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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.)