I had a discussion with my Japanese friend about whether Kanji tattoos are cool and, indeed, what makes a cool tattoo.
Hopefully, this will go some way to answering some of the questions that a person that may be considering a tattoo with Japanese lettering might have.
The discussion is in interview format and split into the main sections to do with kanji tattoos that we discussed.
If you are looking for an overview of Japanese words used in tattoos look here as a starting point.
Peter: Today we’re going to talk about whether we think that Kanji tattoos are cool or uncool. I guess here we’re talking mostly about Westerners.
Are kanji tattoos cool or uncool?
Are Chinese character tattoos cool or uncool? What do you think Ai?
Ai: Basically, you know, Japanese people like to tattoo a lot of English, right? So Japanese people often get English in their tattoos, yeah? In a way, it’s not that different. English or a second language, to some degree people always want to get that stuff in their tattoos.
Peter: So it’s kind of the same thing, everyone wants to get a foreign language on them?
Ai: Yes, in both Japanese and English. But if you’re writing English that has mistakes, It’s going to come off badly, right?
AI: So it’s probably just the same thing.
It’s like “Well, I’m not too sure about that Japanese!”, of course.
Peter: So you’re saying, yeah, If there’s any mistaken kind of language on there it’s a bit dodgy.
But what about if it’s not? If there’s no mistake? Let’s say it’s just a single Kanji. Or it’s just, it’s even a word or a phrase that’s got no mistakes in it.
Ai: I think that’s fine. If you find a good phrase then I think it can work. What do you think?
Peter: Yes, I think, sometimes it can be good. But from what I’ve seen I would say 90% of the ones that I’ve seen I don’t like, even if they’re not mistakes.
Then there are some that are like out-and-out just completely wrong. And that would be like totally embarrassing, I think. But even in the ones that aren’t wrong There’s a lot that I just think, just seem a bit pointless. And maybe even a bit, sort of, weak or something.
To try and write something in a foreign language, like why not just write it in your own language? And make a statement, you know?
As in, “This is something I really want to say, I understand it fully, I’ve thought about it, I’ve found just the right words, and I’m going to say it.”
Ai: For example, do you have a favorite word in English?
Peter: I don’t know, I can’t think of any off the top of my head,
What about you?
An example of a good Japanese phrase for a tattoo according to a Japanese person
Ai: Well, this is really old, but In the Satsuma Clan, there was a great man during the Meiji Restoration called Saigo Takamori.
And he had the phrase,
“Respect heaven, love man”.
Peter: Respect for heaven, love for humanity.
Ai: Yes, a heart that respects the heavens and also loves people. But “ten” here, I think it means everything. The world. As in “love everything, everything in nature”. It’s something like that.
That’s one of those phrases that makes you say “wow, that’s really something”.
Peter: So, “Respect all things, love you fellow man” might be one translation.
Ai: Yes, that is close.
Peter: So, let me ask you this then. Let’s say a Westerner had a tattoo of that. You’d be like “whoa that’s pretty cool.”
Ai: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’d give them a big thumbs up and say, “nice one”!
Peter: I suppose it’s partly because it’s not that well known, at least in the western world. Do you think it’s well known phrase in Japan?
Ai: I think history buffs would know it for sure.
Peter: Because I think that plays into whether a tattoo is cool or not – how well known something is, or how common it is.
Well, The figure of Saigo Takamori himself is no secret. After all, he’s properly acknowledged as great man of history. This term “respect heaven, love man” is not so obscure. I’m sure you would have seen it around. For example, if you go to people’s houses you might see it in wall hanging calligraphy, in decorations and such. I think it’s probably pretty well known.
Peter: Okay, so do you see it around the place.
Are single Kanji tattoos cool?
Okay, so probably the most common tattoos that you see people with are just like single Kanji, or single Chinese characters. Is that cool?
Ai: For example, what could we say? I think it’s fine if people find something they feel is really good for themselves.
Kanji Tattoo Examples
Peter: What about a kanji like ” 命 inochi” meaning “life”? Is “inochi” good?
Ai: Yes, I think I’m on board with “Inochi”.
Peter: What about “水 mizu” meaning water?
Ai: Yes, water works. I feel most nature Japanese symbols probably work.
Peter: Yeah, so like water or fire or any of those you would like?
Peter: See for me, I find them too literal. Like if I translate it back, and if I saw someone with the word “water” in English as a tattoo…Actually maybe I do like it!
If I saw someone with a tattoo for “water”, just because it’s such a weird thing to write, I think I would actually like it.
But because doing that sort of thing with Kanji is really common, for people to do like “wood” or “fire” or “water, I just find it a bit cliched.
Star signs and nature in kanji tattoos
Ai: But, for example, in star signs, isn’t there like water? And Earth and things like that?
Peter: I’m not sure there’s so much of that in stars signs is there? Isn’t that more like Eastern philosophy?
Ai: Yes, yes, yes, for example. You know, there are “wind people”, “fire people”, “earth people”… aren’t there?
If you think about it, for example, if a person born in a certain month gets one of those tattoos I think it makes sense doesn’t it?
Peter: Yeah I think I feel like if you’ve got some story behind it. Or something that makes it really special to you. Or you’re born in a full moon and you get the moon “月 tsuki” or something. I guess maybe I can see that. I think I would want there to be some kind of story. Otherwise, if it’s just like an arbitrary thing,
Ai: No, it’s true, it’s hard. Words are hard. Because everyone is different, even in tattoo designs, right? Everyone thinks “this is the one” at the time, but then, 20 years on, they might say, “No, this isn’t the one.”
Tattoos as “Reminders”
Peter: Yeah, well that’s the classic thing. People say that it’s better to regret something that you have done than something that you haven’t done. And tattoos are a bit like that.
And I think I can help you remember a certain moment as well. Like even if you don’t feel the same thing now. I think you can probably still remember how you felt then, or why you felt then. And maybe it even helps you remember how you felt then.
Ai: Yeah, there’s that, too. Like when you make a mistake it’s like “Oh, yeah. I did that thing. I’m not going to do that again.
Peter: yeah like a reminder. And I think you do see tattoos where people are consciously going for that.
Negative Kanji Tattoos
Like when people get quite negative things tattooed on them. Like I’ve seen a lot for things like “痛 pain” or like “辛 tsurai”. Or they’ll have “怒り Angry, angry”, like “anger”.
Ai: They’ll have a tattoo for anger?
Peter: Or what are some other examples? I feel like there’s quite a few. There’s like a genre of tattoos where people get negative things. Sometimes they look like they’re reminders of not do something.
Do you have any tattoo ideas?
Family Crests, Kamon, in tattoos
Ai: I thought of a family crest.
Peter: So “kamon”, as it’s called in Japanese, so your family crest. Do you have a family crest?
Ai: I do. I think everyone does. Like, on their ceremonial clothes with a family crest for a marriage or funeral. I think people have those.
Peter: Really, I had the impression it was maybe only families that have had a certain noble background or something that had them. No, you think everyone would have a “kamon”?
Ai: I think they would.
Peter: Maybe it’s just that you’re noble, Ai!
Ai: No, my father was…
But, there are “female family crests” too, right? For example, there is the house family crest. I’m so sorry, this is a little off topic, but my Yamamoto family crest is the “Swallowtail Butterfly”. so, I mean I have that, too.
But there’s the “female family crest.”
Passed down from my grandmother, mother, to me. There is a female family crest that only women inherit.
Peter: Oh really, I didn’t know that. You’ve got a female “kamon” that’s from your matriarchal lineage! That’s kind of cool.
Ai: Yeah, it’s surprising how many women…If it’s an old family, I think to some extent, people would have them. I don’t know.
Peter: So you were thinking about getting that as a tattoo? So why did you decide not to? And were you going for the women’s crest, an “onna kamon”?
Ai: I think I was going for the female crest…But my mom and dad, they were like, “Don’t do it, just don’t do it.”
Peter: So, why would you have wanted to get the “kamon”?
Ai: A family crest, you know, well, it’s old, and it’s something that I have in my family. And we have a great family relationship. And it’s like “I’m from the house of Yamamoto!” I have a grandma and a mom. It’s like “Here I am”. I think it’s that kind of a reminder.
Family Kanji Tattoos
Peter: Well, you do see a lot of people that have “家族 kazoku”, the Japanese for “family” as a tattoo. That’s actually really quite common. What do you think of that? Is that cool?
Ai: They write “family”?
Peter: Yeah, so they’ll have “Kazoku”.
Ai: Okay, that’s new. I still like “悟 Satoru” better, though.
Peter: “satoru” as in to become enlightened?
Ai: Yeah, I think “family” is a bit too direct.
Peter: See? That’s what I’m talking about. A lot of them feel like a bit too “straight ahead”. Too literal. But I also think that about like “water” and “wind”. Like, I find that just too literal.
I would think that it would be more interesting if it was something just oblique.
Rather than saying, straight out, “family”. What’s something that symbolizes family to you?.
Like driving the car, or, I don’t know something that says “family” to you. That’s not just saying “family”.
Ai: Right, like something, for example, the family has, like an animal. For example, if it were me, for “Yamamoto Family.” I could do the swallowtail. Or like butterflies, butterflies would be good. I guess animals and that kind of thing. Even if it’s not kanji.
Peter: Yeah that’s nice, it seems a bit more subtle or something. If I had my own family crest, I guess I would consider tattooing that. I don’t think my family has a crest. But, yeah, if we did, I would consider it.
Ai: And the design of the family crest is very simple. It’s amazingly beautiful.
Peter: Yeah, oh, you will have to show me your crest sometime.
Are Kanji tattoos different for Westerners to Asian people?
So, and the other questions I had were, is a kanji tattoo, is it different if you’re from Japan or China, or from a kanji-using country to if you are from a non-kanji-using country? Is a kanji tattoo cool for one and not for the other? Or is it the same?
Ai: I’m not sure what this is in Japanese, but as long as it’s not “lost in translation”, I think it’s fine.
Peter: So if the nuance doesn’t get lost in translation, you’re saying it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a Western person with this tattoo or you’re a Japanese or a Chinese, or whatever it is.
Ai: If that person… knows what the meaning is and feels they have resonated with it I think it’s fine.
Peter: Yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about the question myself. I would say I would definitely look at a tattoo with a Chinese character differently. If it was, you know, a Japanese or Chinese person as opposed to a Western person. Which may be just kind of racist, but I don’t know, I think you can’t help but attaching a different meaning to things.
Ai: Because experience and the nuance of feeling comes into it.
Peter: Yeah, and same vice versa. Like I was looking at some pictures today and I saw a Japanese person that had some English around their fingers.
It was something like, I don’t know, I can’t remember what it was. It was something like “Always be learning forever.” Or something like that. Which sounds, you know, kind of okay. But also, like we were talking about, very literal.
If you think about that in a foreign language you’d think “oh, yeah that’s interesting”.
But if you hear it in your own language you go, “ah, that’s kinda a bit naff”.
Ai: Yes, it’s hard. Words are so difficult, aren’t they?
Does it make a difference if you are man or a woman for Kanji Tattoos?
Peter: The other question I had was does it matter if you’re male or female? Does that make any difference?
Ai: I have an impression of men having, more tattoos, do you? I’m under the impression that there aren’t as many women in the world.
Peter: I’d say that’s probably still true,that more men would have tattoos than women. But I think women have very much caught up over recent years.
But, I think, traditionally, that would have been very true.
Ai: It’s probably a fashion thing, too.
Peter: So, no difference? Is that what you’re saying?
Ai: No difference. I saw a woman with a good tattoo. She was a friend of mine and she had it here in red letters the old Chinese character for “rejoice”. I think that was really cool. That’s a good example.
Peter: Yeah, okay. I can’t think that it would make a difference to me either. No, I think that doesn’t make a difference.
Ai: You know, it’s the vibe that a person has. Their mannerisms and their charisma, their persona. These all play into it. The overall image has an impact.
Peter: Yeah that’s totally true. Like it’s the same with clothes or anything. It’s not like you can take just one thing in isolation and say it’s cool or uncool. It’s the whole sum of their being. And how they act and who they are. Alright, well that’s our general discussion about kanji tattoos!