It's dangerous to put text on your body when you can't read it. In recent years, Japanese character tattoos have jumped in popularity around the world.
A good portion of these tattoos leave Japanese people scratching their heads.
The Danger of Kanji TattoosEtching language permanently into your skin that you can't read is a dangerous proposition.
Embarrassment, regret and laser tattoo removal surgery are often the result. There are several reasons kanji tattoos go wrong:
1. Multiple meaningsMost Japanese kanji have multiple meanings (up to 20 or more). Some meanings are obscure. If you choose a kanji tattoo for it's obscure meaning — it can be an embarrassing mistake.
In English, "gay" can mean happy. However, that's not the most common meaning of the word. Many kanji tattoos are technically correct but their common meaning isn't what was intended.
|Kanji||Intended Meaning||Common Reading|
|安||peaceful||A female character in the movie Transporter 3 has this tattoo on the back of her neck. Its most common reading is cheap (安い).|
|変||mysterious||It was widely reported that Britney Spears got this tattoo. Its common reading is "strange" or "unusual". This kanji always has a negative connotation.|
2. Nonsense phrasesAnother mistake is to assume that you can take any two kanji and put them together to make phrases.
This is a recipe for confusion. It's like taking any two English syllables and jamming them together. Either you end up with a word (you probably didn't intend) or meaningless gibberish. A few real life examples:
|Kanji||Intended Meaning||Real Meaning|
|西原||wild west||The kanji could potentially read "west wilderness". However, 西原 is a common Japanese surname pronounced — Nishihara. It's the equivalent of getting a "Smith" or "Wilson" tattoo.|
|冷笑||chill, happy||sardonic laugh|
|力頼||power of trust||dependence (力頼み)|
|気忙||adventurous spirit||fussy (気忙しい)|
3. Childlike HandwritingThe first time anyone tries to draw a Kanji it looks childish. It takes years to master Japanese writing. Kanji must be written with a particular stroke order or they end up looking strange.
Artistic renditions are even more challenging. Native Japanese speakers may take many decades to master Japanese calligraphy (shodo).
Kanji tattoos are sometimes poorly designed — leaving the impression that they were drawn by a small child who is learning Japanese.
4. Meaningless CharactersKanji tattoos sometimes have errors that render them completely unreadable.
5. Wrong CharacterMany Japanese characters are very similar to each other. Let's say you wanted the kanji for tree in your design — 木. It's easy to draw something that looks more like the katakana ホ.
The katakana ホ character has no meaning on its own — except as slang used by Japanese hip hop subculture. The katakana ホ is pronounced "ho".
6. Mirror ImageIt's a common error to design tattoos as a mirror image of the original Japanese characters. Upside down characters are also common.
7. Technically Correct But WrongIn many cases, engrish almost seems grammatically correct but is wrong nonetheless.
Kanji tattoos are the same — even when they're technically correct they might look weird to Japanese natives.
How to get a Kanji TattooLanguage has many nuances.
If you want a kanji tattoo it's essential to get advice from a native speaker of Japanese who you trust. Show them the design and make sure the characters look professional. Ask what the words mean in different contexts.