- The Basics of Japanese tattoos with words – Start here!
- Types of Tattoos with Japanese Words
- Things to look out for when getting a tattoo with Japanese words
- Japanese and Chinese Characters are a bit different!
- Do you know what your Japanese tattoo words really mean?
- Is your Japan tattoo word, or phrase, grammatically correct?
- Don’t try and simply find a “direct equivalent” word in Japanese
- Two or more Kanji placed next to each other mean something different to two kanji independently
- What are the most popular Japanese Kanji tattoos?
If you do a search in Japanese on the internet for Chinese Character tattoos or Japanese letter tattoos, you get a bunch of pages dedicated to how embarrassing a lot of the words and designs that people get are.
That’s not what you want. Don’t be one of those people featured on a Japanese website somewhere as an example of a silly foreigner with a cringey tattoo.
On this page, we’ll take you through some of the good examples, some of the bad examples, and some that would make you want to hide your body away under as much fabric as possible at all times.
The Basics of Japanese tattoos with words – Start here!
Types of Tattoos with Japanese Words
The first thing to note is that there are three scripts you have to choose from when using Japanese text. Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
Kanji is the Japanese term for Chinese characters (with the “kan” part meaning “character” and the “ji” part meaning “letter”). They are called “Hanzi” in standard Chinese.
These are the most popular types of Japanese lettering used in tattoos.
They are popular for tattoos because, in contrast to Western alphabets, each character is actually a little picture – or at least it was a couple of thousand years ago. You can still clearly see these origins in some of the characters, clearly illustrated in such characters as:
山 (yama) Mountain
川 (kawa) River
凸 (deko) Convex or protruding
凹 (boko) Concave or indented
Kinda cool right?
But most characters are so complex that they look very little like the original thing they were meant to portray.
Why are Chinese Characters so complex?
Chinese characters quickly become very complex because they are usually combinations of different “subparts”, called “radicals” in English, that tell a story that makes up the meaning. So for example, if you combine the character
中 (naka, chuu) Center, middle, in-between
with the character
心 (kokoro, shin) Heart, mind, spirit
You get the character
Meaning loyalty, devotion or faithfulness.
It’s quite poetic really. A centered heart is a loyal heart. Or perhaps loyalty is what lies at the central core of a person’s heart.
This is a simple example. In practice, most Chinese characters are much more abstract, and the radicals they contain routinely change form and contort to save space.
But you get the idea.
These are the rather more simple Japanese letters that make up all the filler parts of Japanese words. By “filler”, I mean the bits that would be the equivalent of the “ing” in eating or the “ed” in “cooked”.
Often, the first part of a word might be written using a Chinese character kanji, and the second part using Hiragana.
So in the examples above we get:
Eating = 食 べる
Cooked = 調理した
Are there words that are written only in Hiragana?
Yes there are. By convention words like good いい, here ここ, and where どこ are usually written in Hiragana. This is not to say that they can’t be written in Kanji. It’s just that people generally don’t.
The Japanese word for “Hello” is also, most commonly, written in Hiragana as:
Are there other situations where people use Hiragana?
Hiragana are, by their nature, much more simple in appearance than Kanji. So they are often used when people want to emphasize a sort of simplicity, or naivety, or child-like nature.
For example, you often see the Hiragana ゆ written at the front of public bathhouses, instead of the more complex Kanji 湯. Using the Hiragana lends a sort of rough charm.
The katakana script is used for writing any foreign loan words in Japanese. For example, words like:
Personal computer パソコン
Are all written in Katakana.
Katakana words are probably the most common ones you see written on t-shirts you see westerners wearing that have Japanese on them.
They take up a lot of space, because they are basically sounding out in Japanese pronunciation what is contained in the equivalent non-Japanese word.
Things to look out for when getting a tattoo with Japanese words
Like I said at the start, don’t end up on one of those Japanese sites making fun of non-Japanese people with funny Japanese tattoos!
Here are the main things to think about!
Japanese and Chinese Characters are a bit different!
So this is a bit confusing, because, yes, Japan and China both use “Chinese characters”, called Kanji in Japan, and Hanzi in China.
But over the years, and by years we mean many, many years, the characters have evolved. And they have evolved slightly differently in China and Japan.
Probably the biggest difference today is that China underwent a massive simplification process with their characters in modern times, and Japan didn’t.
That means modern Chinese characters are often more simple than the Japanese ones.
The example I like to talk about that illustrates this difference is the character for “love”.
In Japan, this is written as:
In china this is written as:
爱 (also pronounced as ai in China)
See how the Chinese one is a bit simpler? It has less strokes.
The interesting thing about this is that the Chinese version has the part of the character that means “heart” removed.
Yes, that’s right. China decided to take the “heart” out of “love”.
It doesn’t get any sadder than that 😉
Does it even matter if Chinese and Japanese Hanzi/Kanji are written differently?
Well, yes it does. To mix them up would just seem, well, weird.
Like if you wrote something mixed up with bits of English and bits of German.
What this means is that you basically have to decide at the outset whether you are writing in Chinese or in Japanese.
Do you know what your Japanese tattoo words really mean?
This seems like an obvious thing to say, but do you actually know what you are getting written?
And when I say know, I mean, are you aware of the nuances for the word, cultural context etc. For example the word “God” means a very different thing in a Western, monotheistic context where much of society has the view of there being only one, ultimate deity.
Japan, by contrast, is a polytheistic society where they believe there are “gods” in everything from mountains to streams to toilet flushing mechanisms.
It’s best to check your chosen Japanese tattoo word with a native Japanese speaker.
Is your Japan tattoo word, or phrase, grammatically correct?
Once you start combining words, you open up the fraught world of GRAMMAR!
You wouldn’t think people would just “risk it” when it comes to tattoo copy, but there seems to be a surprising number of people that think it will work out well to look up two or three words in a dictionary, whack together and, hey-presto, you’ve got a sentence.
Don’t think this regularly ends in tears?
Try this one:
This literally reads something like “Easy love not givee”
Um, ok then.
Once again, check with a native speaker.
Don’t try and simply find a “direct equivalent” word in Japanese
As I mentioned above, words in different languages have totally different sets of meanings, nuances and cultural resonance.
The eskimos have 50 words for snow right? That mean’s 49 of them won’t work well as a tattoo when translated into English.
One classic example is of the person who tried to get a tattoo of “freedom” and got a tattoo of the Japanese word:
無料 （muryo) At no charge, free-of-charge, costs nothing
“Freedom” and “At no cost” mean very different things.
Two or more Kanji placed next to each other mean something different to two kanji independently
You’ve got to remember that Chinese characters are also letters. They are put together to make up words. So if you put the character for fire 火 next to the character for water 水 as 火水, then people will naturally try and read them as being part of one word. This is confusing if the two, or more, kanji don’t actually make up a word or, worse still, the characters make up some word that you don’t want them to.
Here is an example of someone that is tattooed three Kanji for 望 hope 信 faith and 愛 love.
That is fine, but anyone seeing this tattoo inevitably tries to place them together as one word. And comes up with nothing. Frustrating.
What are the most popular Japanese Kanji tattoos?
Here’s a list of some of the most popular Chinese characters that people use for tattoos.
愛 (ai) Japanese symbol for Love
神 (kami) Japanese symbol for god, spirit, deity etc.
浪人 (Ronin) The modern meaning is usually a person who has failed their university entrance exam and has to resit a year later. It was traditionally a word for a “masterless samurai”, which is why it has become a popular tattoo
福 (fuku) Japanese symbol for fortune, good luck
父 (chichi, tou) Japanese symbol for father
母 (haha, kaa) Japanese symbol for mother
兄 (ani, ni) Japanese symbol for older brother
姉 (ane, ne) Japanese symbol for older sister
妹 (imouto) Japanese symbol for younger sister
弟 (otouto) Japanese symbol for younger brother
虎 (tora) Japanese symbol for lion
龍 (ryu) Japanese symbol for dragon武士道 (bushido) Japanese symbol for way of the samurai