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1.6 Billion Reasons NOT to Get Japanese or Chinese Tattoos (If You Can't Read Them)

Updated on July 1, 2017
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Jorge only writes in English, but he likes to read in a few other fun languages.

Japanese Tattoos: Meanings That Are Hidden and Mysterious

Are you thinking of getting a Japanese tattoo design even though you don't actually read Japanese? Are you considering getting a Chinese "symbol," even though these characters all look like hieroglyphics to you? Does the mystery actually add to the allure?

My job is not to judge you. You can do what you want with your life, including tattooing random words on your body. Just consider this before you do:

The Hanzi / Kanji (the Chinese / Japanese characters) are not magical symbols from another dimension that have special, hidden meanings. The meaning of these characters is obvious and out in the open to people who can read them, and over 1.6 billion people can. This includes Chinese people, Japanese people, and even a significant percentage of Korean people who are taught in grade school.

So next time you think "Asian symbols" are mysterious and exotic--realize that they're not to almost 1/4 of the world's population.

Why Should You Care?

Because your tattoos are written in a real language, and people can read them. Also, they usually say dumb things. If you ever do learn to read the Hanzi / Kanji characters, I challenge you to find a Japanese or Chinese tattoo on an English-speaking person that wouldn't look silly if it was in English.

Gonna get a Hanzi or Kanji character tattooed on your body? Good, learn to read them first.
Gonna get a Hanzi or Kanji character tattooed on your body? Good, learn to read them first.

Japanese Tattoo Meanings That You Didn't Intend

One day, I was at a party and I noticed this guy with a sleeveless shirt. He had an interesting tattoo:

"Does that say 'arm' on your arm?" I asked, chuckling.

The Japanese (also Chinese) character 腕, which literally means "arm," was tattooed on the side of his lower shoulder.

"Uh, no," he said, confusion written all over his face (though thankfully the character for "face" wasn't). "It says I'm creative in Japanese. It says I have skills."

"Heh, okay."

I figured it was best not to push the issue. What was done was done, and it was better for him to just continue giving the character his own private meaning.

To his credit, this character can also imply "skill," but I think anyone looking at it out of context like that would read it as referring to the body part. Besides, do you think he would have written "skill" in English just as easily as he did in Japanese? Was he aware of the more common meaning before he went under the needle?

This is not the only time I've run into someone with random words written in random places on their bodies. Here are some other popular ones that you might have seen around:

Power (力)

This is one of the most popular Japanese / Chinese tattoos that you will run into in the wild. In a literal sense, the character means "power" and can be found in words that have to do with effort, such as 体力 in Japanese ("strength of the body") or even 魔力 ("magical powers").

A common reason why Westerners might choose this as a tattoo is because they overcame some kind of adversity, and are told that the character symbolizes "strength."

While this is sort of accurate, in reality these characters don't symbolize anything--they are just words or parts of words. The character 力 symbolizes "power" the same way that the Roman letters p-o-w-e-r symbolize "power." They're not symbols, they're just characters that make up words.

Love (愛)

Another very common character that people enjoy wearing is 愛 (roughly pronounced "ai" in both Japanese and Mandarin). There are actually several characters for love, and this is simply one of them.

Oddly enough, it's not used that often in practice because it is considered a little strong, especially since it tends to have romantic connotations.

Friend (友), Brother (兄, 弟), Sister (姉, 妹), and Other Relatives

While some people will vaguely translate the character 友 as "friendship," it basically means "friend," and in fact makes up part of the word for friend in Japanese (友達).

When it comes to relational words like this, it pays to be a bit cautious and do your research. Cultural differences show most glaringly in these kinds of words.

Take for instance, the word for "sister." Many people might be inclined to get a Japanese tattoo of this word in honor a sister that they're close to. Did you know that there's no exact translation for the English word "sister," though?

In Japanese, you always specify whether your sibling is older or younger than you. As such, there are separate words for "younger sister" (妹) and "older sister" (姉), and no real generic word for "sister."

However, the term for "sisters" combines these two characters, to make 姉妹. There's also a separate term for "brothers" (兄弟), for "older brother and younger sister" (兄妹), for "older sister and younger brother" (姉弟), etc.

Star (星)

Before you ever get a Chinese or Japanese tattoo design, always make sure that you are not confusing it for an English homophone. Be clear about what you mean with the artist.

For example, some people may get the character for "star" (星) thinking that it has some kind of connotation of celebrity, when it doesn't. In fact, it literally means the stars in the sky, and in some cases planets as well. It is often used in words to describe heavenly bodies. (For instance, the word for "space alien" in Japanese is 異星人. Perhaps this would make a good tattoo, actually.)

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Why You Should Think Twice Before Getting a Chinese or Japanese Tattoo

If you haven't already noticed, there's more to the Hanzi / Kanji than meets the eye.

Think very carefully before getting a Japanese or Chinese tattoo, for a few important reasons:

Chinese / Japanese Characters Can Have Many Different Meanings

Because they don't mean much on their own, they can often mean all sorts of things that you didn't expect. For example, maybe your artist (who is just as clueless as you are about the language) told you that 日 means "sun." Indeed, this is true...sort of. However, it also means "day" and more often than not is used this way.

For another example, consider the character 月. It can mean "moon," but it also means "month" and can sometimes be shorthand for "Monday."

If you don't understand the language, you could be putting all kinds of words with all kinds of meanings on your body and not realize it.

Chinese / Japanese Characters Are Often Nearly Meaningless on Their Own

Individual characters or "symbols" are often not actually words. They are certainly not the equivalent of what you would call a "word" in English. It's not a one-to-one ratio like this, but many people don't realize how they work and end up using them like this anyway in their tattoos.

A more accurate way to look at the Hanzi / Kanji is to view them as components that make up words. Yes, sometimes a single character can serve as a word, but you'll usually find them forming parts of larger words.

Also consider that context is extremely important in East Asian languages, and that one character by itself won't tell you much.

You Don't Know What the Heck That Artist is Putting on Your Skin

If you don't read Japanese or Chinese, then you don't really know what your artist is tattooing on you. It could be anything, and you can't personally verify. Worse still, if your artist can't read either of these languages, then he doesn't know, either!

I have actually seen Chinese / Japanese characters butchered on tattoos before. Because the artist didn't really know the language and wasn't familiar with what they were really supposed to look like, he messed up and no one noticed. The result is a symbol that means nothing--except whatever the person wearing it thinks it means.

But isn't that what all of this is about, anyway? If you can't read the writing system, and yet you choose to tattoo yourself with these characters anyway, you may as well have put random squiggly lines on your body and given them your own personal symbolic meaning.

Why not get nice tattoo of a koi instead?
Why not get nice tattoo of a koi instead?

Ask Yourself This Before You Get a Japanese or Chinese Tattoo

"Would I write this on my body in English?"

Even if the words you chose were accurate to your intended meaning...

Even if your tattoo artist could read Japanese or Chinese...

Even if he tattooed the characters correctly...

You might still be writing something unintentionally silly. If it would be silly in English, it would probably be silly in other languages, too.

They Do It Too

But, hey, you have every right to be silly. Just as Westerners have this weird fascination with Chinese / Japanese characters, Eastern people have a weird fascination with English, too.

They make funny T-Shirts in pidgin English, and posters, and ornaments with random words--because anything that isn't in your native language is fancy!

So if you don't care about being silly, and you don't care about the actual meaning of your tattoo, then go ahead. Tattoo a bunch of Hanzi or Kanji all over your body! Just don't be shocked when people pause every once in awhile to read you.

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© 2017 Jorge Vamos

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