The Pitfalls of Kanji Tattoos

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 () with the character for power (). 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.”

  • idrawrainbows

    I saw someone at a waterpark with 友達 tattooed on their back. The characters were in the correct order, but each one was backwards… I didn’t have the heart to tell him T^T

  • DAVIDPD

    My old buddy got a full sleeve in “traditional Japanese-style” and I have to admit, it looks pretty cool. I would also recommend watching this excellent short documentary on tattoo culture. There is some neat information on a guy who does traditional Japanese tattoos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlKK4FvReSk

  • Mescale

    He probably did it himself, in a mirror, in prison. HARDCORE PRISON KANJI. RESPECT!

    And just think, when people are driving away from his back they appear the correct way around when they look in their mirrors!

    Now /thats/ friendship.

    Oh and thinking about Kanji Tattoos and Prison, think of all the things you could tattoo on your knuckles. No longer are you limited to only PAIN and HATE.

    愛 苺 パ ン ツ 死 金 玉 太 牛

  • http://twitter.com/etoile Meredith

    Tattoos are not stigmatized in the US to anywhere near the degree they are stigmatized in Japan. I have eight tattoos, and while it might get me some funny looks in the US, it’s a whole different ballgame here in Japan. I can’t go to any public place that involves water. Mine are not small enough to cover, and so I just don’t go. I also tend to wear pants so I don’t put people off with the ink on my ankle and leg, even in summer. (I don’t have to, of course, but I prefer to be respectful.) The US is nothing like this – even if someone looks at you funny, you are not kept out of public facilities due to the tattoos, and people understand that it’s a form of individual expression, not hooliganism.

    I’m not complaining that I can’t go to these places – I understand that the tattoos were my choice, even if I didn’t know I’d be living in Japan when I got my first tattoo 13 years ago! I recognize that Japanese culture is different from US culture, and it’s perfectly fine that they don’t like tattoos. But saying that the stigma in the US is anything like the stigma in Japan isn’t fair – it’s far more acceptable to have a tattoo in the US.

  • Dy~

    this article pretty much explains why I won’t get something tattoo’d on me that I can’t understand – on a side note it brought up a story from my HS Chinese teacher when she told us of this guy who had something tat’d on him, he said it ment fast or something but it really ment something along the lines of passes gas

  • MrsSpooky

    One has to be careful too with kanji that have multiple meanings especially! I’m thinking of the kanji read as KO / tora. It means ‘tiger’ (tigers are popular symbols in some quarters). The kanji also means ‘dunkard’. If I saw that on someone I’d have to ask which meaning they had in mind when they got it. xD

  • http://www.facebook.com/AveryGoodgame Nick Hattan

    Speaking of kanji, and that whole shameless WaniKani self promotion.. there should be no person not on the beta list right now (unless they know enough kanji already, but even then). I just recently moved from RTK to it, and ohmygod difference.

  • http://twitter.com/WackoMcGoose Kimura

    It seriously does make a difference. Originally I was doing the JALUP RTK Mod thing, which was meh, then I switched to Lazy Kanji and made a little more progress, but still got tired of it. I don’t know if the problem was the decks not being interesting enough, or if Anki itself was just too “8ooooooooring”.

    But as soon as I got into the WK alpha, I was actually having fun with it again. The fact that it’s both kanji AND vocab is really good, which means I’ll actually be able to say things once it’s done, rather than just knowing the kanji alone. It is a little weird not knowing in advance how many reviews I will have in the next session (along with the all-too-common “more things came due mid-session”), and I have to make sure I space out the 42+ lesson pile on each level up, but WK is genuinely enjoyable. Not to mention the satisfaction of the fact that Dad’s the one paying for it right now since I don’t have an income yet so I can’t have a bank account :P

  • linguarum

    http://hanzismatter.blogspot.com/ deserves honorable mention. Huge website of nothing but mistaken kanji tattoos.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Well, they probably were drunk when deciding on the tattoo, so there’s that…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    This just makes me so sad :(

  • anon

    女力is accurate in chinese tho

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    One of these days Imma get “T O F U F U G U” on my knuckles. That, or a unicorn on my lower back. Haven’t decided yet.

  • ジョサイア

    Yeah… :’(

  • http://rachelnabors.com Rachel Nabors

    Hashi, I did not realize you’re in Portland! I was just there this summer. Shoot!

  • Cheru

    Also, even if you do know the language, and are sure that what you want as a tattoo is what it means, there’s still the factor of your tattoo artist not knowing the language. I’ve heard some horror stories of people who brought in one kanji but ended up with something else. Backwards, missing strokes, too many strokes, etc. And it’s bad enough that you know it’s wrong, and you didn’t get what you asked for, but it’s particularly bad when it’s a character where that one stroke they just forgot completely changes the meaning. (Like 大 and 犬.)

  • HatsuHazama

    Do the nyan cat deal, a unicorn with the letters tofugu flying out its, well, you know.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    I think WaniKani is really nice, but since I’d already been through the entire Lazy Kanji deck (actually, it was Lazy Kanji Mod) it was confusing to have completely different radicals and keywords. It was too confusing for me to switch, so I’ll just stick with what I’m using.

    I agree that it’s a great system though. I just wish they came up with it sooner. I’m not complaining, but I can’t use it now…

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Using kanji as decoration when you don’t know what it means is just… Well, at least when it’s a background, notebook, etc. it can be changed. The most reliable way to get a tattoo removed costs a ton of money, leaves really bad scars, hurts terribly, and doesn’t even get rid of the entire thing. The second best way is to get it covered with something else, but that doesn’t always turn out well either.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yup, most of us are in Portland! See if you can find us next time you’re in town, it’ll be like a scavenger hunt!

  • idrawrainbows

    A unicorn on each knuckle!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Maybe a giant rainbow across my back. If only I knew somebody who draws rainbows!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Its . . . mouth?

  • http://durf.org/ Peter Durfee

    Yes, writing this post without a link to Hanzi Smatter was a bad move. Tian is the granddaddy of laughing at illiterate Asian tattoos on the Internet.

  • Marion Bouguet

    This is not entirely right.
    Gyms, super sentos and onsen are forbidden of course but you can still go to local sentos and some onsens which are not too big.

    For instance if you go to a hotel with a onsen in Hakone or such, best is to ask at the reservation if it poses any problem. Plenty of places are OK with it.
    I live in japan too. My boyfriend is a japanese tattoo artist so here’s very heavily tattooed and yet we go to our local sento very often and managed to go to onsens without too much trouble too.

    Yet it is true that you have to be ready to bear with the look on people’s face :)

  • FoxiBiri

    The vlogger tokyocooney got the kanji for “meat” (肉) tattooed to his arm lol
    this was all on purpose though xD

  • http://www.facebook.com/elysia.beattie Elysia Beattie

    Love the Portland comment. I live there, and I’m surprised there isn’t a one tattoo minimum to get into the bars or restaurants….

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    More like a minimum of one tattoo, a bike, and you can only order IPAs.

  • Nigel Wang

    It’s silly that you completely forgot about the fact that “kanji” are actually Chinese characters and whether they make sense, should always be interpreted from the perspective of the origin – China.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elysia.beattie Elysia Beattie

    So true!! Ridiculous…..lol

  • Gaijin

    You are half right. While Kanji characters are from Chinese characters originally, The Japanese created their own Kanji as well. And some Kanji have different meanings in Japanese. The Japanese, like many people, learned, borrowed and adapted language, art forms and skill from other cultures making something uniquely their own. The language is always developing with new phrases and meanings in popular culture as well. I an integrated with Japanese culture, not Chinese, so if I were to get any Kanji tattoos, the usage and combinations would be those that have meaning in Japan, not China. Those who are reading who know Japanese culture would understand. Those who aren’t, well, frankly, don’t care.