Kanji tattoos 101

So you want to get a tatt and you think Japanese kanji looks cool. Well, before you go and indelibly ink your body, there are a few things that you should know to avoid having something really unfortunate on your skin that people in the ‘know’ will point and giggle at forever and ever.

1. Choosing the word/words

Japanese consists of 3 systems of writing: kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese), hiragana (sound-based characters similar to our alphabet), katakana (same as hiragana but used for foreign words and is more angular and looks ‘less cool’). All three systems are used in combination when writing.

There are very few single kanji that have a meaning unto themselves so most of them are used in combination (usually two characters together) with hiragana being used to show grammatical function (i.e. the tense of a verb, whether it’s a noun, adjective etc.). Some words are also just written in hiragana because the kanji is too complex or it’s not on the official list, as there are only about 2000 individual kanji ‘officially’ taught at school.

Kanji does have intrinsic meaning, but it’s akin to the latin stems we have in English like ‘ped’ means something to do with the foot, so we have pedal, pedestrian etc. if we just saw the word ‘ped’ we’d go wtf? and so they do with Japanese if you only put half of the word on your body. I’ve seen in many tattoo books a meaning given to each and every kanji as though ‘this character means this’, but it doesn’t work like that.

A three-second google search will turn up heaps and heaps of images like this:

This sheet actually wins the award for worst font ever a.k.a looks like it was written by a pre-school non-Japanese kid and only four of them are stand-alone kanji with the correct meaning and that are written correctly.

Most of these ‘words’ need another character(s) to correctly give the meaning indicated and many of them are just totally wrong.

Oh and don’t be fooled into thinking that you can ‘spell’ your name out in kanji either. Yes, it is possible to match some sounds to your name, but the resulting kanji will be gibberish.I have a seal that I had made out of the sound of my last name because I needed one for contracts and things. It literally says, ‘house, well, habour’ and it’s a great joke. Imagine that as a tattoo.

There are a few four-character-kanji-idioms that can be used to pack a lot of meaning into just four characters. They are a like proverbs in English in the sense that you have to know what they mean as they don’t make sense on their own. If you didn’t know what “two in the hand are worth four in the bush” meant you’d be like wtf, right?? Some examples of those idioms are:

literally ‘one stone, two birds’. I think you can guess what this one means.

literally ‘one time, one meeting’. Poetically it is translated into English as ‘treasure the moment’, but it’s a cultural idea that had its origins in the tea ceremony and it encapsulates the feeling that each experience is unique and so you should savour it.

literally “I, sufficient, just, know”. Poetically it is translated into English as “I know contentment”, but it’s a buddhist idea about being content with what you have and the average Japanese person would have no idea what it means.

It’s also important that you realise that Japanese is a very different language to English. I know this seems like a no-shit-sherlock thing, but I still see people trying to tattoo “Mom” in Japanese on themselves. Compared to English, Japanese is a very contextual language, meaning words will have different meanings depending on how you use them. As an example, the ‘mom’ thing. There are a few words for ‘mom’ and all of them are labels that depict your relationship with that person.

How you refer to other people’s mums and your mum when you are speaking directly to her (honourific).

How you refer to your mum when talking to other people (non honourific), but it’s rude to directly call her that.

Most recently people call their mom, ‘mama’ and it’s written in katakana like this, not kanji because it’s a foreign word from English.

So if you’re going to tattoo ‘mom’ on your arm, which one are you going to use? It all seems too complex and un-natural to me.

Similarly if you’re of a bdsm bent, words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ are just not cool in Japanese, they come across like ‘woman with many partners’ or ‘female selling body’. Funnily enough, the word for ‘Master’ is also the word for ‘husband’, but the difficult twist on this is similar to the ‘mom’ thing above.

Is how you refer to your husband/master to other people because it’s rude to put an honourific on your own husband

But if you were being a good slave and suitably submissive, you would use this to their face with double honourifics. But it also refers to someone else’s husband/master and without the context, it’s a bit weird as a tattoo.

2. Realising there is a difference between Chinese characters and kanji.

Kanji was borrowed from the Chinese but it’s gone through some changes in Japanese. Many of the characters have been simplified and many have a different meaning in Japanese. This is the same character ‘ki’ (chi in Chinese):

Japanese

 

Chinese

I’ve seen some fail tattoos where they’ve mixed the Chinese and the kanji, so make sure you’ve got one or the other. If you’re going with Chinese, go Chinese all the way and the same goes for kanji.

3. Choosing the font.

Font is really important. I’ll say it again, font is really important. Really. Really. I can’t say it enough. I’ve seen a lot of fail kanji tattoos that fail because they look like they were written by a pre-schooler with a crayon. You wouldn’t have someone do an English tattoo on you if their writing looked like shit would you? No. You’d have them do some cool calligraphy or at least have them use a template of a good-looking font. Same goes for Japanese.

Poorly written gibberish - she thinks it means passion, it means 'during heat' or 'tropical'

 

Japanese looks better with a slightly thicker font and something that is a little more artistic.

The one on the right has been very poorly written. Several of the strokes are too long and the angles are weird.

The one on the left is well-balanced and a good over-all look.

Another very important part of kanji are the ‘flicks’ and the spacing between characters. Flicks are created when the strokes are done in the correct direction and a tell-tale sign of a fail kanji is one in which the flicks are in the wrong direction. It’s also important to know what parts of the kanji need to be put close together and what parts needs a space. Some kanji are actually a combination of some simpler one character kanji, but when they are ‘squished’ together they form a new kanji with a different meaning. Meaning can be lost in translation when you put a space in the wrong place.

Also make sure that you’re not getting a fail mirror-image tattoo. Know which way your character goes and make sure your tattooist does too.

4. Style.

Tattoos in Japan are traditionally artwork of carps, cherry blossoms, dragons etc. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese person with a kanji tattoo and that’s because to them, kanji is not a picture it’s a word. I’d imagine we would think twice about tattooing ‘beauty’ or ‘love’ in big letters across our body. If you want to get several kanji done together like ‘peace’ ‘prosperity’ ‘love’ etc., I’d suggest you get them done in a design like a mandala or something that separates the characters completely. Just randomly having the kanji on your body looks fail because if you see kanji together, you want to read them together and if it’s just random words that don’t make sense in combination, it’s weird.

I’m guessing this guy wanted ‘love, life, learn, laugh’. And other than the first character being a bit poorly written, each character is ok (although the last two don’t really function as ‘to learn’, ‘to laugh’ as they are, they need some hiragana and the first one is ‘love’ as a noun, not a verb, but let’s look over that.) If they were separated by some design, I’d be okay with it, but as it is, I want to try to read it from top to bottom and it’s just weird.

5. Don’t get weird shit tattooed on you.

 

Ball
Flat or level
Suzuki - I hope this person's name is Mr Suzuki or they at least have a bike

 

Power/energy/strength + woman = wonder woman?

Check, double-check, get someone who knows the language really well to check, check some more and then do it. These people obviously didn’t.

(Note: I don’t speak or read Chinese. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese (although I believe they use the same characters) so I don’t know if any of these tattoos function correctly in Chinese. Ultimately I’m talking about kanji and Japanese here.)

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15 thoughts on “Kanji tattoos 101

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  1. Hey,
    I love your japanese entries (well I like all your entries, but particularly the japanese ones). Now, I know a number of people that studied japanese in undergrad, but none of them seem to have the knowledge base necessary to help me figure out the thing I find most interesting about language. Etymology. I love find the usage and derivations of words over hundreds of years. I love that I know that thelyphthora was coined in 1780 specifically for someones treatise on the matter, and more or less forgotten about since. I love when I see that Army has roots that go back to PIE Ar-.

    Learning these etymologies has expanded my vocabulary and the accuracy of my word use (that is to say, how appropriate the words I choose are to the situation).

    You mentioned something like it above (how the kanji act like latin roots), but I was wondering, is there a japanese study of etymology? How can I get more resources relevant to it? and, as a very proud (and often xenophobic) people, do the japanese trace the origins of their language back to some mixing of ainu and chinese, or do they just kind of go back until before that point and assume the japanese people have always been as they are now?

    I feel like it will help me understand the language on a more fundamental level, and perhaps I will be able to A.) learn some bloody hiragana and B.) say more than “excuse me, do you speak english?”.

    Thanks! hope you are well!

    1. What an interesting question!

      This may get long….(also, I’m not an expert, but this is my understanding… )

      There are many studies & theories of Japanese etymology, but I’m not sure how many of those are in English. I did linguistics as part of my uni study and spent a fair amount of time learning the history of Japanese, but the textbooks we used were in Japanese, so I can’t really help you with English resources.

      As a language, there are theories that Japanese has characteristics of, among others, Altaic, Austronesian, and Dravidian languages, but they’ve always been thought of as simply similarities and generally Japanese is considered to be in its own language family. There is lots of contention about this though…

      Ainu has the same subject-object-verb structure, but different grammar and vocabulary and is considered a different language. Ryuukyuu (Okinawan) is thought of as a dialect of Japanese (but perhaps not to the Okinawan people…lol).

      Japanese had no system of writing until Kanji was adopted.It started trickling into Japan in the 2nd-3rd centuries and started to be widely used in 4th-5th. Writing at this time was done as per Chinese grammar rules but when it was read, it was read with Japanese structure & words.The kanji was matched to the original Japanese words (known as Yamato words) sometimes according to meaning and sometimes sound. Japanese at this time also had many more sounds than it does today.

      The introduction of kanji also added many nouns & adjectival verbs to Japanese that didn’t exist until that point (mostly philosopical/religious/academic ideas). Verbs, adjectives & particles (which show grammatical function like identifying the subject/object of a sentence etc.) are to this day mostly Yamato words.

      In the 8th century the Manyoushuu (collection of Japanese poetry) was written using a kanji for each sound in the words. Over the next couple of centuries these kanji were simplified and evolved into an early form of hiragana The Genjimonogatari (The Tale of the Genji) written in the 11th century was the first work of literature that used hiragana in a form similar to what is used today.

      Katakana evolved from the earlier hiragana form in order to be used as particles. Monks & scholars had placed punctuation marks in the Chinese writing to indicate where the particles were so they could add them in when reciting and these marks were replaced with the katakana that was developed.

      In 1946, the touyou kanji list was created and many kanji were simplified and many were cut out from daily use.

      After WWII the occupying US forces also looked seriously at mandating that the Japanese writing system be changed to roman lettering because they felt that the kanji system was impacting negatively on literacy rates, but then they did a study and discovered that literacy rates in Japan were very high (probably higher than in the US…lol.)

      In 1981 the Jyouyou kanji list was created – an official list of kanji that could be used and that would be taught in schools. This included 1945 kanji with 4087 readings.
      In June of this year, the list was revised to 2136 characters with 4388 readings.

      Today, most kanji have both an ‘on’ reading from the original Chinese and a ‘kun’ reading from the Yamato word. Many kanji also have multiple ‘on’ readings and some only have a ‘kun’ reading. It’s a case of learning the words and remembering them so you know which reading is applicable.

      As far as vocabulary is concerned, along with the original Yamato words and words introduced from Chinese, in the middle ages Christian missionaries visited Japanese and added several Portuguese words to the Japanese vocabulary. In the Edo period (17th-mid 19th century) Spanish and Dutch traders added a few more words. Many German medical terms and French art terms have also entered Japanese and of course, masses of English words since the US occupation.

  2. My particular favorite was during my college years. Right when I was in the middle of my second year in japanese.

    girl had a lovely tramp stamp, very crisp, the kanji was well formed.

    Save for the part where is was flipped over and upside down.

    It was most amusing.

    Happy Christmas, and new year.

    Rarius

  3. Hi i dont know if you are still active in this discussion but if so i have a question about some kanji i have which i was going to perhaps get tattooed on me.

  4. Very good resource for kanji tattoos. I have been wondering how silly kanji tattoos look like when mistakenly inked while watching many porn files. Then I hit the certain point that broke my nerve and I made some contribution on this matter. This is some of examples in porn industry on how many pornstars knowingly or not get poorly thought tattoos on them. I made my blog just out of curiosity, so there is no nudity or erotic photo. Sorry.
    BTW, there are some misunderstanding on your part about kaji, Japanese, and tattoos. I would like to correct if I have time to spare some day.

  5. Oh, I almost forgot. Allow me. I linked this entry of yours from my blog. I thought it is good to know for the public to read your article as a general guideline before they get wrong tattoo.

    A few things to comment on your understanding:

    1. Chinese kanji system. (corresponding to your section #2)
    China is not a single country as you know. Chinese Taipei and the People Republic of China.
    Taipei uses traditional, complex style of kanji writing. Whereas P.R.C. uses simplified kanji characters ruled by the government. You mentioned only R.P.C. system to compare Japanese kanji style. Japanese kanji style sits between traditional style and simplified style, not too complex and not too complicated.

    2. The second picture showing 30 or so kanji fonts and you mention only 4 of them are correct. However, to my knowledge of Japanese (I am born and raised native speaker in mid-40’s), 志 生 子 娘 火 友 福 天 早 父 心 these are all correct in meaning and writing. Sure, some has a bit distorted lines, but totally acceptable and they are not regarded as childish way of writing. You may see the perfect writing as textbook style or “kaisho” style font as you show the photo of 愛 (on the left) in the 3rd section, but that is just one way of writing. There are some more styles such as “gyosho” (行書) and “sohsho” (草書), and most importantly these styles are considered as more sophisticated and elegant. Even in printing, the style used in the right side of the 愛 picture is more used than textbook style, and it is called “mincho” style (明朝体). The name textbook style is so, because the style is most only used in textbooks, not in general publication.
    That said, I do not think only textbook style font is to be used for tattoo. Mincho style and other font is perfectly fine.

    3. the word “熱中” (the 1st photo in section #3)
    Put aside style of writing, the meaning “passion” is perfectly correct with this characters as in “ポルノ映画に熱中する.” Rather, tropical is “熱帯” and “during heat” means what? I do not understand what it means in English.

    4. “吾唯知足” (one of 4 words examples in section #1)
    Literally from left to right, it represents “I, just, know, sufficient.” It reads 吾 (ware) 唯 (tada) 足 (taru wo) 知 (shiru).

    That is all for this time.

    1. Thanks for the comment – I like your blog. I’ve seen some very bad porn star tattoos. I remember seeing one middle-aged woman with 婆 tattooed between her breasts! Lol.

      1. I don’t know enough about ‘Chinese’ to say anything about it. My point was only to say that kanji used in Japan often differ to those used in ‘Chinese’.

      2. When you think of tattoos as art, I think it’s important to consider how they look and the meaning. I don’t think a tattoo written in 明朝体 ever looks good. Do you think 早 is okay for ‘early’ – not 早い?And just 天 not 天国? (I know 天の下り, 天の川 etc. but in this case?)
      I think also for the English meaning of ‘life’, 命 is better. And for fire in English, I think most people need the more poetic 炎.

      3. For passion, should she not have chosen 情熱? And 熱中する is a verb so you’d normally have it in the form of に〜熱中する so does it make sense to just write 熱中?
      ポルノ映画に熱中する – Yes, you could translate this as “I have a passion for porno movies”, but I think a better translation would be “I’m so into porno movies” or “I’m addicted to porn”. For ‘to have a passion for’ in English you really have to use it about positive/good for everyone things like volunteering or collecting art etc.

      4. Yes, I have the words out of order. Thanks for pointing that out

      1. Thank you for visiting my blog. It is still a baby blog unlike yours. I am not sure there are so many pornstars to add continuously. I hope there are not so many, otherwise it is a disaster for them and for us.
        I think you take Japanese word too strict in its meaning. It is more flexible. I understand for JSL (like ESL in Japanese) students it is better to learn the language more strict and traditional way, but the Japanese words are usually not one-word to one-meaning match. Say, the one character word “天” surely means heaven. Like “天にますます我らの神よ…” (Oh our gods in heaven…) as translation of some Christian phrase. Of course, you can spell out “天国” or “天空” to mean the exact one. And for 早, we know 早い is the perfect style as adjective, but we are also able to understand “早” itself means “早い” as the Japanese know kanji characters themselves have own meanings (mostly introduced from early China). The same is true to some of the kanjis in the picture. This is especially true when a kanji has almost only meaning. On the other hand, “気” has various meanings such as air (空気), spirit (元気), and state of matter (蒸気). It is bit difficult to pick which one of meanings in such case. 生 – life is one of such cases. 命 can also mean other things such as in order (命令). When we see the word “天” we usually imagine heaven or up in the sky. So, yes, in that case, you are safe to say 天 means heaven. 情熱 means passion. You are right. But 熱中 also means to do something with passion. And thanks for teaching me word choices of English. It is always difficult to pick the right one and always has been my problem.

  6. Hello. Uhh..I’m having my first tattoo soon and I am hoping to get the kanji for love, faith and music down my spine. I don’t trust google so I was just wondering iff maybe you could help me out by maybe posting or emailing me the right anji for them?. :c >_<

    My email is caydee_laydee@hotmail.co.uk. :3

    1. I’d recommend that you check out the designs on http://www.stockkanji.com. The stencils are beautifully written, easy to use and very reasonably priced. Also, I’m not quite sure which meaning of ‘faith’ you are aiming for (religious? belief? trust?) so do a search on there and have a look at the different options.

  7. Hello! I am half-Japanese, and I wanted to get a tattoo of my Japanese family name (it’ll be my first tat!!). However, my knowledge of kanji is very limited. Your post is extremely informative and I think everyone considering a kanji tattoo should read it to get a better idea of what they’re doing. It just made me a little nervous because I don’t want people to think that mine doesn’t make sense or it looks like a three year old did it. Also, is there a certain way that names in kanji are written or formatted so that people know it’s a name and not random characters? I have a few font options, so if I could contact you to get advice on it, that would be great! 🙂 Thank you so much!

    PS I really like the slave tattoo on your butt! Hope that wasn’t creepy. Haha. Your blog is so interesting and diverse. 🙂

    1. Howdy!
      There’s no particular way that a surname would be formatted. Depending on what the name is, it may be better to include it as part of a design though. You’re more than welcome to contact me with font options subtleslavegirl@hotmail.com
      P.S I don’t think it’s creepy that you appreciate my butt 🙂 I used to have a whole Japan section on here but I moved it to another blog Quirky Japan

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