There are tons of cliches when it comes to tattoos. Everybody knows the tramp stamp, tribal and sailor tattoos; but one in particular interests those learning Japanese: kanji tattoos.
Over the years, it seems like people have grown more and more fond of getting kanji tattooed on themselves; even celebrities have decided to get in on the craze. Heartthrob to preteen girls everywhere Justin Bieber recently got a kanji tattoo (I read about it on my Bieber forum).
It’s fascinating to me when people get inked in a language they don’t know, and kanji tattoos are the epitome of that. Getting something you don’t understand permanently etched on your body is a pretty ballsy move.
Unfortunately, kanji tattoos are a risky business. For one, their meanings can sometimes be tricky.
What Does it All Mean?!
A lot of people learning Japanese struggle with kanji (although, shameless plug, WaniKani might help you), so it’s not surprising that a lot of the people who get kanji tattoos don’t always understand all the nuances and subtleties of the characters.
The New York Times even ran a whole article dedicated to people who got kanji tattoos only to learn that they mean something completely different from what they expected.
One guy got a tattoo thinking it meant “One Love.” Unfortunately for him though, the tattoo said 恋痛い or, roughly, “Love Hurts.” (Although not as much as a tattoo removal.)
A high-profile example of this is 90s pop sensation Sporty Spice, who got a tattoo of her group’s slogan “Girl Power.” To get this tattoo, she translated the phrase as literally as possible, combining the character for woman (女) with the character for power (力). Makes sense in theory, right?
Unfortunately it’s not usually that simple, or else we could all just use Google Translate and be done with it. Not only was the nuance of “Girl Power” completely lost in translation, but it’s not actually a word in Japanese. People might get the general sense of what it’s supposed to mean, but it still might come off as something like “WOMANSTRONG.”
Besides making sure you get the kanji right, if you’re getting a tattoo to show your love of all things Japanese, it’s also important to keep in mind the Japanese attitude toward tattoos.
What Do Japanese Think About Tattoos?
Living like I do in Portland, tattoos almost seem like a requirement more than a stigma. I’m amazed that I’m allowed anywhere without a beard, flannel, and full sleeve tattoos of something ironic.
Most of the time though, the US and Japan included, tattoos are still stigmatized to some degrees. While tattoos are definitely seeing more and more mainstream acceptance, a lot of Western cultures have a long history of bad associations, from religious stigma to criminal connections.
In Japan, tattoos were actually outlawed from almost 100 years, until just after WWII. Groups like the yakuza are renowned for their full-body, traditional tattoos, which result in things like bathhouses banning people with tattoos from entering.
And just earlier this year, Osaka cracked down on its employees’ tattoos after a city worker threatened a kid by showing him his ink.
I don’t want to come across as a big ol’ party pooper who thinks that nobody should get kanji tattoos ever. People who get kanji tattoos just want a symbol of something that’s important to them, and kanji seems a lot more subtle than just spelling it out in plain ol’ English.
It’s definitely important to keep in mind though, that there are dangers to kanji tattoos. Even if your pal tells you it just means “Strength.”