The Japanese symbol for mother – Read this before you get the tattoo!

The Japanese symbol for mother in floral design img: bythewaytattoo

The picture of the hard-bitten tough guy with the tattoo for “mom” or “mother” is kinda a cliche. In fact, it’s so much of a cliche that it is ripe for being referenced in current day tattoos in a variety of contexts.

One of those contexts is to use the Japanese symbol for mother instead of the English word in a tattoo. 

As people like to get tattoos that express the things they hold the most dear or important, it is quite common for people to get the Japanese symbol for family as a tattoo, or for different members of their family including mother, father, sister, brother.

The closest equivalent Japanese kanji symbols for the English word “mother” are: 

Where does the Chinese Character for mother come from?

The interesting thing about this Chinese Character is that it actually depicts a woman with breasts. It is one of those characters that you can look at even today and pretty much see where it has come from straight away. 

In fact, if you placed the kanji on it’s side, it pretty much looks like a couple of breasts with nipples – albeit a little square.

It’s kind of like the ancient “cubist” interpretation of breasts.

Whether or not breasts are an appropriate symbol for motherhood and all it stands for is an open question. But the horse bolted on that one several thousand years ago in China.

This Japanese letter meaning mother also includes the character for “woman” which looks like this:

You can see that this has basically been elongated out to provide space for the two dot-stroke nipples in the character for mother.

How is the Chinese Character for mother read in Japanese?

1. 母 haha (mom/mother)

Written by itself the character of 母 is pronounced as haha

Now, here we need to discuss some Japanese cultural information. 

Japanese culture tends to be a very hierarchical one where people that are more senior, higher in status or more accomplished in certain areas are afforded great respect. This is reflected in the language.

So you have whole different words for people, and things, that are considered to be above you or below you in the social order. You are also expected to use language that expresses modesty when speaking about those in your own social circle.

What does this mean for the word “mother”.

It means that when you are speaking to others about your own mother you are expected to use a word that expresses modesty.

This word in Japanese is the word haha

We don’t really have direct equivalents for this word in English. If we did, it might mean something like “my humble mother”. 


My mother is out at the moment


My mother is an early riser.


Poverty is the mother of industry.

Mother tattoo on the back

Mother tattoo on the back

If you were talking about someone else’s mother, you would use words including:

2. お母さん okaasan (mom/mother)

This is probably the  most common word you hear for mother in Japan. It is also probably the most common word you hear children using to address their own mothers, along with the word ママ mama which comes from European languages.

In a tattoo context, if you wrote お母さん okaasan on your body, it would be clear that you were using a term of respect and were, thus, either addressing your own mother or someone else’s (less likely). So it is more likely to be interpreted in a “specific” sense than a “universal” one that aims to express, say, the universal concept of “motherhood” and “mothering”.

Mother in bold red with outline

Mother in bold red with outline

3. 母親 hahaoya (mom/mother)

This word for mother in Japanese combines the symbols for mother 母 with the symbol for 親, which means parent. 

So in this sense, you are saying something like “mother-parent” or “your mother parent” as opposed to “your father parent”.

This word is commonly used to refer to other people’s mothers in an objective, factual way that doesn’t tell you much about the social status of the mother. It is the word you would use to refer to a mother in the third person.


She looks like her mother.


He was scolded by his mother.


The girl played up to her mother.

4. お袋 ofukuro (mom/mother)

This is a colloquial word used to refer to your own mother when talking to other people in a simultaneously humble but fairly jovial way. It is perhaps a little similar to how men in the past would sometimes refer to their wives as “my indoors” etc.

It is also used to refer to people’s own mothers, or the idea of their own mothers, in a nostalgic way. One common example of this is 

御袋の味 ofukuro no aji “tastes like my mother’s cooking”.

Interestingly, the word 袋 fukuro literally means “bag”. The word “bag” in English generally has fairly negative connotations, but this is not the case in Japanese. 

There are a few theories as to why the word “bag” came to mean “mother”. These include that the bag refers to a woman’s womb, or afterbirth. Another theory suggests that it refers to the baggy space that exists in a kimono between the breast and the outer garment. Yet another theory suggests that it is a reference to the purse, or the purse strings, which have traditionally been controlled by the mother of the household in Japan.

The word includes the honorific お at the started of the word (which can also be written as 御), and it seems the word itself was originally used in an honorific way. For some reason, over time the sense of the word has changed to being almost the exact opposite of “honorific” and actually is used to refer to a mother in a distinctly unflattering, or casual, way.


My mother always puts my sister before me.

5. ママ mama 

Japanese also often use the European-derived “mama”. Many children in Japan use this word to refer to their own mother, especially when they are very young.

For this reason, the word has a babyish sound to it. So, in this way it probably holds pretty similar nuances to the way it is used in English speaking countries. You could say it is close to words like “mummy” or “mommy”.

Japanese lettering for mother on the shoulder img: kingyofcompo

Combining symbols with “mother”

The character for mother often gets combined with other characters to make words like:

母子 (boshi)

mother and child

母艦 (bokan)

mother ship

母音 (boin)

Vowel (literally “mother-sound”)

母国語 (bokokugo)


How is mother expressed in chinese?

母亲(mǔqīn) is the most commonly used word for mother in China.

Characters for mother and father placed together

Characters for mother and father placed together

How popular is the Japanese symbol for mother as a tattoo?

The kanji 母 kazoku is a is moderately popular to get as a chinese character tattoo.

It’s not as big as something like the japanese symbol for love 愛.

Are the Chinese characters for “mother” written the same in Japanese and Chinese?

Yes, the characters for mother are written in the same way in Chinese and Japanese.

Stroke order for writing the characters in the Japanese symbols for mother

Historic forms of the Chinese Character for mother

So should you get “mother” done as a tattoo in Japanese lettering?

It’s worth considering the different nuances and meanings of the different characters you could use for “mother” in Japanese. If you are after a tattoo that expresses the universal concept of mothering and motherhood, your best bet would be 母. If you wanted something that specifically paid homage to your own mother in particular, お母さん would express it most clearly.

See this article for more general info about getting a Japanese lettering tattoo.