bottom have nothing to do with fire and weren't always there, but the etymology is obscure and "somewhat confused," says Henshall, so let's not delve into it.

Here's what the sign says:

ルール無視 マナー無視が   事故のもと  
Disregarding Rules, Disregarding Manners, Is Where Accidents Start

無視* (むし: disregarding, ignoring); 事故 (じこ: accident);
もと (元: origin, source)

The menacing animal at the top (placed there to scare you straight?!) is an イセエビ (伊勢海老: spiny lobster), in which 伊 is non-Joyo. This photo was taken near the town of Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula on Honshu.