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

love, courage, pain, peace, fortune tattoo
A tattoo reading something like (top to bottom) “love, courage, pain, peace, fortune” img: lightning_ink

When trying to find a Japanese symbol for pain, there are a few options. Each of these has different ways that they are used and nuances to them.

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

1. 痛



1. 痛い Itai (hurt)

The most common word that you hear in Japan to express pain is 痛い itai. You hear people use this very often in Japan as “ouch” when, say, someone stubs their toe, or bumps their funny bone etc. 

The word 痛い Itai is and adjective, so it is closer English words “painful” or “sore” than it is to “pain”, which is a noun. To make it into a noun, you would change the word to 痛み itami.

You don’t usually see the Kanji (Chinese character) part of the word by itself without a hiragana ending put after it.

It is put at the end of words to do with the body to indicate pain felt in certain places. For example 頭痛 zu tsu literally means “Head – Pain” and is the Japanese word for a “headache”. 

The reading of the character used this way changes from ita to tsu.

That being said, anyone seeing this kanji character by itself would immediately understand it’s meaning and would interpret it as something like the English word “pain”.

Example sentences that use 痛い itai 


My leg hurts.


I’ve got a toothache.

2. 辛い tsurai (emotional hurt)

辛い tsurai is the Japanese word that most people use when they want to express abstract or emotional pain. 

So if your soul mate just left you, that would be 辛い tsurai  rather than word i痛い Itai from above.

But the first thing to be aware of with the kanji from 辛い tsurai is that it also has another meaning and reading. This meaning is “spicy” or “hot”. It can also mean “salty”, because Japanese people see the sensation of “hotness” as being on a continuum with “salty” in the same way as we see it being on a continuum with “spiciness”.

Kinda confusing right?

Is there a way to sort out the confusion with this word? 

No, it’s all about context.

So, if you were considering getting this character as a tattoo, where there is no context given, you would need to think about the ambiguity that this word contains.

When used in this “spicy” or “salty” meaning the word 辛い is read as karai.

This means that if you got the word 辛い you run the risk of people interpreting it to mean “spicy” rather than “pain” or “painful”.

This is true even if you just write the character by itself as 辛. This character is often used in isolation, for example on the side of instant ramen containers, to show that something is spicy. 

Examples sentences using 辛い tsurai


I had a painful experience.


I’m really feeling this jet lag.


It was a hard job.

3. 疼く Uzuku (to throb; to ache)

The character 疼 is much less common than those mentioned above. 

It is also different in that it is most commonly used as a verb in the form:


My legs ache from sitting.

It can be used to describe either physical or emotional pain. It usually refers to a more ongoing kind of pain than the other words listed. 

Examples sentences using 辛い word


I was aching from the injury.


His bitter words still plague my mind.

Combining symbols for “pain”

You can use the kanji symbols above in different combinations to express the meaning of “pain”.

The most obvious one is to combine 疼 and 痛 to make

疼痛 (toutsuu) pain

This is actually a pretty good option if you’re looking for a word that is pretty close to the word “pain” when viewed totally in isolation.

One problem with the word, if you see it as one, is that it is a very rare word. This means that many people, native Japanese speakers or not, will probably have trouble knowing how to pronounce the word. They would generally get the meaning though.

This word is much more commonly used in China than in Japan.

苦痛 (kutsuu) pain; agony; bitterness

This word describes fairly intense, usually emotional, pain.

How is pain expressed in chinese?

疼痛 Téngtòng is the word used for pain in China.

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

The kanji 家族 kazoku is a is fairly 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 “pain” written the same in Japanese and Chinese?

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

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

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

It’s worth considering the different nuances and meanings of the different characters you could use for “pain” in Japanese. But if you look through the info above and find something that fits, go for it! 

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